My Mother’s Attic Part 2: When the Rules Take Over

July 9, 2013 in Author, Dale Ludwig, Delivery, Myths Debunked, Presentation, Talent Development

Part 1, Part 3

As I mentioned in the first article on this topic, I stumbled upon an old elocution textbook among a pile of books that were about to be hauled away from my mother’s house. It was published in 1895, at the tail end of elocutionary movement’s popularity. While the movement began as a way to improve the delivery of lawyers and religious leaders, at this point it had evolved to focus on the performance of literary passages in schools.

My mother hated the classes she took in school because they required a very specific type of delivery, one based on following strict and, from her perspective and from ours, pretty silly rules. For example, there are rules for how shoulders should be used to express extreme joy or hate. Rules about communicating anger by clenching your fists. Elbows turned out indicates self-assertion. Here’s a passage describing how a performer should stand when “no particular emotion is expressed,” a sort of neutral position, I guess.

Stand with one foot a little in advance of the other with the weight of the body resting on the advanced foot, the left arm hanging easily at the side, and the right hand extended toward the audience, the first finger straight, and the others slightly curved, with the palm slightly exposed. (from The Ideal Orator and Manual of Elocution, John Wesley Hanson, Jr. and Lillian Woodward Gunckel, editors, pages 24 and 25)

As odd as all the rules in this book are, there’s something to be learned in the way they came about. The elocutionary movement began in the eighteenth century as a way to capture what was good about effective public speakers. The behaviors of great speakers were observed and these observations were turned into rules for everyone to follow.

The reason the original speakers were great was because there was a close connection between what they said and how they said it. As the rules developed, the natural connection between what and how was lost. All that remained were the rules, the shell of good delivery. That’s how in the early years of the twentieth century there were schoolchildren reciting poetry while worrying about whether their elbows were turned out or in.

The question we need to ask ourselves is how far have we really come from this approach? If we take away the archaic language of The Ideal Orator, and the fact that it focuses on the performance of literature, if we account for how the style of delivery has changed over the past century, aren’t we looking at a process still used in a lot of presentation skills training classrooms today?

How about when participants in our workshops ask us about the rules for gestures, where the “power position” is in the room, whether crossed arms are a bad thing, or how many seconds of eye contact are appropriate?

Aren’t they making the same assumptions made by the elocutionists? Aren’t they separating the what from the how?

In my next article, I’ll focus on the answers to these questions.

Part 1, Part 3

by Dale Ludwig, President & Founder of Turpin Communication and co-author of the upcoming book, “The Orderly Conversation”

My Mother’s Attic

June 24, 2013 in Author, Dale Ludwig, Delivery, Presentation, Talent Development

Part 2, Part 3

Several years ago, my mother was cleaning out her attic. She was very good at throwing things out, but always hesitated when it came to books. When I visited her during this cleaning phase, she directed me to the latest stack and told me to take what I wanted. Last chance, she would say, before they get tossed or donated.

Most of the books were of no interest to me, Reader’s Digest Condensed Books, for example, that always came to the house when I was growing up. Nestled among them, though, was what has come to be one of my prized possessions—The Ideal Orator and Manual of Elocution, edited by John Wesley Hanson, Jr. and Lillian Woodward Gunckel, published in 1895.

I couldn’t believe what I was holding. First, it looked truly amazing. The front is blue, embossed with the image of a young girl, and highlighted in black, pink, and gold. The back was embossed with the same image but set in deep red. There was a flyer advertising the book stuck in the back pages. It said, “Bound in best silk cloth, 522 pages, including 40 full-page illustrations, marbled edges, emblematic design on back and side in colors, only….$1.75.” Needless to say, they don’t print books like this anymore.

Beyond its appearance, the reason I was so amazed to have found this book was its topic. At the time I had just completed my graduate work, and one of the classes I had taken focused on the history of elocutionary movement. Believe it or not, it was a really fascinating class. This movement developed in England and America during the 18th and 19th centuries. Its goal was to improve the skills of public speakers—initially lawyers and religious leaders, eventually everyone.

The movement was incredibly popular, especially in the US, and eventually led to the teaching of elocution in public schools in the early decades of the 20th century. These classes provided, as the title page of the book says, “Valuable Instruction and Rules for the Cultivation of the Voice and the Use of Gestures.”

“Where did this book come from?” I asked.

“I don’t know where that book came from, but I remember elocution classes in grade school,” my mother said.

“You took elocution in grade school?” Not quite believing the connection between her education and mine.

“Yes, I hated it. We all hated it. It was awful,” she said.

I knew exactly what she meant.

In the next blog I’ll talk about why my mother hated elocution classes and what that has to do with your business presentations.

Part 2, Part 3

by Dale Ludwig, President & Founder of Turpin Communication and co-author of the upcoming book, “The Orderly Conversation”