Three famous orators and how they started
The story is told of how Sir Winston Churchill, a former British Prime Minister, was once in the bathtub rehearsing a speech when his butler rushed in and asked him, “Were you speaking to me, sir?”
“No, James, I was speaking to the House of Commons,” the statesman famously replied.
Undoubtedly one of the greatest orators of the 20th Century, Churchill, it is said, used to rehearse his speeches everywhere—even in the bathroom! He was a perfectionist to the core. He rehearsed all his speeches aloud to make sure he didn’t slip on his words. He often worked long into the night at this assignment. For this reason, he was rarely lost for words. He had the right words for every occasion. His three famous speeches: ‘Blood, Toil, Tears, and Sweat,’ ‘We shall fight on the Beaches,’ and ‘This was their Finest Hour,’ which he gave during the Second World War, inspired a nation to victory.
But Churchill was not born an orator. He reportedly stammered as a child. He also had difficulty in pronouncing the letter “s.” He was told by a doctor that “practice and perseverance,” would enable him to remedy his impediment. He worked hard on his pronunciation and practiced several tongue-twisters until he became a great public speaker.
In fact, it is also said that he spent as much time rehearsing his ‘impromptu’ speeches as he did on his more formal speeches. He rehearsed quite often in front of a mirror to watch his facial expression, elocution and body language. It got to a point that even his Private Secretaries, who worked closely with him during the war could deduce what he meant by mere gestures!
James Earl Jones, an American actor, renowned for his unique deep voice, is another powerful orator. But he had a severe stutter that made him to refuse to speak aloud, as a child. A certain teacher at his high school, who discovered that Jones had a gift for writing poetry, helped him to overcome his speech impediment by forcing him to speak in public. The teacher also made him recite a poem in class each day until he gained self-confidence. Poor Jones must have nearly died of stage fright during these practice sessions. It is not also unlikely that he would have cursed the teacher silently for subjecting him to this ‘mental torture.’ But as they say, ‘no pain, no gain.’
Though he wanted to become a medical doctor, and had in fact, spent four years on the course, Jones discovered he was not simply cut out to be one. He dropped out of college without a degree. Seeking adventure, he joined the military where he opted for drama, which he had passion for. He spent some years in the army and after he was discharged, he attended a theatre school to polish his skills. He worked as a concierge to earn a living. He did other menial jobs including being a stage carpenter and stage manager, before he eventually became a stage actor.
Since then, he has featured in several blockbusters including Conan the Barbarian, Coming to America, and Cry, the Beloved Country. He has also featured in several voiceover roles including the voice of Darth Vader in the Star Wars trilogy and Mufasa in The Lion King. In addition, Jones did the well-known CNN tagline: ‘This is CNN.’ The ‘punishment’ has paid off in the long run!
While Churchill and Jones are highly rated orators in today’s world, Demosthenes, an ancient Greek orator was without equal in his era. In fact, Cicero once described him as: inter omnis unus excellat (“he stands alone among all the orators”).
But as a boy, Demosthenes was described as shy and delicate. He also had a terrible stammer. His stutter was so bad that his friends often made fun of him when he spoke. The first time he made a speech in public turned out to be a complete catastrophe. Thoroughly embarrassed at the outcome and the cruel jeers that he received from the unsympathetic Athenians who simply adored orators; he covered his head with shame and walked home dejectedly. One of the reasons he wanted to become a public speaker was to expose his corrupt guardians, who squandered his inheritance, after the death of his parents.
Just as it seemed as if the fate of the young man was sealed, an actor, who had watched him while he was speaking, took pity on him and taught him the right techniques to make his speeches more persuasive. Demosthenes learnt from the actor that one must not only read or recite speeches fluently; one must also dramatise and turn them into music in the ears of listeners. His teacher taught him that great orators once started as students, and practiced hard to become masters of the art.
Armed with this knowledge, Demosthenes worked hard until he mastered these techniques, which turned him into one of the greatest orators of the ancient world. He devoured books, wrote numerous speeches, and went to hear celebrated orators speak. After intensive study, he embarked on a most ruthless self-training programme.
It is said that he converted one of the cellars of his house into a study, where he practiced his voice and gestures without distraction. He locked himself in this strange environment for three months, while doing a ‘workout’ on his speech. He also shaved one side of his head to prevent him from stepping out of the house out of shame until he completed the task at hand.
He strengthened his voice by putting pebbles in his mouth and trying to speak above the roar of the angry waves dashing at rocks at the seashore. He also used a large mirror to monitor his progress at home. When he finally ‘spoke’ at the age of 18, Athenians were ready to listen to him. His countrymen were so impressed with his oratorical prowess that they made him one of the 10 official orators of the city. His enemies came to fear his fiery speeches. He terrorised King Philip of Macedonia and his son Alexander the Great, with his diatribes, which later became known as the ‘The Philippics,’ during their conquest and occupation of Greece.
Churchill, Jones and Demosthenes had something in common; they all overcame perceived speech impediments through constant practice to become great orators, whose voices sounded like honey in the ears of their listeners.
Perhaps, one of the key lessons we can learn from them is the truth in the common saying: practice makes perfect.