How to be a good public speaker

HINDSIGHT - F. Sionil Jose - The Philippine Star

Excuse me, but to write this week’s column, I am not passing myself off as an exemplary public speaker; but on so many occasions, I have been paid to lecture. In my lifetime, I’ve also listened to the most outstanding Filipino orators of our time, well enough to know what makes a good public speaker.

The election season has started, and much as we are used to the blather of politicians, we must suffer them as they preen for all of us to know them better. If we are to judge them now, there’s hardly anyone worth listening to, from Pacquiao with his simplistic pronouncements on one hand to the President with his boring rants on the other. Yes, Bongbong has said something worthwhile about what a candidate must be, and Mayor Isko likewise mapped out his best intentions. This is also the season for declaring noble, hortatory motives.

I haven’t heard them, but I know of two leaders who could speak for as long as six hours to huge audiences, and those audiences stay on with rapt attention – Sukarno of Indonesia and Fidel Castro of Cuba. They spoke in their native languages, too. Speaking in Tagalog and Ilokano, the late Ramon Magsaysay was also spell binding.

Let me now explain how a good public speaker does it, citing a bit of my own experience. The biggest audiences I addressed – each for not more than 15 minutes – were the commencement exercises at the Far Eastern University and De La Salle University. Both were at the Philippine International Convention Center, and both were full house – I think more than 5,000 people. I got an honorary Ph.D. in both.

In the late 1960s, I traveled the United States twice as a speaker in major American cities before committees of the Council of Foreign Relations. In each lecture at the very least, I had a hundred listeners. But my last lectures were at the Council’s headquarters in New York City. In each, I had only a dozen people, but what a dozen – the biggies of the Eastern establishment. It is for this reason why a speaker must always regard the importance of his audience – even if it’s only one.

And now, the grit. First, you must know your audience. Will they be sympathetic listeners? Will they be interested in your talk? What is in it for them? Why did they ask you to speak? If they paid to listen to you, you must not disappoint them. Whatever your subject, you must also know its peripheries; if on foreign affairs, defense – constants, you may be asked about these in the open forum.

Now you are ready to deliver. The moment of truth – you face your audience. Don’t succumb to stage fight. Just imagine all of them are naked and ridiculous. If you are reading a paper, practice first before a mirror, know when to pause, to inflect, so you don’t become boring with your monotone. Pronounce the words clearly. It’s the same if you extemporize. If you do, sometimes it helps to have a simple outline. Otherwise, simply memorize it. The late Alejandro Roces was a great raconteur, but he had only one speech for all occasions – his audiences didn’t seem to mind. If you are not speaking from a lectern, move around a bit on the stage, when necessary, gesture with your hands, your head. Sukarno was very good at this, and Quezon, too. The old news reels, Mussolini and Hitler, gesturing always.

In my lifetime, I have heard marvelous extemporaneous speeches starting with President Quezon, Carlos P. Romulo. Raul Manglapus, Jose Diokno, Ramon Magsaysay. And Max Soliven, he delivered our annual PEN lecture on Rizal without notes – bravura performance. They all knew their subjects very well. Quezon, educated in Spanish, delivered eloquent speeches on nationalism during the Commonwealth Day celebration on Nov. 15 each year at the Luneta.

Romulo has delivered so many speeches in the United States; he had a splendid repertoire of anecdotes and jokes on himself which revealed his vaulting self-confidence. It goes without saying that splendid public speakers are also egoists.

An excellent speech need not be long. One of the best speeches ever is Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address honoring the fallen soldiers during the American Civil War. I read it when I was in Grade Five, and I memorized it as did thousands all over the world – its ending a vibrant call to fight for freedom so that “this government of the people, by the people and for the people shall not perish from the earth.”

Similar speeches extolling liberty, civic virtue and heroism were recorded in the ancient world, in Imperial Greece and Rome – splendid orations of these great civilizations, recorded for posterity. The great Roman warriors were also great orators. This is what so many modern-day front-page personalities want to achieve, among them, Churchill, de Gaulle, MacArthur and his pompous pose and posture. So, the speaker ends – the conclusions clearly stated.

From the very start, it is important to establish immediate rapport with your audience. I start with an anecdote: at one of our PEN meetings, a middle-aged woman approached me and introduced herself as a literature teacher from the province. She said that she has all my books and that my descriptions of the rural countryside are better than Manuel Arguilla’s. Rizal’s themes of return and redemption are treated more eloquently in my novels and that if there’s any writer who had profoundly probed the Filipino soul – it was me. Then, she said that she was very sorry that she didn’t bring any copy for me to autograph, so that she can show her students that she had met the greatest living Filipino writer, Bienvenido N. Santos.

Accent on Mindanao

Meanwhile tremendous progress has been achieved in Mindanao in the last five years with a slew of infrastructure laid down. Perhaps, it is time for the government to consider the transfer of the capital to Bukidnon to decongest Manila and hasten Mindanao modernization. It has not been without problems – corruption, particularly in the autonomous Bangsamoro. It has been abetted by traditional clan differences and the outdated Datu system and traditional Moro indolence.

The giant Liguasan marsh in Cotabato offers possibilities for fish farms, if not oil exploration. Mindanao’s great agricultural possibilities continue to be realized with more irrigation systems and plantation possibilities. Mindanao, when fully developed, can provide food for the entire country with enough surplus for export.

Hopefully, all this will be realized in the next administration with just one caveat – keep ISIS away from Mindanao.

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