Demosthenes and Modern Oratory

Demosthenes is one of my favorite orators to study.  Unfortunately, I have not had the opportunity to ever see or hear him as he passed away in 322 BC.  He is one of the legendary Greek orators and some of his most famous (and my favorite) addresses of his relate to his opposition to King Phillip II of Macedon.  Demosthenes is relevant here because of his dedication to practice and preparation.

Demosthenes had speech impediments and his dream was to be a great orator.  He was ridiculed early and often for his deficiencies as an orator and he never quit.   Here are just a few of the things he is rumored to have done to attain his goal:

  • Corrected his defective elocution by speaking with pebbles in his mouth
  • Prepared himself to overcome noise by speaking in stormy weather on the seashore
  • Recited verses while running to improve his breathing and cadence
  • Sometimes passed two or three months in an underground cave, practicing his oratory
  • While there, he would shave half of his head to prevent himself from leaving the cave

While I would never advocate living in a cave or practicing with pebbles in your mouth to improve oratorical skill, there are steps everyone can take to practice and improve.  Here are a few:

1)      Write it out – I always write out every speech I will deliver.  I then edit it and re-write it.  I do this four of five times. It is at this point that I begin the process of shortening the speech to bullet points, then shortening the bullet points, until there is nothing left to eliminate as all that is left are key words and key phrases.  This process not only helps to sharpen the presentation, it also helps to internalize it – after all, every re-write is practice. I will write a post at a later date detailing this process.

2)      Video tape yourself – I have a studio that I use, although before I had a studio I used my garage.  Set up a video camera (almost all of which come with a remote) adjust the settings, and begin.  This is an extremely effective way to get a feel for not only messaging and verbal delivery, but also paralanguage, expressions, gestures, etc.

3)      Practice in Front of People – My wife is my biggest fan and sharpest critic.  For nine years I have practiced every speech or presentation I have ever delivered in front of her multiple times, and she always gives me very astute commentary.  This works with co-workers, siblings, and anyone else who you trust and whose opinion you respect.

4)      Audio tape yourself – I often complement the use of a video camera with the use of a Dictaphone so that I can focus entirely on my verbal delivery.

5)      Exercise and Deliver – This is one that I have “borrowed” from Demosthenes.   I often run a few 100 yard sprints, and then immediately retreat to my garage, winded, to practice and get my breathing right.  You do not have to run sprints – any exercise that gets your heart rate up and adrenaline pumping can subtly mimic what your body feels when beginning an address.

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4 Responses to “Demosthenes and Modern Oratory”

  1. Hi Matt,
    Nice job! Loved the history lesson and may I quote you on some of this?


  2. Thank you so much Dr. T – you can quote all of it! I miss you – when can I come back out to ND? How is your schedule looking for the Fall?

  3. Good advice, Matt.

    Have you ever used Mind Mapping to Develop, Practice and Deliver your presentations?

    Mind Mapping is a non-linear, visual brain storming tool. Software for doing this makes it extremely easy to incorporate images, colors and do editing.

    Thanks for the Post!

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