Littell's Living Age/Volume 179/Issue 2318/Professor Huxley's Advice to Public Speakers

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Littell's Living Age by Thomas Henry Huxley
Volume 179, Issue 2318 : Professor Huxley's Advice to Public Speakers
Originally published in Pall Mall Gazette.

I forget what veteran public speaker it was who gave this advice to a beginner: “Write out your speech; and be especially careful about writing the parts in which you give way to your feelings.” But I believe the counsel to be excellent, and, on all important occasions, I have acted upon it. But I have never committed the written matter to memory. And that for several reasons, of which one, that I could not if I tried, is perhaps sufficient. Even if I could learn a speech by heart, I agree with Mr. Bright that the burden of going through the process would be intolerable. However, this is a question of idiosyncrasy. I know of at least one admirable speaker who is said to learn every word by heart, and whose charming delivery omits no comma of the original. The use, to me, of writing, sometimes of rewriting half-a-dozen times over, that which I threw aside when I had finished it, was to make sure that the framework of what I had to say — its logical skeleton, so to speak — was, so far as I could see, sound and competent to bear all the strain put upon it. I very early discovered that an argument in my head was one thing, and the same argument written out in dry, bare propositions quite another in point of trustworthiness. In the latter case, assumptions supposed to be certain while they lay snug in one’s brain had a trick of turning out doubtful; consequences which seemed inevitable proved to be less tightly connected with the premisses than was desirable; and telling metaphors showed a curious capacity for being turned to account by the other side. I have often written the greater part of an address haIf-a-dozen times over, sometimes upsetting the whole arrangement and beginning on new lines, before I felt I had got the right grip of my subject.

A subordinate, but still very important use of writing, when one has to speak, is that the process brings before the mind all the collateral suggestions which are likely to arise out of the line of argument adopted. Psychologically considered, public speaking is a very singular process. One-half of the speaker’s mind is occupied with what he is saying; the other half with what he is going to say. And if the field of vision of the prospective half is suddenly crossed by some tempting idea which was not already been considered, the speaker is not at all unlikely to follow it. But if he does, Heaven knows where he may turn up or what bitter reflections may be in store for him, when the report of his speech stares him in the face next morning. Cynical as the latter part of the advice which I have quoted may sound, it is just when the strange intoxication which is begotten by the breathless stillness of a host of absorbed listeners weakens the reason and opens the floodgates of feeling that the check of the calmly considered written judgment tells, even if its exact words are forgotten.

As to notes, my experience may be of interest to that unfortunate mortal, the average Englishman, who, as you say, finds it the hardest thing in the world to stand up and speak for ten minutes without looking, or at least feeling, either a fool or a coward. Of that form of suffering I do not believe that the average Englishman knows half so much as I do. For twenty years I never got up to speak without my tongue cleaving to the roof of the mouth ; and if the performance was a lecture, without an idée fixe that I should have finished all I had to say long before the expiration of the obligatory hour; and, at first, I clung to my copious MS. as a shipwrecked mariner to a hencoop. My next stage was to use brief but still elaborate notes — not unfrequently, however, having the big MS. in my pocket to fall back upon in case of an emergency, which, by the way, never arose. Then the notes got briefer and briefer, until I have known occasions on which they came down to a paragraph. But the aid and comfort afforded by that not too legible scrawl upon a small sheet of paper was inexpressible. Twice in my life I have been compelled to swim without floats altogether — to renounce even a sheet of note-paper. On one of these occasions, I had to address an audience to some extent hostile, upon a topic which required very careful handling, and I had taken unusual pains in writing my discourse with the intention of practically reading many parts of it. But the assemblage was a very large one; and when I came face to face with it I saw, at a glance, that if I meant to be heard, looking at notes was out of the question. So I took my courage in my two hands, put my papers down, and left them untouched; while the discourse, in a way quite unaccountable to me, rolled itself off as if I had been a phonograph, in order and matter, though not in words, as it was written.

On the other occasion, the circumstances were still more awkward. I had been obliged to dictate my discourse the day before it was delivered to a short-hand writer for the Associated Press in the United States, exacting from him a pledge that he would supply me with a fairly written out copy to be used as notes. My friend the reporter kept his word, and a couple of hours before the time of speaking the manuscript arrived. But, alas! it was written on the thin paper which I believe is technically called “flimsy.” I could not read it at any distance with ease, and the attempt to make use of it in speaking would have been perilous. So I had the comfort of knowing that the local papers might have one version and the others another of my speech. Luckily, no one took the trouble to compare the two, or the discrepancies might have afforded good ground for suspicion that my address and myself were alike mythical.

In spite of this tolerably plain evidence that if I were put to it I could very well do without notes, I have never willingly been without them — at any rate in my pocket. At public dinners and ordinary public meetings they have long ceased to come out; but on more serious occasions I have always had them before me, though I very often forgot to look at them. I think they acted as a charm against that physical nervousness, which I have never quite got over, and the origin of which has always been a puzzle to me. With every respect for the public, I cannot say I ever felt afraid of an audience; and my cold hands and dry mouth used to annoy me when my hearers were only students of my class, as much as at other times. The late Lord Cardwell once told me that Sir Robert Peel never got up to speak in the House of Commons without being in what schoolboys call a “funk;” and I fancy from what I have heard of great speakers that this trouble of their weaker brethren is much better known to them than people commonly suppose. There is a rational ground for it. So much depends upon all sorts of physical and moral conditions that beginning to make a speech is like going into action, and no man knows — not the most practised of speakers — how he will come out of it.