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Interview: Bryan, Darrow, and Great Speeches

Stephen E. Lucas is Evjue-Bascom Professor in the Humanities and Professor of Communication Arts at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. In 1999, he surveyed his peers to compile a list of the top 100 American speeches of the twentieth century. The list, co-compiled with Prof. Martin Medhurst of Texas A&M University, reflects the opinions of 137 leading scholars of American public address.

Lucas is also the author of The Quotable George Washington and a textbook, The Art of Public Speaking. Here he discusses good speechmaking, and the speaking skills of William Jennings Bryan and Clarence Darrow.

What makes an effective speech?

The main requirement for a successful speech is having something important to say. Lots of times people focus on delivery, personal appearance, gestures, eye contact, and the like. Those things are certainly important. But the most important thing is the speaker's message. If you have a message that you're committed to, that you want to communicate to people, you will communicate better.

What's a good way to structure a speech ?

One basic structure for a speech falls into three parts: an introduction, a body, and a conclusion. Each part is designed to do something different. You need to have an introduction that gets the audience's attention and lets people know about the importance of the subject, why it's important for them to listen. It makes a first impression. In journalism they call it a "hook": something that's going to pull your audience in to your speech. The introduction should also reveal the speech's topic and give the audience some idea of the main points to be discussed.

The body of the speech is where the speaker develops his or her main points — the big ideas of the speech. You should probably limit yourself to 4 or 5 main points in a speech, whether it's a 10-minute or a 60-minute speech. That will give you time to develop the points you're making. If you have too many main points, the audience will have trouble sorting them out and you may find that you aren't able to develop them in enough depth to be clear and convincing.

The conclusion is important because it's where you leave your most lasting impression. It's the last chance to drive the ideas home to the audience, and ideally the speaker will find a way to leave a lasting impression, both in terms of what he or she says, and in terms of the delivery. Some famous speeches end with stirring conclusions. A celebrated one is Patrick Henry's exhortation to "give me liberty — or give me death."

How much structure does a speech need?

Some speeches need to be very tightly structured—especially those in which the speaker is imparting technical information or developing a strong logical argument. On the other hand, a eulogy or wedding toast can be quite effective with a looser structure. Some people speak logically, and if you took a transcript of their speech, it would read almost as if it were written prose. But we know spoken discourse is usually less formal than written discourse, and most speeches, if written out, would not read nearly as well. Nonetheless, the key is that the audience needs to follow the speaker from idea to idea. As your speech unfolds over time, like a film does, you have to help the audience follow your ideas from step to step, the way viewers follow the plot of a film.

Do you have other advice on structuring?

A common piece of advice is to tell the audience what you're going to say, say it, and then tell them what you've said. This is good advice, but speakers can provide a compelling sense of structure through more subtle devices. Above all, you need to keep in mind that listeners do not have the kinds of visual cues available to readers. When you listen to a speech, there are no subheads, no paragraph breaks, no punctuation marks to let you know where the speaker is at any given moment. Your listener can't go back and reread a portion of the speech if it's unclear, or if his or her attention should wander for a moment. The speaker must make sure his or her ideas are clear as the speech proceeds.

What should a speaker know about delivery?

The most effective presentations get their ideas across without calling attention to the speaker's delivery. Good speakers know how to use vocal variety, gestures, pauses, eye contact, and facial expressions to reinforce what they're saying with their words, but they don't come across as artificial or overly rehearsed. Most audiences prefer delivery that combines a certain degree of formality with the best attributes of good conversation — directness, spontaneity, animation, vocal and physical expressiveness, and a lively sense of communication.

How can a speaker use his or her voice to reinforce the speech's impact?

By using her or his voice — its tone, pacing, intonation, and rhythm — a speaker can control the momentum of a speech. Take, for example, a speech conclusion. One type of ending is a crescendo, where a speaker builds in power and emphasis to a vocal climax of the speech. The classic example is Martin Luther King's famous "I Have a Dream" speech. By the end, he's speaking in thunderous tones, of the day when "all God's children... will be able to join hands and sing in the words of the old Negro spiritual, 'Free at last! Free at last! Thank God Almighty, we are free at last!'" He delivers this with a vigor that builds to an unforgettable end.

Sometimes a speaker will do the opposite, and do a "dissolve" ending, building down to a gentle end. It's like a singer in a spotlight that gets smaller and smaller, and with the singer's last, poignant notes, the light goes out. This also provides deep emotion. Douglas MacArthur does this in his farewell to Congress, the "Old Soldiers Never Die" speech.

Remember, though, that the delivery, like the content, should be suitable to the audience and the occasion. If there's a fundamental rule to public speaking, it's that everything should be constructed with the audience in mind. I don't mean the speaker should compromise the message. The speaker should face the issue of, how can I best convey my message to this particular audience?

Over time, all public speakers develop their own delivery style. Think of speakers such as Mario Cuomo, Barbara Jordan, Jesse Jackson, Barbara Dole, Ann Richards, and Ronald Reagan. They are all committed to their ideas and are able to create powerful bonds with their listeners, but if you gave each of them the same speech text, they would deliver it in their own distinctive manner.

Is it important to speak in formal English?

There are some occasions when speakers speak less formally and are very effective. There are also many dialects within the United States, and linguists have concluded that no dialect is inherently better or worse than another. One might be speaking with an audience that is not particularly versed in formal English, and to speak formally might not be best for that audience. At the same time, we know that for most audiences, one still wants to be grammatical. If you stray too far from the bounds of verbal propriety, you'll have problems with your credibility. There is a great deal of research to show that such things as pronunciation, articulation, and grammatical correctness can have a powerful impact on a speaker's credibility. Shakespeare's advice is still sound: "Mend your speech a little, lest you may mar your fortunes."

Why is it sometimes helpful to add humor to a speech?

Humor is a wonderful way of providing a bond between speaker and audience. In skillful hands, it can also be employed to bolster an argument. Ronald Reagan used it in his 1984 presidential debate with Walter Mondale to defuse the age issue, and Franklin Roosevelt used it in his "Fala" speech to blunt Republican criticism of his wartime policies. More recently, George W. Bush used it effectively when accepting the Republican presidential nomination. But you have to use it carefully. You don't want to tell a joke that fails. If you're a person who feels comfortable telling jokes and stories, definitely develop that material for your speech. If you don't feel comfortable, though, don't do it. You need to be true to your own self when you're speaking.

There are some situations where you don't want or need to add humor, especially in some persuasive speeches, or commemorative speeches, or a eulogy. That would not necessarily fit with the occasion or the audience's expectations.

What's the best way to prepare for speaking in public?

The first thing is to believe in your message and develop it carefully. Decide exactly what you want to accomplish in the speech and keep that goal in mind. Most speeches require research — in the library, on the Internet, through personal interviews, or some combination of the three. The sooner you begin this preparation the better, since you need to give yourself plenty of time to reflect on the information you find, to decide how to structure the speech, and to phrase your ideas so they are clear, accurate, vivid, and compelling. If you're using visual aids of any type — charts, graphs, photographs, videotape, etc. — you need to prepare those aids well in advance to make sure they look professional and are well integrated with the rest of your speech.

Second, you need to set aside a large chunk of time to rehearse your delivery. Whether you have prepared a full manuscript or are working from a less formal set of notes, you should go through what you have written to see how it translates into spoken discourse. Be sure to practice the speech out loud, rather than reading it silently to yourself. Rehearse everything you will say and do in the speech, including any visual aids or PowerPoint slides. You will doubtless make mistakes the first few times you run through the speech, but don't worry about that. Keep going and finish as well as you can. Concentrate on gaining control of your ideas, rather than on trying to learn the speech word for word.

In the later stages of rehearsal, polish and refine your delivery. Practice the speech in front of a mirror to check for eye contact and distracting mannerisms. Tape-record the speech to gauge your volume, pitch, rate, pauses, and vocal variety. Even better, videotape the speech so you can see it as well as hear it. If possible, try the speech out on friends, co-workers, family members — anyone who will listen and give you an honest appraisal. Ask your listeners to raise their hands whenever you say something that is not clear to them — then work out a way to make your point more effectively. Try to put yourself in the place of your listeners and hear the speech as they will. Anticipate questions and objections, and work out your answers in advance.

Finally, give your presentation a dress rehearsal under conditions as close as possible to those you will face on the day of the speech. If possible, visit the room in which you will be speaking. Check the seating arrangements and the location of the lectern to make sure the audience can see you without obstruction. If you are doing a multimedia presentation, double check the computer hook-ups and make sure all the equipment is in working order. Leave as little as possible to chance.

What should a speaker do right before giving a speech?

When the moment for your speech arrives, act confident. If you act confident, your audience will think you are confident, and your speech will go better. Walk up to the lectern as if you are looking forward to giving the speech, and you have something important to say. Put your notes down, establish eye contact, pause to make sure attention is focused on you. Stand quietly as you wait to make sure the audience is paying attention. Then — and only then — begin to speak.

When you reach the end of your speech, maintain eye contact for a few moments after you stop talking so your closing line has time to sink in. Unless you're staying at the lectern to answer questions, collect your notes and return to your seat. As you do so, maintain a cool, calm, collected demeanor. Whatever you do, don't start to gather your notes before you have finished talking, and don't cap off your speech with an audible sigh of relief or some remark like, "Thank heavens, that's over."

All of this is common sense, yet it's often overlooked by less experienced speakers. When practicing your presentation, spend a little time working out how you will behave at the beginning and the end. It's one of the easiest things you can do to improve your image with the audience.

Do you have advice for people who experience stage fright?

The best antidote for stage fright is preparation. Just as an actor rehearses a role, so a speaker should work on his or her presentation until it is just right. If you are prepared, things are going to go well.

Remember that a speech is not a performance in which you must intone every word with utter perfection. There is no such thing as a perfect speech. At some point in every presentation, the speaker says or does something that does not come across exactly as planned. This is true even of masterpieces such as Martin Luther King's "I Have a Dream," which was judged the top speech of the century. He stumbles over a few words, but that doesn't matter, because people weren't focused on the speech as a performance. They were focused on what he had to say.

It's imperative to think of a speech above all as an act of communication. If speakers concentrate on communicating with the audience, rather than on their nervousness, they will usually find that the speech turns out just fine. Your audience never knows how you wanted it to come out. All they know is what you said, and how it was communicated. So don't worry about what you think are mistakes.

Which speeches are your personal favorites?

I have many favorites — from Pericles' funeral oration to modern masterpieces such as Winston Churchill's "Blood, Toil, Tears and Sweat" and Martin Luther King's "I Have a Dream" speech. One that I have always admired for its eloquence is Douglas MacArthur's 1962 farewell to the cadets at West Point. The speech is absolutely masterful in its evocation of the role of the soldier in a democratic society. It is as moving today as it was forty years ago.

Another of my personal favorites is Mary Fisher's address on AIDS at the 1992 Republican convention. Beautifully written and compellingly delivered, it captured the audience. The Houston Astrodome fell silent as the convention delegates — and even the television reporters — gave Fisher their undivided attention. Some were moved to tears. It was a remarkable presentation, and it brought the problem of AIDS home to the mainstream political audience.

I also mention Fisher's address because it represents something important about the role of public speaking in a democratic society: Not only do well-known public figures give speeches, but speeches can create public figures. Fisher's speech catapulted her to national attention as an AIDS activist in the same way that Booker T. Washington's Atlanta Exposition Address gained him prominence as a spokesman for African Americans in 1895. Public speaking has historically been the most democratic mode of civic communication, and it remains a crucial vehicle for empowerment today.

Anything by Mark Twain is also a favorite. He gave a wonderful speech about the perils of stage fright. As a writer, he knew the importance of language. "The difference between the right word and the almost right word," he said, "is the difference between lightning and the lightning bug." People think of him as a writer, but he also made a living on the lecture circuit, and he was a masterful speaker. He knew exactly how to play an audience. "The right word may be effective," he said, "but no word was ever as effective as the rightly timed pause."

What is William Jennings Bryan's legacy as a public speaker?

Bryan is one of the truly great orators in American history, but his reputation has been damaged by the Scopes trial. His cross-examination by Clarence Darrow made people who were not fundamentalists see him as small-minded and uneducated.

He was at the very end of his career, and the end of his life. He was ill — he suffered from diabetes. He didn't look good. He didn't handle himself well in the cross-examination. That cross-examination, and its subsequent portrayal on stage and on screen, have fixed posterity's image of Bryan for the worse. And that was nothing like his early career.

What was he like, earlier in life?

"The Boy Orator of the Platte" was tall and handsome. He had a phenomenal voice. Speaking before the invention of microphones, he could reach an audience of 30,000 people without any amplification. He could be heard clearly and distinctly in every seat. In the art of classical oratory, one learned breath control and projection, like an actor — and some people simply have stronger voices. Daniel Webster was a similarly powerful orator, who was said to have a pipe organ for a voice.

But there was much more to Bryan than his voice and his extraordinary delivery skills. At the heart of his oratory were his ideas. He was not an intellectual, deeply read in philosophy or history, in the same way Teddy Roosevelt or Woodrow Wilson, two of his contemporaries, were. He didn't write like an academic, or argue like an intellectual or a lawyer.

What were the ideas Bryan championed in his speeches?

At his heart was a commitment to the plight of the common man and woman, and a deep religious faith. The causes he championed were the reform issues of the age, and he was at the forefront of all of them: antitrust legislation, the rights of labor, women's suffrage, opposition to capital punishment. He was the country's most influential spokesman for anti-imperialism.

Are there any other famous public speakers who compare with Bryan?

Perhaps the best comparison to Bryan as an orator is Patrick Henry. Henry was a legendary figure in his own time, far more influential than he's been portrayed in history. There are even parallels between Bryan's "Cross of Gold" speech and Henry's famous "Give Me Liberty or Give Me Death" speech. According to legend, Henry dramatically acted as if he were plunging a dagger into his heart at those final words. Similarly, when Bryan got to his climax in the "Cross of Gold" speech, he used a dramatic gesture, holding his arms out to form a cross.

Opponents feared the power of Bryan's oratory — and Patrick Henry's. In 1788, Henry came close to blocking the adoption of the U.S. Constitution at Virginia's ratifying convention with his compelling oratory against a powerful federal government, and in favor of states' and individuals' rights.

Darrow realized Bryan had a similar power, and his strategy was never to let Bryan deliver the prosecution's final summation in the trial. Think about it — Darrow was the greatest legal pleader of his time, an acknowledged master of the jury appeal, yet even HE didn't want to go head-to-head with Bryan in a contest of set speeches. He didn't want to give him that stage, that opportunity.

Let's talk about Bryan's Scopes trial speech. What do you think of it?

The closing speech that Bryan never got to deliver is a 15,000-word speech, which was printed and circulated after his death. A couple of things are particularly interesting:

First, the powerful imagery. This is typical of Bryan speeches. He uses a wonderful metaphor: science can build "gigantic intellectual ships, but it constructs no moral rudders..." Nautical metaphors used to be more common, when the ship was the primary mode of intercontinental transportation. When he talks about the power of science without a moral compass — that's an issue we're still debating today, in issues like atomic weapons, genetically-engineered crops, human cloning, and stem-cell research. Many people who consider themselves liberals today take essentially the same position Bryan took about the potential dangers of science when it is conducted in a moral vacuum.

Another interesting thing is the religious tone that runs through as a force for reform. I'm especially struck with how similar parts of Bryan's speech are to Dr. King's "I Have a Dream" speech. Unlike King, Bryan was not an ordained minister, but he often adopted a sermonic style. Both work the words of a song, a hymn, into a speech that echoes a sermon. You can just imagine Bryan's voice, with its lyrical quality — had he been able to deliver this speech — picking up the hymn's cadence and delivering this very powerfully. These techniques, like these issues, don't die. However, there would be no benefit in working in a hymn no one knew. Bryan uses an iconic song, "Faith of Our Fathers," to help the audience identify with his issue.

What about Darrow? What were his speaking tactics?

Darrow mastered the facts of his cases, but his speeches were not based solely on facts and logic. His typical strategy was to combine facts and logic with strong emotional appeals, all of which he carefully adapted to his immediate audience. He once said, "Unless a speaker can interest his audience at once, his effort will be a failure."

He had an ability to pull an audience in, to talk to judges or juries in personal terms, alerting them to the great responsibilities on their shoulders. There's a famous line from the Leopold and Loeb trial where he speaks to the judge directly, not abstractly, to make the judge feel the weight of responsibility if he sends the boys to their deaths. He refers to the awful death they will suffer by hanging. He uses vivid language, and addresses the judge directly, powerfully, personally. He argues that executing the defendants would be a worse crime than the one they have committed. By the end, tears were streaming from the judge's eyes, and he sentenced the defendants to life in prison instead of death.

Darrow often picked one person out from the prosecution team to ridicule to the jury, kind of an enemy upon which his audience could focus. Throughout the trial he attacked Bryan mercilessly, ridiculing him at every turn for his fundamentalist and anti-scientific beliefs. Inherit the Wind and other subsequent depictions of the case would portray Bryan as the uninformed, befuddled fundamentalist, and Darrow as the cool, cunning attorney — which he was, of course. The whole Scopes trial cross-examination was a setup.

What do you mean? What happened with the cross-examination?

Darrow had rehearsed it the night before. Back in 1923, Darrow had written an open letter to Bryan, published in the Chicago Tribune, including 50 questions about inconsistencies and errors in the Bible. So, for a couple of hours, working from those questions, Darrow and his team rehearsed his cross-examination.

Bryan had no idea that Darrow and the defense team were going to call him to the stand as a witness. Nor did Darrow know whether Bryan would rise to the bait. Bryan was a lawyer, but he hadn't practiced law in years, and he was used to delivering set pieces, not thinking on his feet. Darrow believed Bryan wouldn't be prepared for something of this nature, and in fact, he wasn't. But Bryan was optimistic about his ability to handle the situation, and convinced of the righteousness of his cause. So he agreed to take the stand. It was the greatest mistake of his life. Darrow asked questions about the origins of the earth, the creation of women, and so forth, in a logical manner. But there was always a tone of incredulity, sarcasm, or mockery. Darrow had been conducting this kind of courtroom interrogation for decades. The more he pushed, the worse Bryan looked.

It's like the famous exchange between Joseph Welch and Senator Joseph McCarthy in the televised Army-McCarthy hearings in 1954, where Welch embarrasses McCarthy on national television. Welch had rehearsed, though his speech sounded very folksy and extemporaneous. He exposed McCarthy as a rhetorical thug with bullying, unfair tactics. It was the most memorable moment of the hearings, and it helped turn public opinion against McCarthy. Like Darrow in the Scopes trial, Welch prepared thoroughly, laid his trap for McCarthy, and then moved in for the kill.

You have to be prepared. That's one of the keys to effective public speaking.

Where does the Scopes trial stand in the history of American public address?

It was a rhetorical heavyweight fight between two titans of American oratory. By 1925, these men had been iconic figures on the public stage for three decades, with careers based entirely on their oratory. Here they are, at the end of their careers, both old men, openly contemptuous of one another, yelling, staring, and glaring at each other. It's the stuff legends are made of. It's a blood sport, in a way, it's one person taking on another one individually. Of course there's a supporting cast of characters — but these two are the stars.

Neither man has anything on the other, with respect to oratorical ability. It's a contest between equals. Except that it's a contest fought on Darrow's turf — in the courtroom — and the most significant move is that Darrow, by admitting that his client was guilty and foregoing summation to the jury, denies Bryan the opportunity to speak from his best platform, and deliver his speech.

In the end, how do Bryan and Darrow compare?

Both are unquestionably among the titans of American oratory. Before the Scopes trial, they were on the same side of many political issues. Both were champions of the common man and woman, and both were advocates for reform. There were also many similarities in their rhetoric. Both were charismatic figures who could command listeners with their voices, gestures, and physical presence. They both used vivid language and employed classical devices such as repetition, parallelism, metaphor, and simile.

In both men's speeches, the world is typically split into two camps — good and evil — which are represented through a powerful set of dualisms. Bryan's dualisms include the special interests versus the people (who are Bryan's ultimate hero), morality versus immorality, and, in the Scopes trial, Christianity versus atheism. Darrow, on the other hand, presents the Scopes trial as pitting reason versus fanaticism, progress versus superstition, free inquiry versus closed-mindedness, and the middle ages versus the twentieth century. Either we go back to the dark ages, he says, or we accept the doctrine of evolution and move boldly forward into a more enlightened age of science and progress. Most experts agree that Darrow won his battle with Bryan in the Scopes trial, but as current events have shown, many of the issues they debated in 1925 remain with us today.

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