[From THE THEOSOPHICAL FORUM, March 1938, pages 192-196.]
Thoughts on Public Speaking
by Boris de Zirkoff
Many students of Theosophy experience something akin to a psychological and mental 'shrinkage' when asked to give a little talk to a group of people. When confronted with the proposition of actually addressing an audience at a public meeting, their psychological state becomes similar to the one graphically described by a Slavonian proverb, according to which the 'soul' of the party in question takes refuge in his heels -- whatever may be the process by which this is accomplished! Others, with a certain amount of what they term 'courage,' go through the 'trial' of facing an audience, brave the tribulation of hearing their own voices, and, in general, 'stick it out' to the bitter end -- and then are surprised to find out that the audience was not particularly interested in what they had to say, or felt the meeting to be too long. Cool reasoning would suggest that the above-mentioned attitude is a sheer waste of energy, a waste of time, and a waste of fun. It is all a matter of outlook, rather of change of outlook, and public speaking can become not only easy but actually a pleasure, a relaxation, and a source of inner satisfaction at having shared, however little, some noble thoughts with one's fellow men. No one can do it for you; you have to do yourself; although a few suggestions from others might be of some help.
The first thing to establish seems to be this: What are you actually going to do when called upon to speak? Are you going to speak in order to share some beautiful thoughts with others, to whom these thoughts may not be familiar as yet, or are you going to gather together any kind of idea that might be around, in the realm of your mind, so as to fill the time allotted to you? Are you going to think, while speaking, of the often unvoiced hunger of the audience for a little help in life, or are you going to express to your listeners, irrespective of circumstances, some idea or ideas that happen to be paramount in your own mind, that mean to you a great deal, but may mean nothing at all to your listeners? Are you going to show them how well you can build a sentence and how beautifully you can deliver it, or are you going to use simple language, everyday words, in order to give utterance to a few simple, everyday truths? Are you going to speak on a subject which tasks the imagination of the highest minds, places under stress the mental capacities of the most learned ones, and takes everybody right out of all daily concerns or practical relation to life, or are you going to speak to your listeners about issues which are a LIVING REALITY within your own self, about problems which vibrate with life in your own mind and heart, and are in sympathetic accord or touch with the yearnings and unsatisfied longings of others? Are you going to think of the impression your personality might produce upon the audience, and spend energy and time trying to appear 'impersonal,' and 'natural,' meanwhile being as awkward as anyone can be, or are you going to search somewhere in your audience for a pair of intelligent eyes, wherein can be sensed a keen expectation of receiving an answer to some unvoiced question? Are you going to speak from your brain-mind and anxiously watch the timepiece lest it runs too fast and some of the many quotations you have brought along with you remain unread, or are you going to forget all about any set program and give a few definite, helpful ideas, which will 'stick' and be remembered by those present, because they are universal in their appeal and simple to understand? Are you going to try to cram into the allotted time as many facts, arguments, ideas, thoughts, statements and proofs, as you possibly can do, speaking 'a mile a minute' so as to be able to cover all the ground you had in mind to cover, or are you going to bring to the attention of your listeners one, two, or three thoughts, at the utmost, repeating them over and over again, in different language each time, thus bringing these few well-chosen thoughts or teachings home to everyone who listens?
When you do find yourself on the public platform or anywhere else, facing an audience, never look at the front row or any of the rows close by; look toward the farther end of the hall most of the time, particularly if you are a beginner in public speaking. This will help your thought to fill the hall, to permeate it with its message; you will include in it, encompass in it, the whole of the audience, instead of being crowded out yourself by the magnetism of eyes looking at you from everywhere. Choose, as subject, a teaching or a thought which you KNOW the truth of, which you have embodied in your own being, which nothing can take away from you, which no amount of argument will ever shake, and which therefore will radiate from your whole being, while you speak of it to others. Against such a background, you can project, as it were, other teachings which you know only in an intellectual way. To illustrate: the Oneness of all Life can be expressed in simple, eloquent language, as an integral part of your being, as the basis of your own life; and against this REALITY you can project some of the teachings regarding the Doctrine of the Spheres, or the Circulations of the Cosmos. If you start with the latter ones, you will be, more often than not, repeating what you have read in books.
By all means, do not take yourself too seriously. Do not think for a moment that you are 'saving' souls from 'hell,' or helping to place the Theosophical Movement on its feet once again, or are representing the Masters themselves on the greatest and most spiritual platform of public speaking that was ever erected in the Occident. Let no one in the audience imagine for a single instant that the Theosophical Society is made up of people who are in any way different from the rest of humanity, that before it was started in the West no one knew anything about spiritual teachings anywhere in the world, and that 'Dark Ages' prevailed all over the globe before H.P. Blavatsky came to America and wrote ISIS UNVEILED, nor that the only work which imbodies a lofty ethical standard is THE VOICE OF THE SILENCE or other Theosophical books. And above everything else, when you have made your audience think a little, make it also smile a little, by making some timely and harmless joke, either about some idea, or about yourself, as a speaker. This will help them to remember (if they had a chance to forget it) that you are just as much a human being as they are themselves.
Do not speak in a monotone, nor in a chantlike manner, nor like a bubbling rivulet, nor as if you were on the verge of ecstasy, nor with rhetorical grandeur, nor with mile-long technical terms which only confuse the meaning of what you intended to say, nor so loud as to shatter people's nerves (already heavily strained by the probable stuffiness of the hall, or the impossible shape of the chairs), nor again so low as to be heard exclusively by those in the front row. Do not use the language of law-courts, nor make anyone believe you are prosecuting him for his remarks, or court martial him for his question, or flay him alive for being 'unorthodox,' or seem to try to make him apologize for having come to attend the meeting, or perchance reprimand him for being alive at all.
If you have gone to the platform with a sincere desire to serve your fellow men to the best of your knowledge, to bring them light, to give them encouragement and a new strength, from out of the little light and courage that you yourself have found in Theosophy through the years; if you have started speaking about teachings which, like those of karma and reincarnation, are basic, fundamental, vital, living, real, and truly helpful, and have done so because you know what these teachings have done in your own life; if you have used simple English, or simple Swedish, or simple French, or simple anything, and have made your audience feel that you are an integral part of itself, one of them, their brother and friend, not their tutor or disciplinarian; if you have made your points amply clear to everybody by expressing them in varying language over and over again; if you have added here and there some real humor and made everybody feel at home with you -- the chances are overwhelming that you will have felt calm and composed yourself, happy to be doing it, encouraged and strengthened inwardly as a result of it, and that the audience will have departed with a keen feeling that it was 'a heck of a good meeting' and that it was too short.