Tuesday, February 16, 2010

Reading from a Manuscript

This method really deserves short shrift in a book on public speaking, for, delude yourself as you may, public reading is not public speaking. Yet there are so many who grasp this broken reed for support that we must here discuss the "read speech"—apologetic misnomer as it is.

Certainly there are occasions—among them, the opening of Congress, the presentation of a sore question before a deliberative body, or a historical commemoration—when it may seem not alone to the "orator" but to all those interested that the chief thing is to express certain thoughts in precise language—in language that must not be either misunderstood or misquoted. At such times oratory is unhappily elbowed to a back bench, the manuscript is solemnly withdrawn from the capacious inner pocket of the new frock coat, and everyone settles himself resignedly, with only a feeble flicker of hope that the so-called speech may not be as long as it is thick. The words may be golden, but the hearers' (?) eyes are prone to be leaden, and in about one instance out of a hundred does the perpetrator really deliver an impressive address. His excuse is his apology—he is not to be blamed, as a rule, for some one decreed that it would be dangerous to cut loose from manuscript moorings and take his audience with him on a really delightful sail.

One great trouble on such "great occasions" is that the essayist—for such he is—has been chosen not because of his speaking ability but because his grandfather fought in a certain battle, or his constituents sent him to Congress, or his gifts in some line of endeavor other than speaking have distinguished him.

As well choose a surgeon from his ability to play golf. To be sure, it always interests an audience to see a great man; because of his eminence they are likely to listen to his words with respect, perhaps with interest, even when droned from a manuscript. But how much more effective such a deliverance would be if the papers were cast aside!

Nowhere is the read-address so common as in the pulpit—the pulpit, that in these days least of all can afford to invite a handicap. Doubtless many clergymen prefer finish to fervor—let them choose: they are rarely men who sway the masses to acceptance of their message. What they gain in precision and elegance of language they lose in force.

There are just four motives that can move a man to read his address or sermon:

1. Laziness is the commonest. Enough said. Even Heaven cannot make a lazy man efficient.

2. A memory so defective that he really cannot speak without reading. Alas, he is not speaking when he is reading, so his dilemma is painful—and not to himself alone. But no man has a right to assume that his memory is utterly bad until he has buckled down to memory culture—and failed. A weak memory is oftener an excuse than a reason.

3. A genuine lack of time to do more than write the speech. There are such instances—but they do not occur every week! The disposition of your time allows more flexibility than you realize. Motive 3 too often harnesses up with Motive 1.

4. A conviction that the speech is too important to risk forsaking the manuscript. But, if it is vital that every word should be so precise, the style so polished, and the thoughts so logical, that the preacher must write the sermon entire, is not the message important enough to warrant extra effort in perfecting its delivery? It is an insult to a congregation and disrespectful to Almighty God to put the phrasing of a message above the message itself. To reach the hearts of the hearers the sermon must be delivered—it is only half delivered when the speaker cannot utter it with original fire and force, when he merely repeats words that were conceived hours or weeks before and hence are like champagne that has lost its fizz. The reading preacher's eyes are tied down to his manuscript; he cannot give the audience the benefit of his expression. How long would a play fill a theater if the actors held their cue-books in hand and read their parts? Imagine Patrick Henry reading his famous speech; Peter-the-Hermit, manuscript in hand, exhorting the crusaders; Napoleon, constantly looking at his papers, addressing the army at the Pyramids; or Jesus reading the Sermon on the Mount! These speakers were so full of their subjects, their general preparation had been so richly adequate, that there was no necessity for a manuscript, either to refer to or to serve as "an outward and visible sign" of their preparedness. No event was ever so dignified that it required an artificial attempt at speech making. Call an essay by its right name, but never call it a speech. Perhaps the most dignified of events is a supplication to the Creator. If you ever listened to the reading of an original prayer you must have felt its superficiality.

Regardless of what the theories may be about manuscript delivery, the fact remains that it does not work out with efficiency. Avoid it whenever at all possible.

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