The Story of Demosthenes, Master of Oratory
The Story of Demosthenes, Master of Oratory
In the fourth century BC, a giant was born among Athenian orators. When he spoke, it’s said his words struck listeners like the blazing thunderbolts of Zeus. And his name was… The Anus.
Or rather, as a youth, the other children called him this, Batalus in Greek, because of his speech impediment, as Batalus could also mean “The Stammerer”. His rivals continued to taunt him with that rude nickname for the rest of his life. However, there’s an inspirational story about how he overcame his vocal problems through the most rigorous, focused, and determined training. His real name was Demosthenes, and he was later described by Cicero as the one true master of the whole art of oratory.
Demosthenes’ father, who owned a huge workshop manufacturing swords, would be a multi-millionaire by today’s standards. However, both his parents were killed in an accident, when he was aged seven, leaving Demosthenes an orphan. Three legal guardians took control of his vast fortune.
When Demosthenes turned eighteen, and came of age, he discovered they’d stolen his inheritance. He knew he’d have to face them in court and that would require delivering powerful speeches in support of his case. So he began studying rhetoric, the art of speechwriting, and generally using language more effectively.
He devoured the finest speeches of the greatest orators. Whenever he heard someone speak, he’d try to rewrite their words and improve their arguments. However, he was very anxious and unskilled as a speaker. He did stammer, had problems pronouncing the letter r, and his voice was weak and indistinct.
Demosthenes first tried speaking publicly at the Athenian Assembly, before over six thousand clamouring citizens, a forum anyone could address about political matters. However, it didn’t go well. He spoke awkwardly, using long-winded and complicated arguments, which irritated his audience. His feeble voice dissolved in the hubbub; someone yelled at him to shut up and go home.
Afterwards, he wandered alone by the harbour, hiding his face behind his cloak in shame and despair. However, a friendly old man approached Demosthenes and complimented him, saying that the sophisticated style of his arguments reminded him of the great Athenian statesman Pericles. Nevertheless, he was throwing this talent away because of his poor delivery.
So Demosthenes tried to speak more confidently. Again, though, the Assembly jeered him and he left feeling depressed. This time an actor called Satyrus followed him out and reassured him. Demosthenes complained that despite his best efforts, the crowd were not impressed, and yet they lapped up other speakers who were often coming out with some pretty half-baked ideas.
The actor said, “Pick a speech from one of the classic tragedies and read it to me; I’ll show you a remedy for all your problems.” So he did and then Satyrus took the speech from him and read it back to him, as an actor would, using his facial expression, voice and body language, to convey emotion. In that instant, Demosthenes had an awakening. His speeches started to come alive!
For two long years, he trained himself to improve his delivery. He built an underground chamber. Every single day, for two or three months at a time, he would go down into it and practice. To force himself to focus on his training, he even shaved off one side of his hair so he’d be too embarrassed to go out in public. Instead, he stood in front of a large mirror, patiently reciting entire speeches and studying his own delivery. He started using physical gestures to emphasise certain words, as a way to drive home his ideas and compensate for his weak voice.
He also started using some unusual physical exercises. He trained himself to overcome his speech impediment and improve the clarity of his enunciation by reciting speeches with pebbles in his mouth. He strengthened his voice by reciting long speeches while out of breath, running or walking up steep hills. To practice being heard over the clamour of the Assembly, he’d stand on the beach amidst storms, yelling out speeches over the crashing waves.
He started tailoring the style of his speech to suit different audiences. He kept his language plain and only used a more elegant or formal style very sparingly. He arranged his arguments to make them easier for his audience to understand but not so simple that they appeared patronising. He thought it was important to strike a balance between simplicity and elegance. He used deliberate repetition to emphasise key ideas and stamp them on the memory of his audience. He also varied his vocal speed to make his delivery more interesting and added… suspenseful pauses.
After two years of training, Demosthenes finally sued his guardians. He fought them in court for five years and eventually won his case. Although the court awarded his inheritance back to him, he recovered only a small amount of money as his trustees had already squandered the rest. Nevertheless, through his trials, he had gained something far more valuable: he found his voice as a public speaker and all of Athens knew his name. So he now pursued a glittering career as a legal advocate and speechwriter.
Later, aged about thirty, he started giving very passionate speeches about Athenian politics, arguing that they should form alliances to defend themselves against the threat of Macedonian invasion. When others finished speaking the Athenians would say “How well he spoke!”, but when Demosthenes concluded they cried “Let’s march to battle!” These speeches were so patriotic and inspiring that they catapulted Demosthenes to fame and guaranteed his place among the pantheon of history’s greatest orators.
So, in conclusion, Demosthenes’ story proves that even a naturally dismal “anus” of a speaker can rise to stardom with motivation and the right training. Indeed, later in his life, when he had become a teacher of oratory himself, someone asked him what the three most important things are when learning to speak in public. His answer? Practice, practice, practice!