Articles

The subject of my talk today is: Why I don't like speeches

March 1 1958
Articles

The subject of my talk today is: Why I don't like speeches

March 1 1958

The subject of my talk today is: Why I don't like speeches

In which

ROBERT THOMAS ALLEN

views with alarm

and points with pride as lie is

reminded of some funny

things that happened to him on

the way to the typewriter

Some of the most agonizing moments of my boyhood were spent trying to guess when some speaker would sit down. One of the worst was our minister, a robust, grey-haired man who looked so comfortable when he leaned on the pulpit that he gave the feeling that he was up there for life. I’d wait for him to go into a certain key that usually meant he was nearing the end, although sometimes there were unbelievable bits of bad luck when he sounded as if he were going to stop and then started all over again, and I’d be back in a motionless world of dust, hot varnish, holiness and images of far-off lands with people dressed in bed sheets.

Now and then my mother would make a polite little groaning sound when the minister made a droll remark. All the women made this sound. There’d be a churchly little moan and a deathly rustle of hymn books, and I’d suddenly get the idea that it was supposed to be funny and let out a high-pitched yak. A kid who used to sit ahead of me would whip around, his thin, tight, pink skin gleaming, widely separated teeth showing in a half smile. He'd eye me. tuned as tight as a harp to a bit of action, until his mother slowly twisted his arm and made him face the front. He’d retract his thin neck into his blue-serge suit and we would settle down. About a week later, it seemed, the moment arrived when the congregation rustled to its feet, men with close-

cropped, grizzled heads like frosty chestnuts sang in an overwhelming brassy bass, “Crown Him! Crown Him! CROW-W-W-W-N HIM!” and we’d be out in the fresh air, so free to move that we felt as if we were on pogo sticks.

All this was probably typical of boyhood, and 1 gather, from watching audiences and congregations today, that most people outgrew' it. But I didn't. 1 still feel the same way when some speaker gets up. tells an unlikely joke about what a professor said when he saw' a girl drop a camera into a swimming pool, suddenly looks serious, and makes a mysterious transition with, "And that, ladies and gentlemen. brings me to the subject of my talk today—the internal operations of a bank.’’ It leaves me wondering how we got there and how long it will take to get out. Twenty minutes later I'm looking around for the boy with the wide-spaced teeth.

Occasionally I find him, although he comes in various disguises. 1 he last time he was a thin, red-headed woman sitting next to me at a banquet table during a talk by her husband, a serious-looking man with pop eyes and a little button of a mouth, who illustrated everything he said w'ith huge charts.

“This is less than three percent of the national average of point-of-sale volume in 1954,” he’d say. There would be busy little movements with intense whispered grunts as he and a couple of other people sorted out some charts about three feet square and made little darting movements until they w'ere sure the charts weren’t going to fall. Finally he would point to a big three percent. All this time his wife kept leaning forward slightly, looking sideways at my bread rolls with a faint smile, and saying “Le’s all get drunk.”

I don’t blame her. And. for that matter, I don’t blame her husband, who was just doing his best to get through a bad hour. 1 blame the people who asked him to give the talk. There's a growing group of people today who go in for listening to speeches the way some people go in for watching birds, and I think they’re accountable for the quality of a lot of the talks we hear.

There's a man on my street who passes my house two or three times a day, yanked along on a leash by a big police dog. Every now and then he digs his heels in long enough to stop the dog and tell me about a talk being given by some group he belongs to. They must pick their speakers out of a phone book with a pin.

"We’re having a talk tonight on fertilizing pine trees,” he’ll say. “Like to have you there.”

Or he’ll hold the dog long enough to say, “We're having an interesting talk tonight on

the use of plastics in crating prunes. Why don't you come along?” and take off down the road in little hops.

1 not only get invited to hear these talks, I get invited to give them. People who have never met me, and don't know whether 1 have anything to say or not. phone me to ask if I'll say a few words to their little groups. A while ago a woman phoned me to ask if I’d give a talk to a group known as the Pen and Brush Club. I explained that 1 was a very poor talker and thanks all the same. She phoned the next day and said the members had changed their plans and were going to have an informal breakfast and would I just sit at the head of the table and say a few words. 1 said I wasn't even any good sitting down, but thanks anyway. The next day she called again, and in a carefully controlled voice asked me if I'd just come to breakfast and not say anything.

It was a lot better than the other two ideas, but it was bad enough. For some reason, just as I arrived. I went into a coughing fit. I just took one look at the chairwoman and started to cough. A minute later a group of people, presumably all authors, were thumping me on the back and signaling for glasses of water. I sat down grinning, flushed and bobbing my head, trying to assure them that I wasn't going to die, although if I had nobody would have known who it was because the chairwoman introduced me as Mr. Thomas who wrote for MacMillan’s Magazine and was a graduate in forestry. I could think of no reply but to sit there, waiting for breakfast with my stomach growling.

I know a professional writer named Clarkeson who gave his first and last talk recently when he was invited to speak to a group called the Ladies Authors’ Guild. He gave a really fine talk on the Canadian novel, explored the subject of sex, patriotism, realism, nominalism, sensationalism and sincerity, and sat down exhausted. The chairman asked if there were any questions, and a member in a pink hat popped up and said she had one: was he by any chance related to the Clarkesons of Pontypool?

The fad for listening to speeches reached some sort of peak a little while ago on a morning TV program that offered three hundred dollars for anyone who could produce a talking dog. The dogs had one clear idea, that a piece of liver was involved. They would make a hideous sound, a kind of throaty “Ow-ow-owow-ow," until the judge, a man with a PhD in English, who sat there wondering whether money was really this important, would finally say, “Yes, I think I’d continued on page 47

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Why I don’t like speeches continued from page 19

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“The whole art of public speaking is no better than when I was a boy — in fact, it’s got worse”

give your dog the middle syllable in ‘graustarke.’ ”

In fact, it seems to me that the whole art of public speaking is no better than when I was a boy: in fact, it has got worse since the age of communications came into full swing. I get the feeling that political speakers are trying out for parts in future episodes of TV programs that will show' posterity what things were like way back in 1958.

The other day I sat listening to the owner of a fleet of dump trucks refer to some political manoeuvre with. “I know not that I am afraid. But I shall weep for my city.”

I nearly wept for him. It was obviously not the kind of thing he would really say, except in a speech about losing a gravel contract.

A few days later a political speaker from Pittsburgh said on a TV program, “But even this shall pass away, and in office I trust I shall still find support."

The habit of trying to get dramatic effects by saying things backward more interesting to me does not make it. Nor are gestures, such as making chopping motions with both hands, a substitute for the fire, wit, grace and substance of a real speech, especially when each phrase is pried out of a written manuscript. I’ve listened to all the speeches I want to hear that go:

“And it is imperative (the speaker glances down at his notes and looks up again) that we maintain the position (glances at notes) that has in the past (shakes wattles) fulfilled the purpose for which it was intended (smacks notes and takes a step forward, loses his place, studies his notes, presses his finger on the spot) and we feel (glances at notes) that we should bend every effort (glances at notes) in that direction to which we have been-—er—diverted by the events that have taken place in the past year (slaps notes, shakes wattles and glares at the audience, who, for some reason, cheer).”

In fact. I’ve had all 1 want to hear of speeches until we get over the belief that as long as a speaker delivers his talk in a strong clear voice, without fidgeting, he has something to say. ★