The Art of Public Speaking HTML version

Attention is the microscope of the mental eye. Its power may be high or low; its field of view narrow or broad.
When high power is used attention is confined within very circumscribed limits, but its action is exceedingly
intense and absorbing. It sees but few things, but these few are observed "through and through" ... Mental
energy and activity, whether of perception or of thought, thus concentrated, act like the sun's rays
concentrated by the burning glass. The object is illumined, heated, set on fire. Impressions are so deep that
they can never be effaced. Attention of this sort is the prime condition of the most productive mental labor.
--DANIEL PUTNAM, Psychology.
Try to rub the top of your head forward and backward at the same time that you are patting your chest. Unless
your powers of coördination are well developed you will find it confusing, if not impossible. The brain needs
special training before it can do two or more things efficiently at the same instant. It may seem like splitting a
hair between its north and northwest corner, but some psychologists argue that no brain can think two distinct
thoughts, absolutely simultaneously--that what seems to be simultaneous is really very rapid rotation from the
first thought to the second and back again, just as in the above-cited experiment the attention must shift from
one hand to the other until one or the other movement becomes partly or wholly automatic.
Whatever is the psychological truth of this contention it is undeniable that the mind measurably loses grip on
one idea the moment the attention is projected decidedly ahead to a second or a third idea.
A fault in public speakers that is as pernicious as it is common is that they try to think of the succeeding
sentence while still uttering the former, and in this way their concentration trails off; in consequence, they
start their sentences strongly and end them weakly. In a well-prepared written speech the emphatic word
usually comes at one end of the sentence. But an emphatic word needs emphatic expression, and this is
precisely what it does not get when concentration flags by leaping too soon to that which is next to be uttered.
Concentrate all your mental energies on the present sentence. Remember that the mind of your audience
follows yours very closely, and if you withdraw your attention from what you are saying to what you are
going to say, your audience will also withdraw theirs. They may not do so consciously and deliberately, but
they will surely cease to give importance to the things that you yourself slight. It is fatal to either the actor or
the speaker to cross his bridges too soon.
Of course, all this is not to say that in the natural pauses of your speech you are not to take swift forward
surveys--they are as important as the forward look in driving a motor car; the caution is of quite another sort:
while speaking one sentence do not think of the sentence to follow. Let it come from its proper source--within
yourself. You cannot deliver a broadside without concentrated force--that is what produces the explosion. In
preparation you store and concentrate thought and feeling; in the pauses during delivery you swiftly look
ahead and gather yourself for effective attack; during the moments of actual speech, SPEAK--DON'T
ANTICIPATE. Divide your attention and you divide your power.
This matter of the effect of the inner man upon the outer needs a further word here, particularly as touching
"What do you read, my lord?" Hamlet replied, "Words. Words. Words." That is a world-old trouble. The
mechanical calling of words is not expression, by a long stretch. Did you ever notice how hollow a memorized
speech usually sounds? You have listened to the ranting, mechanical cadence of inefficient actors, lawyers
and preachers. Their trouble is a mental one--they are not concentratedly thinking thoughts that cause words
to issue with sincerity and conviction, but are merely enunciating word-sounds mechanically. Painful
experience alike to audience and to speaker! A parrot is equally eloquent. Again let Shakespeare instruct us,