The Conversation Monthly
Growing Deep Roots for Speaking and Writing
“Child, to say the very thing you really mean, the whole of it, nothing more or less or other than what you really mean; that’s the whole art and joy of words.”
—C. S. Lewis, Till We Have Faces
(Leigh Bortins, The Conversation, 91)
According to a recent article in Forbes magazine, most college graduates will lack the number one ability employers look for—the art of delivering a presentation. This is surprising to me as we are living in a time with more access to tremendous resources and dynamic ideas than ever before. Maybe too much distraction is part of the problem.
I was thinking back to some of the truly great speakers and writers in history, people like Abraham Lincoln, Martin Luther King, and John F. Kennedy, wondering how they became truly great. Theodore Sorenson, speechwriter for President John F. Kennedy, attributed Lincoln’s great oratory abilities to his grasp of the heart of the matters he spoke about. In a discussion of Lincoln’s speeches, Sorenson shared:
And, finally, he had the root of the matter in him. The presidents greatest in speechcraft are almost all the greatest in statecraft also—because speeches are not just words. They present ideas, directions and values, and the best speeches are those that get those right. As Lincoln did (Smithsonian magazine, October 2008).
I think Sorenson nails it. Lincoln had the root of the matter in him, because he was rooted in what mattered. Reading through Leigh Bortins’ book The Conversation, I think the ability to speak and write well is the very heart of classical education. Our students practice the art of persuasive thinking, writing, and speaking weekly, while making connections in truth, beauty, and goodness. I am not claiming that Classical Conversations is perfect in every way, but I am saying I like the “roots” it presents.
If you have been following along with The Conversation Monthly series, we have been looking at the five canons of rhetoric and how they apply to any subject in the high school years. In this article, we will look at the chapters involving speaking and writing, Chapters Four and Five. If you want to look back in detail at how the five canons of rhetoric apply to other subjects as well, start with the article “Drawing Out the Wonder” here.
Speaking and Writing with The Five Canons of Rhetoric
Invention – What is the purpose and who is my audience?
Let’s return to our example of Lincoln. As I think about how he became rooted in the matter, I ponder how we can help our students collect a vast pot of ideas to draw from when coming up with what to write or say. I think it involves having lots of good content from which to draw ideas. My encouragement is to surround your student with the very best ideas possible. I like the expression, “people build their huts from the resources in their midst.” To connect that to homeschooling, our students will draw ideas from what surrounds them; help guide their well of ideas to include a vast array of quality resources, including conversations with family at home. In this way, when they need to write a paper or prepare a presentation, they will be able to answer the vital question: given my purpose and my audience, what should I say?
Arrangement – How should I organize my ideas?
Sometimes experience is the best teacher for arrangement. Recently my son had to present his ideas in a formal policy debate as part of Challenge I. He had not organized his ideas well ahead of time, but assured me he could “wing it.” When it came to the debate itself, he quickly became overwhelmed, off track, and nervous. His lack of organization was blazing for all to see. He came home determined that he would prepare better next time and it was a lesson no amount of nagging could ever have taught him. When considering the arrangement of a paper or a speech, invite your student to look at both sides of the issue, encourage them to practice discernment by sharing their best ideas, and help them to see that the best presentations demand a call to action.
Elocution – What style should I use?
History records that Abraham Lincoln was an even better speechwriter than orator. He used beautiful language and wrote in a way that deeply connected with his audience through common word choice and elegant tools of metaphor and storytelling. With all of the presidential candidate debates happening on television right now, this is a great time to evaluate which styles are the most persuasive with your students. What makes one candidate more believable, authentic, and connected with the audience? Invite your students to consider which style, tone, and language choices would have the greatest impact for their presentation.
Memory – How can I make this memorable?
Throughout our years in Classical Conversations, there has always been a component of memory work whether we have been in Foundations, Essentials, or Challenge. This year, my Challenge-aged student memorized portions of the Constitution and Declaration of Independence. Next semester, he will memorize a historic speech and present it without notes. I know all of this memory work over the years cannot help but become part of the fabric of the soul. I think about my own personal memory work of memorizing Scripture and how that has changed me. Encourage your students to weave their own prior learning and personal experiences into their writing and speaking. Invite them to consider ways to make their speech or paper so memorable that it stays with their audience long after it was spoken. Challenge them to create something lasting.
Delivery – How can I share my ideas for the greatest impact?
Lincoln’s “Gettysburg Address” is considered one of the greatest speeches of all time. One reason for its effectiveness and lasting appeal is its use of clear, simple language that all could understand. In addition, Lincoln appealed to the bigger visions for the country in concise terms that everyone could relate to personally. Some say the “Gettysburg Address” really succeeded because it was short. But the elegant combination of all of these factors is probably what made it a speech that we can point to as a masterpiece.
Interestingly, Lincoln was not known as a great orator. He was said to have a weak voice with a somber personal nature. Your students may be reassured by this fact, and they may benefit from a reminder that a gregarious personality can be a complement to but never a substitute for ideas.
When preparing speeches and papers, the best way to test them is by speaking them aloud. Encourage your students to practice reading their papers aloud, even if just to the dog. It is the best way to find grammatical mistakes and awkward sentences. Invite them to use the tools of eye contact, tone, pace, energy, and enunciation to make a powerful presentation. Remind them that some of the greatest speakers and writers of all time had imperfections, yet they were able to lead a country, start a revolution, and be used by God in amazing ways. Above all, like Lincoln, let the root of what matters take root in their hearts and minds.
Read Along in The Conversation
Read Chapter Four – Speech & Debate
Read Chapter Five – Writing
- What strategies do you use at home when working with your student on papers and speeches?
- Have a conversation with your student on how you might improve the paper/speech process. Spend more time listening than talking and see what ideas your student comes up with.
- How can you make the speech/paper writing process more joy-filled in your home school?
- What resources are readily available to draw from in the “big pot of ideas” in your home school? How you might enhance this area?
- Invite your student to think bigger in his speaking and writing. How can you challenge your student in an encouraging way to take her writing and speaking up one notch this season?