Yesterday I had the chore of writing about one of my least favorite Montaigne essays, but today I have the pleasure of writing about one of my favorites. I’m not sure if Montaigne had any unique insights about public speaking – he was a noted reader of Quintilian, so he probably borrowed many of his thoughts. But when reading Montaigne, I’m reminded that the art of oratory is something lost, like knowing how to ride a horse or to build a house from stone. The knowledge still exists for those who need it, but storehouses of wisdom remain in lore.
Fortunately for me, I can make a living re-discovering this lost art and teaching it to professionals who are terrified of getting up in front of an audience. In Montaigne’s day, public speaking phobias were luxuries that anyone of stature was forbidden to hold. You learned oratory as part of your classical education and probably had a good ten years of training before focusing on your profession. Montaigne makes a case early in this essay for choosing a profession based on your oratorical style:
We can see that in the case of the gift of speaking well: some have such a prompt facility and (as we say) such ease in ‘getting it out’, that they are always ready anywhere: others, more hesitant, never speak without thinking and working it all out beforehand. Just as the rule given to ladies is to take up sports and exercises which show off their charms, so too, if I had to give similar advice where these two qualities are concerned, it seems to me that nowadays, when eloquence is mainly professed by preachers and barristers, the hesitant man had better be a preacher and the other man a barrister.
These natural styles still exist today – some people are far better speakers off-the-cuff, while others are lost without a script. Montaigne’s advice is quite sound – prepare for a speech in a way that best suits your natural style. That’s the core of my speech training style – finding out how a person speaks best and helping that person use those skills most effectively.
As usual, Montaigne pivots during this essay to point out that he’s a much more extemporaneous type of speaker and thinker. Along the way, he also makes a case that these types of thinkers are in some ways superior:
I know from experience the kind of character which gets nowhere unless it is allowed to run happy and free and which by nature is unable to keep up vehemently and laboriously practising anything beforehand. We say that some books ‘stink of lamp-oil’, on account of the harshness and roughness which are stamped on writings in which toil has played a major part.
Again, I’m in complete agreement. People who prefer to speak from a script, in my experience, tend to have rigid worldviews. They want the speech to be airtight, logical and sleek. They remind me of Martin Scorsese’s fictionalized view of Howard Hughes, obsessed with the rivets in his aircraft, or in a more contemporary version, Steve Jobs of Apple.
Of course there’s a place for perfectionists like Hughes and Jobs – they are capable of creating great and beautiful things. And there’s no question that Jobs is one of the great public speakers in the world today, which isn’t just due to his drama-infused product announcements. His commencement address at Stanford University is one of the great speeches in the past 20 years, both a stylistic triumph and the perfect embodiment of Apple’s brand values told through Jobs’ life story.
I especially like the section where Jobs speaks of happenstance, the importance of understanding the tidal forces in life and the value of learning to flow with them. Part of the genius of Jobs is that he can internalize that conflict, work it out for himself and then explain it back to us. Most of us, however, need to be engaged directly in the conflicts of the world to understand how compromise to it makes us stronger.
Here’s how Montaigne described it:
I cannot remain fixed within my disposition and endowments. Chance plays a greater part in all this than I do. The occasion, the company, the very act of using my voice, draw from my mind more than what I can find there when I exercise it and try it out all by myself.
Where I seek myself I cannot find myself: I discover myself more by accident than by inquiring into my judgement.
I have this experience as well. I often don’t know fully what I believe about a subject until I have to put my thoughts into words. Even more powerful is the experience of sharing those ideas through a speech, seeing first-hand how people relate. The most important skill for any public speaker is the ability to read an audience, to see on others’ faces what is registering and what’s falling flat.
My romantic view of the political campaign is that a candidate who listens well and becomes attuned to the beliefs and understanding of the voters will eventually hone a speech that both reflects his or her worldview and embodies the will of the electorate. This is why I continue to believe in contests like the Iowa caucuses and the New Hampshire primary, not because they represent America as a whole, but because these small kitchen-table campaigns force candidates to pay attention to voters in ways that retail campaigns help them avoid.
There are some who believe that politics should have a voice-of-God nature – candidates come into the races knowing what they believe, they communicate it to voters who then make a rational decision based on how much they agree with the candidate and how they rate the candidate’s readiness for office. Having been around politics for more than 20 years, I know that the process isn’t so logical. There’s a certain alchemy involved in it.
There is perhaps even a form of alchemy, when demonstrated effectively, that can help voters change their minds about people and policies. And that’s why the old fashioned speech is still important.