‘Crystal’s passion for his subject communicates quite brilliantly.’ – Stephen Fry on The Gift of the Gab
David Crystal is one of the world’s preeminent language specialists and the author of nearly 100 books on the subject. In this exclusive piece for the YaleBooks blog, he shares his insight on the myths surrounding eloquence, and shows that contrary to popular belief, it is a skill that anyone can learn.
by David Crystal, author of The Gift of the Gab
I am often asked, at conferences and parties, what I’m writing next, and when I tell my questioners it’s a book on eloquence, the usual reaction is: ‘I’m not eloquent’. I ask why they think that, and they then tell me, with considerable eloquence, exactly why they think they have a problem.
There’s a huge myth surrounding eloquence: it’s thought to be only for well-known figures talking at important public events. All books on the subject reinforce the myth, because they want to show the artistic heights that homo eloquens can reach. But if eloquence is the summit of a mountain, it’s a mountain that anyone can climb. The evidence comes from everyday conversation.
Several years ago I collected examples of conversations that had been recorded without the participants’ knowledge (they were told afterwards, of course, and their permission to use the recordings obtained). The speakers were all adult, male and female, of various ages, and widely different educational backgrounds, and the subject-matter was wide-ranging – stories about family holidays, driving incidents, superstitions…
Some spoke for two or three minutes without a break, their words punctuated only by the occasional supportive vocalizations of their listeners. Every one of them was conversationally eloquent. They were all natural story-tellers, displaying the kind of fluent variations in pace, pitch, rhythm, and tone of voice that are the foundation of eloquent delivery.
I doubt whether any of them would be comfortable at being described as homo eloquens, because most people have an image of eloquence that is of the most highly crafted variety. When asked, they deny that they are or could be eloquent. They say this sort of thing:
I don’t have a good speaking voice.
People won’t like my accent.
I’ve got nothing to say.
People won’t be interested in me.
I’m no Barack Obama [or some other well-known public figure].
I’m not sure where these notions come from. They all stem from imagination, not experience. Some people, indeed, may have had a bad speaking experience which put them off, but they are the exceptions. Most who have a negative self-image of their speaking skills have never actually tried them out in public.
‘In the end, eloquence comes down to two themes: preparation and rehearsal.’
‘I don’t have a good speaking voice?’ I used to play back to the speakers the recordings I’d made. They were invariably surprised about how fluent they were. They told each other dramatic stories, repeated a lengthy joke with great facility, and reported the whole of the previous night’s TV episode. If they can do this talking to one person, or two, without worrying about their fluency, then there’s the potential to do this to ten, or twenty, or two hundred. The issue is one of confidence rather than linguistic inadequacy.
‘People won’t like my accent?’ This factor isn’t as critical as it once was, thanks to a greater experience of regional accents on radio and television. In the days when only one accent was heard and respected in the media, the social pressure to use that accent on public occasions was considerable. Regional speech was considered uneducated and inferior. Times have changed. Many presenters now have identifiable regional voices, and local broadcasting stations routinely display the accents of their own communities.
‘I’ve got nothing to say? People won’t be interested in me?’ Everyone has got something to say – not just because we all have our own opinions about things, but because life experiences differ. Everyone has an interest they can talk about and on which they can offer a unique perspective. It might be baseball, knitting, gardening … or Shakespeare, the environment, climate change. Out there are people who will indeed be ‘interested in me’. The issue is one of opportunity to expound rather than lack of knowledge – though of course anything we like talking about can be enhanced by doing some library research.
‘I’m no Barack Obama?’ Comparisons with famous figures actually have a value, if they’re turned into a learning tool. It’s possible to learn a great deal from the eloquence techniques that others use. Winston Churchill, in the years before he became known for his oratory, read all the major speeches of the past and often visited the House of Commons to listen to the speakers. The outcome was not a copy of any of them, but a unique personal style. And as essayist Ralph Waldo Emerson reassuringly observed, ‘All the great speakers were bad speakers at first’.
In the end, eloquence comes down to two themes: preparation and rehearsal. It applies to all forms and levels of eloquence, whether the result of reading aloud, being assisted by notes and technology, or being apparently spontaneous. The ‘apparently’ is important. As Mark Twain remarked: ‘Impromptu speaking — that is a difficult thing. I used to begin about a week ahead, and write out my impromptu speech and get it by heart’. Oscar Wilde summed it up: ‘spontaneity is a meticulously prepared art’.
I believe that anyone with normal language skills has the gift of the gab – that is, they have a natural ability to achieve a level of effective and appreciated eloquence, once they devote time and energy to proper preparation and rehearsal. And the first step in that process is to understand, as my book’s subtitle says, ‘how eloquence works’.
David Crystal is an independent scholar with lifelong experience as a lecturer, public speaker, and broadcaster. He is honorary professor of linguistics, University of Bangor, and the author of more than one hundred books on phonetics, Shakespeare’s language, child language, and related topics. He lives in Holyhead, UK.