Monday, August 31, 2009

Demosthenes Had the Right Stuff

Getting really good at presenting your ideas in public can open doors for you. Let me give you an example. A guy named Demosthenes lived in the fourth century BC in Athens (a long time ago, before the Beatles, so to speak). Demosthenes was doubtlessly bright (maybe Athens U), but not necessarily a genius (MIT, Yale, or Stanford). In fact, he was an orphan waiting until he came of age to collect his sizeable inheritance (about half a million in today’s dollars). Unfortunately, the guardians of his estate had partied away all his money before he grew up. That didn’t seem quite right, so Demosthenes took them to court. Even though he was only twenty years old, and not trained in the law, Demosthenes made his own appeal to the jury (with a little help). He got back only a fraction of his inheritance, but in the process he tasted success. He knew the feeling of bringing other people around to see his point of view. He liked that feeling.

If it weren’t for a congenital speech impediment, Demosthenes might have gone into law or politics big time. But, it was a little distracting that every time he spoke in public people would snicker because he sounded like a rube. Being a lad with a modicum of self-respect, Demosthenes decided to do something about it. First, he took part of his inheritance and hired himself a speech teacher (one of the best). Secondly, he started practicing. To improve his breath control and volume, Demosthenes stood on the beach and spoke loudly enough to be heard above the roar of the surf. To improve his diction, he filled his mouth with stones and strove for clear enunciation.

As Demosthenes improved in skill and confidence he went after the men who cheated him, and others like them (a little revenge motive really adds to the drama here). First he became a speechwriter specializing in opening and closing statements for attorneys. It was a good business and he was good at it. Made some money. Then he moved into the public policy arena (a euphemism for politics). Over his lifetime, Demosthenes moved to the top of the heap. He was the most cogent voice in preserving Athens from Philip of Macedonia and his notorious son, Alexander the Great.

All of this good fortune came his way because Demosthenes took his public speaking instruction seriously (had to tip my hand sooner or later). What became of Demosthenes? In 322 BC, he had been so successful in his opposition to the Macedonians that Antipater (the regent for the baby King Alexander IV) put out a contract on Demosthenes. Rather than submit to imprisonment and ignominious death, Demosthenes poisoned himself. The story ends tragically, but that is irrelevant to our discussion here.

Learning Activity

Write a personal goal in your public speaking journal. Where do you really want to go? How can developing world-class presentation skills help you to get there?

For example: Keep the Macedonians out of Athens and toast the victory with a shot of strychnine.

© Frank Richardson, 2009.


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