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“Beware, O, beware of manipulation and imitation!”

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Do not allow yourself to yield to the cheap whims of a fickle public with the "try to please" plan, to read as is taught in some of our otherwise good institutions in ten of twenty lessons through the pitiless path of manipulation or imitation and putting down in your selection where you should raise your hand, weep, cry, etc … When the student endeavors to follow these cookbook directions, the result to the thinking mind is not only disastrous, but disgusting. It brings disgrace and degradation upon one of the noblest arts that ought to ennoble. Beware, O, beware of manipulation and imitation!

Fifty five years ago, the Staley School of the Spoken Word located in Brookline, Mass. ceased operations. Its founder, Delbert Moyer Staley, published some thoughts and tips about public speaking in a 1914 book entitled Psychology of the Spoken Word (from which the above excerpt is taken). The book is available for free download via the kind folks at archive.org.

As the above quote suggests, Staley did not sugarcoat things for his students. His book makes no “you-can-master-this-in-just-15-minutes-a-day”-type promises. Instead, his curriculum involved plenty of hard work, including familiarization with various speaking techniques and figures of speech, exposure to a wide selection of poetry, prose, dramatic works, etc.—and stimulating his students’ ability to memorize.

Others will draw their own conclusions, of course, about what a nearly 100-year-old book has to tell speechwriters in 2012 (if anything). To me, the course of study in Psychology of the Spoken Word reminds us that the speeches with the greatest impact, whatever the context, are always predicated on the idea that they are intended to be heard rather than read. (Something that is not always easy to keep top of mind, at least for me!)

And if you think you’ve never heard of Staley before, you likely are familiar, even if indirectly, with at least one of his students. Many readers of this site already have, I would venture, a passing acquaintance with the great John Ford film The Last Hurrah (based on an even-better political novel of the same name by Edwin O’Connor).

The old-fashioned big-city mayor that dominates the film and the novel, Frank Skeffington, was allegedly based on James Michael Curley, a real-life long-time Mayor of Boston and stump speaker extraordinaire—and also a one-time student of Delbert Moyer Staley.

A former editorial writer for Canada's National Post, Neil Hrab made the transition from journalism to corporate communications and speech-writing in 2006. Since that time, he has written speeches for elected officials, political candidates and corporate leaders. Neil lives and works in Toronto.