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Premises and practices of an effective rational orator

By Gennady Stolyarov II
web posted July 25, 2005

I have had the opportunity, on multiple occasions, to deliver speeches of an intellectual, persuasive nature to audiences, large and small, public and private, with the direct and unconcealed intention of communicating to them my most firmly held and controversial ideological positions. Several years of work in this field of endeavor have convinced me that both the crafting and the delivery of an effective speech are skills whose adequate execution depends on a mastery of certain fundamental principles. These principles address both the premises a competent speaker ought to hold in order to rationally and effectively communicate his views, and the practices whereby he might put such premises into practice. To those convinced that their intellectual positions can stand the tests of logic and evidence, the ability to convey such a conviction to others remains paramount, and, for this purpose, I present them with the following recommendations:

The Premises

1. Always presume that your audience is at least as intelligent as yourself. It is significant to note that “intelligent” does not mean “endowed with the same knowledge and/or convictions” as oneself. Were every member of the audience equally informed on a given subject compared to the orator, or in agreement with his particular views, there would be no need for the speech. In this context, “intelligent” means capable of understanding any sincerely presented fact, interpretation, or conviction that the orator might have to offer.

Indeed, rational principles would require of the orator nothing less. As John Locke had demonstrated, all men are born tabula rasa, blank slates. There is no inherent limit to the understanding which any man might attain, and certainly no reason why any man living would not be able to grasp the same ideas that the orator holds and seeks to propagate. All human understanding, for that matter, requires interaction with outside information to bring it about. You, as a rational orator, have set out to provide that outside information, and there should be no reason to presume that an honest audience would not be able to grasp your ideas given that you present them in a comprehensible fashion.

There is no need to diminish one’s vocabulary or the complexity and scope of one’s argument on the basis of the presumption that others would “not be intelligent enough to understand” the full expanse of the speaker’s thoughts. Quite the contrary, sincere, honest, analytical audiences delight in having their understanding extended to matters it hitherto had not encompassed. Had they already had the full vocabulary, knowledge, and convictions of the speaker, they would have had no need to hear him. Indeed, what most frustrates such audiences, and me when I am among them, is a speaker talking down to his listeners, presuming them infantile and incapable of fully fathoming his arcane wisdom. There is nothing more detrimental to the promotion of knowledge, and to the image which such knowledge obtains in the public eye, than the presumption that only a select few are qualified to ever grasp it. Under this exclusivist view, the rest of the “uninitiated” will forever have to remain in thrall to an arcane, secretive cabal of “experts,” whose authority is based on others’ unconditional belief in their pronouncements, rather than their fully involved, individual, thoroughly-reasoned understanding thereof.

Indeed, the guiding premise of a rational orator should be that he can teach anyone anything worth teaching, provided that he understands the means to convey his information. It is true that different audience members will have different factual knowledge and intellectual backgrounds to bring into the discussion. The orator should understand these contexts and seek to use them to connect his subject matter to ideas with which the audience was previously familiar. The means of doing this shall be explicated in the parts of this treatise pertaining to effective oratorical practices. For now, suffice it to say that, under no circumstances, should the orator resist the attempt to elevate his audience to the utmost peaks of his own understanding on the topic which he desires to present. Rational audiences might not comprehend everything one has to say right away, but they seek to comprehend it, and, given an effective orator, they will. They will become all the more improved as individuals in consequence. Anything less is an insult to their rationality.

2. Never alter your message based on your audience. Especially for a man of strong intellectual convictions, as a rational man must inevitably be, it is important to recall that the purpose of his speech is not to give audiences what they want to hear. It is to give them what he wants them to hear, and in such a manner as will cause them to listen, and, hopefully, become persuaded. If your audience holds ideas you agree with, capitalize on the agreement to advance your own views. If in your audience exists a prevailing notion to which you dissent, recognize the disagreement, analyze its nature, and seek to persuade why your side of the issue is the one the audience should adopt. But do not, by any means, “water down” your case in hopes of rendering it more appealing to your listeners. You will only seem intellectually unprincipled as a result, caving in to the sentiment of the times, or the sentiment of the room. If your ideas are such as can be compromised on the spur of the moment or for pragmatic expediency, your audience might begin to doubt the worth of embracing them altogether.

3. Always be prepared to substantiate every claim you make. The rational understanding is a process whereby an idea is obtained by derivation from more fundamental ones, either from empirical evidence or from logical axioms and theorems. For a rational orator, it is especially important to convey this process to the audience, so as to distinguish objective reasoning from blind faith in experts, mystical insight, emotion, intuition, revelation, divination, or plain subjective whim, none of them reliable sources of knowledge. A speech should be a logical proof dressed up to appear in public. It should present one’s argument in such a manner that no gaps appear in the audience’s understanding of how it was arrived at. Where gaps do occur, endeavor to fill them at the first opportunity. When you believe a gap has been filled, but an audience member is not satisfied, and questions you as to any component of the argument, always be ready to substantiate your claims by giving more evidence and analysis than you had offered originally. If somebody fails to understand something you have said, and wishes clarification, give it without reservation. If you understand your own subject, this should not be difficult to do.

4. Never simplify arguments to the point of becoming false. It might, at times, seem easier to state something in one sentence rather than two, or to use a simpler word when only a more complex one will do. Do not give in to the temptation. If you simplify a claim in hopes of making it more “comprehensible” to the audience, you are not only insulting the audience’s intelligence, but, furthermore, giving it false information. If you were to address a group of five-year-olds, and claim that the orbits of planets around the Sun are circular rather than elliptical, for fear that your audience might not understand the meaning of the word “elliptical,” you would be guilty of outright dishonesty and misrepresentation of fact. If you suspect that somebody might not understand the necessary terminology of your speech, define it; do not eschew it.

5. Remember that your objective is to persuade, not to patronize. Personal stories, especially of embarrassing intimacies, tend to act against the speaker far more often than not. You and the audience are not pals, and the audience is hardly interested in your private life, especially if it is a rational audience that does not frequent talk show programs. Do not share your private life in a speech, if you can help it, and do not make presumptions about your audience members’ private lives. You will find that seeking a “personal connection” to your listeners alienates them almost every time. If you are speaking on what you believe to be a common human folly, and carry across the conviction that “we all make this mistake,” you will inevitably encounter an audience member who has not made said mistake, and will be quite insulted at your presumption that he is morally inferior to his actual state. You can be sure that this audience member will never again be swayed to your side of the argument, no matter how otherwise powerful it might be. Be thorough, be analytical, be intense, but, by all means, please be reticent. Most any subject can be molded into a speech; it is fitting to discuss ideas, events, and even real or hypothetical people, provided that you acknowledge that there are details of both your and your audience’s lives which it is not proper to delve into.

6. Your standards of eloquence and profundity in a speech should not be lower than such standards for an essay. As a matter of fact, when crafting a speech, it is advisable to always consider how such a speech would look when converted to an essay open to the public in print. If the essay would appear to exhibit a lack of vocabulary, a dearth of content, or an insufficient control of grammar and sentence structure, then the speech has the same deficiencies. The fact that you are voicing your thoughts out loud does not give you the license to become lax in your standards for what a valid and properly presented idea must be. Always observe proper grammar, word usage, and specificity, and never presume that your audience would forgive in a speech a mistake that it would instantly take note of in an essay. If anything, the requirements for a speech are far more stringent, seeing as the delivery element is also involved and must be attended to impeccably.

Indeed, I have had the occasion to convert many of my prior speeches to essays on The Rational Argumentator seamlessly; I challenge the reader to identify them and find any discrepancy between their style of writing and my typical one. He will find that no such discrepancies exist.

7. Above all, maintain an unwavering commitment to civility and manners. Refrain from obscenities, insults, and miscellaneous inanities which instantaneously eradicate all the merits of a speech. If you are a rational individual with worthwhile ideas, it hardly befits you to either look or speak like a drug-peddler from the ghettoes. The making of personal attacks in place of argument is itself a logical fallacy, argumentum ad hominem (Latin for “argument from the person”), and is not fitting of somebody seeking to propagate ideas on the basis of logic. Do not claim that your intellectual opponents are incompetent, unintelligent, unknowledgeable, or inherently unworthy for disagreeing with you. Say instead that they are mistaken, that their ideas have negative consequences, and illustrate why. If your opponents do not respond in kind, do not lower yourself to their level. Instead, illustrate the irrational and unsubstantiated nature of their accusations and then address the content of your disagreement with them. This approach to a sour opposition will win any debate you have almost every time, provided that the audience is truly objective and capable of understanding which side is actually making substantive, constructive arguments.

The Practices

1. Create your own speeches. Most orators do not have a problem with this principle, but an alarming number of celebrities, politicians, academicians, and miscellaneous “luminaries” do. If a speechwriter can represent your ideas on a given subject better than you can, then the speechwriter should be the person presenting the speech. He will inevitably have better control and delivery of his own words than you will by acting as his puppet. And, if you are truly knowledgeable about your subject, you will not need somebody else to create your presentation in your stead. If you are not thus knowledgeable, there is no reason to be speaking in the first place.

Furthermore, it is to your vast advantage to maintain a tight control over every idea and device you employ in your speech. You alone are aware of the entirety of your peculiar style, your intonation, your favored sentence structures and variations, your characteristic vocabulary, and, of course, the focus which you bestow upon certain topics and claims as opposed to others. The best historical orators, from Cicero to Washington to Lincoln to Grover Cleveland, knew that only through their own speeches could they secure the sort of effect and legacy they desired for their ideas.

It may, at times, be necessary for you to serve as a proxy for somebody else in delivering a speech, since the author is unable to present himself on the occasion. This is not the same as hiring a writer to create you a speech and passing it off as your own. When acting as a proxy, give all credit to the author of the speech in advance. Admit to your audience that you are merely a herald delivering the author’s proclamation, as the author would have wanted it delivered. Doing somebody else a favor is not the equivalent of creating your own original work.

2. Look at the audience, not at the paper. It is perfectly acceptable to have written notes, or even an entire speech, with you, depending on the occasion, but only when your visual aides are used skillfully. Be sufficiently familiar with your material that you already understand its general structure and can even recollect the particular word order you intend to use. Again, if you do not have this degree of acquaintance with your own subject matter, one might question the value of your speaking on it. When glimpsing the paper, do so briefly and without attracting considerable attention. Instead of seeking to read every word you have written, spot keywords and then complete the sentence from memory while making full eye contact. You are also advantaged in the sense that silent reading proceeds at a much faster rate than speaking, so you will be able to glimpse a lot more keywords than you might expect by this method. Memorization of the whole speech can avoid the entire dilemma of interacting with the paper, and is thus usually a benefit to the speaker. However, be prepared to depart from the memorized pattern if the need arises for further explanation and clarification. Always remember that a speech is an interactive exercise; you are delivering it to somebody and not in a vacuum. If you are not involved in gathering the audience’s attention in your delivery, the audience will assume that you are not worthy of its notice.

3. In a debate, address arguments of the opposition. It is not enough, when debating in a public setting, to have your constructive case well presented. Your opposition, be it another speaker or a questioner from the audience who disagrees with you, will have arguments to advance in an attempt to directly refute your own. If you ignore these claims, the opposition will presume that you have conceded them and might develop them further, to the point where it might become much harder than previously to disprove them. Worse, you might come across as an evader who deliberately downplays claims and evidence which seem to contradict his own views. If your views are sound, you have nothing to fear from interacting with the opposition and challenging its arguments head-on. When no opposition arguments have yet been made, anticipate common objections and refute them before they ever appear. This is especially important for subjects of great controversy, and shows an erudition on the part of the speaker which has evaluated common paradigms on the matter and has found the necessity of transcending them toward an understanding more profound.

4. Project your voice with a volume above the ordinary. This is not a license to scream or to lose control of one’s emotions in any way. Quite the contrary, it is an affirmation of the speaker’s strength and purpose. A strong voice inspires confidence in the ideas that it presents, and adds to the substance of the argument by suggesting that it can be embraced with an unequivocal, unwavering certainty. Controlling a loud voice is, indeed, far easier than managing a soft one, and elevating one’s volume can often be used to overcome vocal deficiencies, even when they are caused by illness. Furthermore, by employing considerable volume, you are welcoming your audience into your speech, indicating that the listener need not strain his ears to hear you with perfect clarity.

5. Always enunciate clearly. If your ideas are rational and potentially comprehensible to all, so should be the voice in which you present them. Pronounce every syllable unambiguously and in a manner accessible to hearing. Do not mumble or lower your tone of voice substantially at the ends of sentences. Do not garble syllables in the attempt to rush through a sentence or an idea; neither the syllables nor the idea will be well received. Never waver in your voice or convey hesitation in the expression of your thoughts. Otherwise, the audience members will wonder if your ideas are something about which they ought to hesitate as well. If proper enunciation requires that you speak slower than the conversational pace, by all means do. A slow speaker can be an immensely powerful one, provided that he is deliberate. Measure out your breath before embarking on a lengthy sentence, and pause only when punctuation permits it. Periods and most commas and semicolons are the best indicators that a pause is in order, although certain words that you wish to highlight can also give you an opportunity to moderate your pace and catch your breath. At the same time, however, you should raise your voice when pronouncing your words so as to illustrate their importance and create a lasting impression of them in your audience. Remember that elevating one’s volume and slowing one’s pace can always be done skillfully, while lowering one’s volume and raising one’s pace always entail a risk on the speaker’s part.

6. Use direct citations only when they are especially powerful or needed to make the argument; otherwise, summarize every source of information in your own words. Anybody who is remotely civilized can read somebody else’s words off a piece of paper, and many people can do this with a decent intonation. This does not make them effective orators. Your job is to convey your expertise in the subject of your speech, and this purpose can be much advanced by describing in your original vocabulary the essence of the ideas you cite. Some of your sources, especially when they are newspapers, legal documents, or academic journals, will not be paragons of eloquence, and you will be benefited by imparting a rhetorically powerful style onto their substance. If you must cite, select those passages which are both skillfully written and possess considerable historical or intellectual significance. Then, explain in your words their relevance to your argument, but always go beyond the material cited into original territory. Citing shorter passages with extensive analysis is, furthermore, almost always preferred to citing longer ones with minimal analysis. Moreover, avoid citing minutiae. Unless it is crucial to your argument, your audience does not need to know on which day in September of 2003 your newspaper article was published. If somebody is curious about this and presses you to cite more specifically after the speech, be prepared to do so, but do not lose your audience in a sea of trifles while trying to communicate your principal arguments. A speech is not an academic paper, and does not require reference lists of several pages long to accompany it.

7. Using timeless arguments is preferable to using dated ones. This is not to discredit the value of citing statistics or news stories, but to warn that your opponents are often quite likely to find other statistics and news stories which support their case. If you hinge your entire argument on the data of the moment, you will find that your entire argument is vulnerable to collapse once the data of the moment change. If, however, you are firmly anchored in a sound theoretical system, supported by some of history’s greatest minds, your claims will survive the changing times, and will remain relevant to a plethora of future situations. Yes, stating that this year’s production in a given socialist country was 50% below that in a country with freer markets should support the assertion that free markets are desirable. However, next year, it is possible for that socialist country to suddenly engage in Keynesian deficit spending and create a temporary economic bubble that, though doomed to collapse, will be used by your opponents to claim that, indeed, socialist countries can outproduce capitalist ones. If, however, you invoke Adam Smith, Ludwig von Mises, or Milton Friedman, and demonstrate why government economic controls and inflationary monetary policy will inevitably fail due to their inherent nature, you will be able to anticipate and refute any statistical objections your opponents might raise. Be certain that every claim of yours has an abstract theoretical warrant behind it at some level, and then, even if your statistics become obsolete, the core of your message will persist and remain valid.

8. Avoid clichés, irrelevancies, or politically correct expressions. A rational orator has no need to regurgitate worn second-hand expressions to make his point; he will find a way to do so originally. Furthermore, he should not cite facts or sources for the sheer purpose of citing them. Remember that your purpose in citing anything is to convey your argument. Your purpose in conveying your argument is not to cite something. If a Benjamin Franklin quote does not fit into your speech, do not force it in through verbal maneuvering. Otherwise, your speech will seem insincere and intended to give a false impression. Finally, politically correct expressions were created to make sure that nobody who is not a white male rationalist can gather anything to disagree with from them. This is not the purpose of a rational orator, especially when the issues he addresses are controversial. Any good idea will find people who not only disagree with it, but who are offended by it (for the wrong reasons, of course). Using “speciesist” or “gender-incorrect” language, calling Third World countries by their proper names, or being “heteronormative” in one’s choice of words should not be offensive to anybody who is worth convincing or associating with.

9. Define terms whenever doubts about the proper definitions can be anticipated. This applies both to terms which some listeners might not have previously encountered and to terms over whose meaning there is a dispute. It is an unfortunate fact that many words in the English language are employed with equivocal, hazy, or intentionally deceptive meanings. When you utilize a given word, avoid any possibility of ambiguity. Define the word clearly, giving examples when necessary. If contrary definitions to your use of the word exist, explain why your definition is superior. Often, you will find that listeners who disagree with you tend to use ambiguous words in a different manner than you do, and, by clarifying precisely what you mean, you will be creating a possibility of swaying such listeners to your side. You will also broaden your audience’s command of the terms you use and earn a reputation for honesty, precision, and clarity, which are tremendous assets in a contemporary society that greatly lacks them.

I have herein outlined a series of considerations which, though not exhaustive in describing the methods preferable for a rational speaker, are illustrative of what distinguishes an orator firmly grounded in logic, reason, and reality from a demagogue or charlatan whose purpose is to arouse or to deceive the masses. You will not rally people to the barricades using the above principles, but you will appeal to their higher faculties, their individual analytical selves, which, in a free, rational society, it is essential to cultivate. Demagogues whose intention is to control the masses, not to persuade them, have always made it their purpose to cause the listener to lose himself amidst the rhetoric. The oratorical techniques of Lenin, Hitler, Jesse Jackson, or any Islamic fundamentalist mullah should leave no doubt as to their lowly view of their audience as unthinking emotional brutes, and their intention to manipulate the lowest attributes that man is capable of for the purposes of securing their power. A rational orator, on the other hand, should nourish an independently-minded, active, alert listener, for he is not afraid of such an audience. Quite the contrary, only with such erudition on the receiving end can his message be fully transmitted.

G. Stolyarov II is a science fiction novelist, independent philosophical essayist, poet, amateur mathematician, composer, contributor to The Autonomist, Le Quebecois Libre, and Objective Medicine. He is also Editor-in-Chief of The Rational Argumentator, a magazine championing the Western principles of reason, rights, and progress. Learn about Mr. Stolyarov's newest science fiction novel, Eden against the Colossus here.

 

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