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 indicate 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.