Alan Monroe of Purdue University said that there are three basic rules that
guide a good speaker:*
1. Have something important to say.
2. Want someone else to understand or believe it.
3. Say it as simply and directly as you can.
Over the years of teaching speech I have heard countless student
evaluations of speeches that had a lot to say about demeanor. "Donít lean on
the podium" was always a favorite when we had a podium. I took the podium
away, and the emphasis shifted to other things that distracted from the
speech: pens sticking out of pockets, awkward stance, eye contact,
organization, and a whole host of things that might turn the speaker into a
great orator if he could just get them all correct.
But the three items listed above always seemed to me to be the heart and soul of
good speaking. Student evaluations could help around the margins, but the
reason the audience was distracted was because the speaker didnít have
anything important to say. That may be understandable when you have an
assignment to fulfill, especially when you wait until the last minute to
think about it. But frankly, the uncurious mind will rarely find anything
important to say, and classroom evaluations canít do much about it.
In some ways, I think telling the speaker when he is finished, "You did
okay on the speech, but what you had to say was not important enough for me
to listen to it," just may be the best evaluation of all. For it focuses the
mind on the important thingĖdo you have anything important to say.
This is not an easy change to make in a speaker, because it has to do
with habits that are hard to change. To some extent, it has to do with the
character and lifestyle of the speaker. I have not yet found a way to
instill curiosity into an uncurious mind. But the one thing I can tell a
person to do that may help is to read. Read widely. Read anything that holds
your interest. If that happens to be a murder mystery, then read them. Good
fiction helps build vocabulary and background in life situations. Even
trash, well written, is useful, but it is a shame to leave the great literature
unread. Why read trash if you have never read "Pride and Prejudice," or "All
the King's Men"?
Historical novels paint in the background of history and help the speaker
get a feeling for events without having to be bored to tears by slow moving
and overly detailed histories. But there are also great histories that are
so well written they read like a novel.
Years ago when I was working on my masterís thesis, I stumbled over a
simple but profound truth. I read extensively on my topic, and then I began
to write. After a while, I found I could no longer write. I would sit at the
typewriter staring at the paper and nothing would come. So, I headed for the
library and began reading again. Soon, new ideas began to flow and it was
back to the typewriter. The truth is that if you donít put anything in, you
arenít going to get anything out.
The biggest failing I see in public speakers, whether they be giving
sermons or teaching classes is that they are not well read. Therefore, they
donít have very much to say. And then, when they run out of anything
important to say, they donít stop, but continue on into the fog.
If you want to be a public speaker, no matter the forum, ask yourself
first if you have anything important to say. If the answer is no, then you
need to be reading more. Whether you ever speak in public or not, if you
have nothing important to say, you are not reading enough. The old saying
among computer programmers is, "Garbage in, garbage out." I have learned
that the same thing is true of speakers. I will add, "Nothing much in,
nothing much out."
*Cited in "Principles and Types of Speech," Fifth Edition,
Alan Monroe, 1955.