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Learn Public Speaking Skills From Greatest Orator Ever Demosthenes
Demosthenes lived between 384 BC and 320 BC, during which time he was renowned in Ancient Greece as the greatest orator who ever uttered a word. However, he was definitely not a natural at public speaking, but that’s what makes his story even more inspiring.
He was born into a rich Greek family in 384 BC, but, despite the advantages that this provided, he could not cure his disabilities.
Demosthenes had a terrible speech defect. No one could understand what he said because of a paralyzing stutter. He was so famous, he was given the nickname “Batalus” which literally meant “bégayer”.
In addition to all this, at the age of seven his parents had died and he was left in the care of the guardians who proceeded to cast off his heir. At the age of 20, Demosthenes found himself with no way to support himself financially, a crippling speech impediment and absolutely alone in this world.
The only way to get his inheritance back was to go to court and sue his guardians. Athenian law stated that any citizen who wanted to impeach another had to speak for himself and represent himself in the Athenian court. Demosthenes knew that if he was to successfully pursue his heartless guards, he would need to improve his public speaking skills – for him it was life or death.
So, Demosthenes started training. Plutarch, an ancient historian, describes some of the methods Demosthenes used to improve his oratory skills.
Demosthenes found a cave deep underground, far from civilization and took with him enough food and drink for 3 months. As soon as he got into the cave, he shaved off half of his hair, so even if he wanted to leave, he couldn’t for fear of shame. So he stays in the cave for 3 months at a time, practicing speaking and breathing exercises.
One of these exercises involved filling the mouth with small pebbles and then reading aloud long complex scriptures. By doing this, he was forced to clearly pronounce and enunciate each word. This strengthened his tongue muscles, ensured that he stopped stuttering and began to control his speech.
Another key aspect of good public speaking is breathing. It’s easy to get out of breath and start rushing a speech. Demosthenes combated this by again filling his mouth with pebbles, but this time he ran across a beach shouting his speeches as he did so. This forced him to breathe through his nose and he was soon able to recite entire speeches while running out of breath.
Due to the lack of microphones at the time, speakers needed to have a loud and strong voice, a trait that Demosthenes definitely lacked. To improve this, he practiced his speeches in front of a mirror to make sure his mouth was wide open when he spoke and he breathed through his diaphragm.
After months of brutal preparation, Demosthenes filed a lawsuit against his guardians and a court date was set. Despite all his improvements, the first court appearance was a disaster and the audience laughed in court.
Demosthenes understood that it was not only how the speech was presented, the content of the speech was also important. So he went and learned to write logical and meaningful speeches by reading the speeches of other great orators.
When he returned to the court to baptize again against his guards, his rhetorical skills were blown, to such an extent that some prominent politicians present immediately hired him to write their speeches for them.
Demosthenes was raised from an inarticulate speaker to the greatest Greece had ever seen. If he can give a perfect speech then so can you.
Lessons learned from Demosthenes
You don’t have to retreat to an underground cave for 3 months, fill your mouth with pebbles, run around beaches like a madman or shave half your head to become a good speaker. It is very likely that your oratorical skills are quite good, they just need fine tuning.
- Speak really slowly. What you have to say is important and interesting, don’t be in a hurry. Also, it will give your message more weight. Imagine how a veteran judge renders a verdict, this is what you want to aim for.
- Time out. The power of pauses between sentences or even between them cannot be underestimated. This shows confidence as they know they will not be interrupted.
- Get ready. Although Demosthenes excelled at writing speeches, he still began preparing for speeches months before they were delivered. Every word was carefully chosen and every pause deliberate. Nothing was left to chance. It was said that he had an answer to all the remarks of his adversaries, that they did not have a keen mind for chance. Take time to prepare what you have to say and practice in front of a mirror. Body language is also important.
- Breathing is key. There’s a reason Demosthenes spent months working on breathing exercises like running up and down the beach with a mouth full of pebbles – breathing is key. You should aim to inhale and exhale through the mouth. Breathing through the mouth can make you sound breathless and anxious.
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