David Bruce: Public Speaking Anecdotes


Patrick Henry

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On May 29, 1765, Patrick Henry made a famous speech against King George III of England. Mr. Henry was a major force in favor of American independence from Great Britain, and he orated, “Caesar had his Brutus! Charles the First his Cromwell! And George the Third ….” At this point, people yelled at Mr. Henry to be quiet. Brutus had assassinated Caesar, and Cromwell had helped bring about the death of Charles I. If Mr. Henry were to advocate the assassination of George III, he could be killed as a traitor to the crown. However, Mr. Henry ended his sentence by saying, “And George the Third may profit by their example.” In the sentence, he had not directly advocated the assassination of George the Third, yet an implicit threat was definitely present.

The Right Reverend Peter Mumford, Bishop of Truro, once spoke at an important luncheon attended by the Lord Mayor. He was told that the Lord Mayor had to leave promptly for a Royal engagement, and therefore he must not speak past 2:15 p.m. He began speaking at 2:05 p.m., but seemingly very quickly the toastmaster told him that he had to stop although the clock in the room said 2:07 p.m. He protested, “But you said I’d got until quarter past.” The toastmaster whispered back, “I know, but the clock stopped.”

On March 25, 1949, the Waldorf Conference to promote peaceful coexistence between the Soviet Union and the United States opened in New York City. Magazine editor Norman Cousins spoke, but he used his time to attack the Communist Party. After he had finished speaking, playwright Lillian Hellman went to the microphone and said, “I would recommend, Mr. Cousins, that when you are invited out to dinner, you wait until you get home before you talk about your hosts.”

Politicians are often slippery in their speech, avoiding taking controversial positions on controversial issues in order to appeal to as many voters as possible. Once, Texas Senator Tom Connally gave a speech in a rural area of Texas, avoiding any reference to anything controversial. After his speech, a member of the audience shouted, “How do you stand on the cotton issue?” Senator Connally hesitated, then said, “I’m OK on that one. Are there any other questions?”

Near the end of his life, Monty Python member Graham Chapman used to go to college campuses where he showed film clips of his work and lectured. (The author saw him when he appeared at Ohio University in Athens, Ohio.) He usually began his talk by asking his audience to hurl verbal abuse at him for ten seconds. Why? According to Mr. Chapman, “It would certainly save a lot of time later on.”

Rumi once started to give a lecture near a marsh, but the croaking of the frogs in the lake drowned out his voice. Therefore, Rumi spoke to the frogs in the marsh, saying, “What is all this noise about? Either be quiet, or give a lecture.” The frogs became silent, and they stayed silent until Rumi gave them permission to croak again.

Despite being very busy, theatrical director Tyrone Guthrie was very willing to give his time to others. His wife, Judy, once said that if the Timbuctoo Ladies Guild ever wanted him to give them a talk, Mr. Guthrie would write them: “Delighted! Can fit you in nicely on Thursday, on my way from Minneapolis to Belfast.”

Food writer Peg Bracken was lecturing about cooking with onions before a Michigan audience when a woman seated in the back called to her, “You shut your mouth.” This was unsettling — until she realized that the woman was merely trying to tell her that if she wanted to chop onions without her eyes tearing up, the solution was to chop the onions while keeping her mouth tightly closed.

Benjamin Franklin didn’t know much about French oratory, so at a social function he watched his friend, Madame de Bouffleurs, and he applauded whenever she seemed to say something that pleased her. Afterward, Mr. Franklin’s grandson told him, “You were applauding whenever they praised you — and much louder than anybody else.”

Congressman Proctor Knott was the final speaker of the day. Several speakers had preceded him, and members of the audience were starting to stand up and leave by the time he started speaking. Congressman Knott watched them leave and told them not to be embarrassed: “I don’t blame you for leaving. I’d go, too, only I’m the speaker.”

Maria Montessori, who developed a new system of teaching young children, used to lecture often about her discoveries; however, she never used notes. Following a lecture, a reporter wished to look at her notes, but she showed him that the pages she had been holding during her lecture were blank — she had used them only as props.

After becoming famous, Erma Bombeck was often asked to do more public speaking across the country than any one person could do. Being a humorist, she found a comic way to politely say no to many requests: “I can’t be gone more than two days because that’s all the underwear we have.”

General Alexander Smyth once made a very long political speech, during which he turned to Henry Clay and said, “You, Sir, speak for the present generation; but I speak for posterity.” Mr. Clay replied, “Yes, and you seem resolved to speak until the arrival of your audience.”

After Senator Claude Swanson had spoken at great length following a dinner, an old lady in the audience told him that he had missed several excellent opportunities. Senator Swanson asked, “To do what?” The old lady replied, “To quit speaking.”

An ambassador spoke for a long time before an assembly of Spartans, then asked what message he should report back to his people. The Spartans replied, “Tell them that we found it as hard to listen as you did to stop speaking.”

After Dame Rebecca West and Winston Churchill had listened to a long and dreary political speech together, she told him, “Now I can say with perfect truth that you and I have slept together.”


Copyright by Bruce D. Bruce; All Rights Reserved


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