Reference > Fiction > Nonfiction > Warner, et al., eds. > The Library

C.D. Warner, et al., comp.  The Library of the World’s Best Literature.
An Anthology in Thirty Volumes.  1917.
How a Lecture is Prepared
By Francisque Sarcey (1827–1899)
From ‘Recollections of Middle Life’

WHEN you have taken all your notes, when you have possessed yourselves of at least the substance of all the ideas of which the lecture is to be composed,—whether you have them already arranged in fine order, or in the mass, still confused, seething in your mind; when you have reached the moment of preparation, when you no longer seek anything but the turn to give them, the clearest, the most vivid and picturesque manner in which to express them: when you are so far,—mind, my friend, never commit the imprudence of seating yourself at your desk, your notes or your book under your eyes, a pen in your hand. If you live in the country, you doubtless have a bit of a garden at your disposal; and in default of an alley of trees belonging to you, a turn around the town where no one passes. If you are a Parisian, you have in the neighborhood either the Luxembourg or the Tuileries, or the Parc Monceau, or in any case some wide and solitary street where you can dream in the open air without too much interruption. If you have nothing of all this, or if the weather be execrable, you have in your house a room larger than the others: get up and walk. A lecture is never prepared except while walking. The movement of the body lashes the blood and aids the movement of the mind.  1
  You have possessed your memory of the themes from the development of which the lecture must be formed: pick out one from the pile,—the first at hand, or the one you have most at heart, which for the moment attracts you most, and act as if you were before the public; improvise upon it. Yes, force yourself to improvise. Do not trouble yourself about badly constructed phrases, nor inappropriate words—go your way. Push on to the end of the development, and the end once reached, recommence the same exercise; recommence it three times, four times, ten times, without tiring. You will have some trouble at first; the development will be short and meagre: little by little around the principal theme there will group themselves accessory ideas or convincing facts, or pat anecdotes that will extend and enrich it. Do not stop in this work until you notice that in thus taking up the same theme you fall into the same development; and that this development, with its turns of language and order of phrases, fixes itself in your memory.  2
  For, what is the purpose of the exercise that I recommend to you? To prepare for you a wide and fertile field of terms and phrases upon the subject that you are to treat. You have the idea: you must seek the expression. You fear that words and forms of phrase will fail you. A considerable number must be accumulated in advance; it is a store of ammunition with which you provide yourself for the great day. If you commit the imprudence of charging your memory with a single development which must be definitive, you will fall into all the inconveniences that I have brought to your attention: the effect is that of reciting a lesson, and that is chilling; the memory may fail, you lose the thread, and are pulled up short; the phrase has no longer that air of negligence which improvisation alone gives, and which charms the crowd. But you have prepared a half-dozen developments of the same idea without fixing them either in your memory or upon paper; you come before the audience. The mind that day, if good fortune wills that you be in train, is more alert, keener; the necessity of being ready at call communicates to it a lucidity and ardor of which you would not have believed yourself capable. It draws from that mass of words and phrases accumulated beforehand, or rather that mass itself is set in motion and runs toward it and carries it along; it follows the flood; it has the appearance of improvising what it recites, and in fact it is improvising even while reciting.  3
  This is not a new method that I am inventing. The ancients, alas! have worn the matter threadbare, and one must always go back to the ‘De Oratore’ of the late Cicero. You have, I imagine, heard it told that Thiers, when he had an important speech to make in the Chamber, first tried the effect of his arguments upon his friends and guests. He received much company, and every evening he improvised, for a little circle of auditors, some parts of his future speech. Visitors succeeded one another; and he recommenced without weariness, and indeed without wearying them, the same developments. He was firing at a target. After all, isn’t this the same kind of preparation that I have recommended to you? You are not M. Thiers, you have not at hand a series of listeners, who relieve one another to give you a chance. I would not advise you to inflict the suffering of these recommencements and hesitations upon your unfortunate wife. Improvise for yourself, as if you were speaking before an audience.  4
  It will doubtless happen more than once, in the course of these successive improvisations, that you will hit upon a picturesque word, a witty thrust, a happy phrase. Beware of storing it in your memory, and on your return sticking it on paper like a butterfly fastened on a blank sheet with a pin. If you bring it to the lecture you will certainly wish to place it; and instead of abandoning yourself to improvisation in the development of your idea, you will be wholly occupied with directing it toward the ingenious or brilliant sally that you have stored away. You will appear embarrassed and awkward in spite of yourself, and three quarters of the time you will spoil the effect upon which you counted. You will have sacrificed the thought to a mot, and the mot will miss fire.  5
  That mot,—heavens! perhaps it will not be lost, though you have taken pains to forget it. Who knows? Perhaps on some great day, in the flow of improvisation, it will mount to the surface, and you will see it suddenly spring up in the eddy of a phrase. Oh, then throw it in boldly: it will be more attractive from having the air of a “find,” a bit of good luck.  6
  The great principle to which we must always return is that every lecture must be improvised; but have a care! one does not improvise successfully before the public until one has twenty times improvised in solitude, as one can only draw from a fountain the water that one has taken care to put into it beforehand.  7
  Many believe that at least the exordium and the peroration may be learned by heart. It is not my opinion. I have tried it. I have never succeeded by that means. The most that I would admit is, that in speaking before a new public, if one has first to address to it some of the phrases of courtesy and thanks demanded by custom, one may fix the expressions; because they are pure formulas of politeness, and it is better to know them by heart. It would be ridiculous to stumble in the phrase used to congratulate a person on his good health or felicitate him upon his marriage.  8
  But every time that you have true ideas to express,—and they enter into the exordium and the peroration as well as into the rest,—you must improvise. For the audience is always warned, by a change of tone or manner, of the moment when the author passes from recitation to pure improvisation, and it begins to be distrustful; it constantly wonders if the improvisation may not simply be an uncertain recitation; it loses confidence and resists. You see! there is no real success to be had—I cannot too often repeat it—unless the audience feels itself in some sort plunged, completely bathed, in the deep and rapid flow of improvisation.  9
  Even the peroration—and between ourselves, is there any need in the lecture of what is called a peroration? The peroration is the bellow of the mediocre actor upon the last verse of the tirade. Great artists disdain the applause that it arouses. What do you undertake to do when you speak? You wish to explain and prove an idea. Well, when your demonstration is finished, you put a period to it: that is the peroration. The worth of a lecture is not in the ingenuity of an exordium, in the brilliant fanfare of a peroration, in the number and splendor of the lustrously cut phrases sown through the discourse: it is in the ensemble of its mass. Be sure that when you have faithfully explained, developed, and revealed your idea; when you have, with or without applause, impressed it upon the mind of your audience,—there is no success comparable to that.  10
  Applause! flee from it as from the plague. An audience that applauds is an audience that is given leisure from listening. When it claps its hands, it’s a sign that it is no longer bound to the idea that you express; that it is no longer carried away, rolled in the torrent of your discourse. It takes time to cry out at a pretty phrase, to go into ecstasy over a flash of wit;—bad business for you! for it forgets, while lingering to applaud this, that which is the foundation of the lecture, the succession of ideas and reasoning; you will have trouble in recapturing it again.  11
  I am so persuaded of this truth that I never leave my listeners leisure to breathe. Of course it has happened to me, as to my fellows, to touch here and there a corner of my discourse with a more brilliant vivacity than usual, and to be conscious of it; one is always conscious of that sort of thing. In such a case I hardly launched the last word of the development before setting out again at full speed for another series of ideas, cutting short all tendency to applause. The confidence felt in an orator evaporates in these bravos.  12
  “Le vrai feu d’artifice est d’être magnanime,” 1 said M. Belmontet once upon a time, in a verse still celebrated. The only applause that counts, the only true applause, is the attention of the audience, letting itself be so won by what you say that it no longer thinks of the way in which you have said it.  13
  You will doubtless be somewhat alarmed to know that it is necessary to improvise a dozen times, and often more, each of the subjects for development of which a lecture is composed. You think to yourself that that is a tremendous task. Yes, my friends, there is nothing so long and so preoccupying as the preparation of a lecture; you must make up your mind to it, if you expect to follow that career. You will spend much time and pains on it. Reassure yourselves, however: the work will become easier and more rapid as the habit of doing it grows with you. Among these themes of development, as each lecturer approaches only the subjects which relate to his studies and are within his range, some will often present themselves anew, and will only require a summary preparation.  14
  This humus of which I just now spoke to you—this prepared heap of turns of speech, of exact and picturesque words—will naturally grow richer; you will have it right at hand, and it will serve the occasion without fresh effort.  15
  There will come a time when, even with themes that are new to you, you will no longer need, in order to establish the development, ten or twelve successive improvisations. You will be astonished to find with what facility, all at once, accessory ideas and convincing facts will spring from the first improvisation, and arrange themselves about the principal idea to sustain and clear it. It will always be delicate work, but it will no longer be so painful or so distressing. In a few hours, spread over two or three days, you will get through the preparation of a lecture; on condition, be it understood,—it is a prime condition,—of fully possessing your subject.  16
  You have improvised—picking them out one after the other just as they came—each of the themes, so that it only remains to put them in their place on the day of the final improvisation. One of the great anxieties of a novice in lecturing is to know how to pass from one theme to another; what Boileau called the labor of transition, which used to give us blue terror in college. Permit me to give you, just here, an axiom which I only succeeded in formulating after much reflection and many attempts: In lecturing there is no transition.  17
  When you have finished one development you enter upon another; as at dinner, when you have eaten the soup you pass to the entrée, and then to the roast. If there is no connection between two ideas that succeed one another in your discourse, what use is there in an imitation of one? When you speak, distrust little strokes of finesse, tricks of style, bits of false elegance: all this is worth nothing and serves no purpose. When you have finished the explanation and the demonstration of the idea, say honestly, if you must say something, “We have done with that theme: let us pass to the next.”  18
  But the best way would be to say nothing at all, and to enter upon another order of development, with no warning but a short silence.  19
  If, on the contrary, there is a connection between the two themes, do not disturb yourself,—you do not need expressly to mark it. It is useless to take the trouble to throw a bridge between the two ideas: the moment that you, the orator, leap from one to the other, the audience must leap after you, borne on by the same impulse. The transition is no more than the movement of your thought, that the audience necessarily follows if you keep a firm hand upon it.  20
  Ah, bless me! you, the lecturer, must have always present to your mind, even through any digression you permit yourself, your principal idea, and must not let your audience forget it; you will have no trouble in leading them back when you yourself return. And if by chance you are so far removed from it that you do not know what road to take to reach it again, the simplest way is frankly to announce your embarrassment. “It seems to me that we are straying—where was I? Ah! I wished to demonstrate to you that—” and there is the thread picked up, without great art, I confess: but I have remarked that the public likes very well to have you make a confidant of it; speak to it with open heart; if need be, ask counsel from it. It would not do to make an artifice, a trick, of this means of exciting interest and sympathy: the public is very sharp; it would easily see that you played upon its credulity, and would range itself against you. But if you have truly lost the thread, do not fear to say frankly, “I do not know where I am—put me on the right track.” If a word escapes you, ask some one to prompt you. They probably will not do so; but you will have had time to find it while they search for it, or an excuse for not having found it any sooner than the others. This excuse would not be permitted to a man who recites, for it would pass for a failure in memory; and to be brought up by a defeat of memory is the worst that can happen in lecturing, as in the theatre and in the pulpit. Laughter breaks forth invincibly. It never offends in an orator who improvises; it may even please by a certain air of sincerity and good-fellowship.  21
  Is there a special tone and style for the lecture, as there is for academic discussions,—for the pulpit, for the Sorbonne, for the bar? That is a point to be looked into.  22
  What is a lecture? It is, properly, to hold a conversation with many hundreds of persons, who listen without interrupting. It may be said, in general, that the tone of the lecture should be that of a chat. But there it is,—there are as many tones for chatting as there are people who chat. Each one talks according to his temperament, his cast of mind, his turn of thought; each talks as he is: and that which is pleasing in a chat is precisely the discovery in it of the physiognomy of the talker. I can give you only one piece of advice on this point: try to be, through art, when once seated in the lecturer’s chair, that which you naturally are in your drawing-room, when you talk with five or six persons and when you engross the conversation. Hear yourself speak, observe yourself,—these introspections are become very easy to us, thanks to the habit that we have contracted of analyzing ourselves,—and bend all your efforts to producing a lecture, not according to your neighbor, who perhaps speaks better than you, but yourself, only yourself, accentuating if possible the rendering of your principal traits. I will condense my counsels in this formula, which is not so humorous as it seems: It is permitted you, it is even recommended to you, to have a “make-up” for the lecture; but the “make-up” must be your own.  23
  Your entire personality must shine forth in your discourse. And that is the especial service rendered by this method of successive improvisations that I have just prescribed for you. While you are thus improvising alone, face to face with yourself, without any witness to inspire you with a desire to pose, you are free; you unconsciously set your entire being in full swing. The mold is taken; you spread your personality before the public; you are no longer a more or less eloquent, more or less affected orator,—you are a man; you are yourself.  24
  To be one’s self: that is the essential thing.  25
  Among the young lecturers discovered in these later times, there is not one who has more quickly acquired a greater or more legitimate reputation than M. Brunetière. Nevertheless there is not one further removed in speaking from the ordinary tone of familiar conversation. It would seem that the lecture, as he practices it, would hardly come within the definition we have given of the species,—a conversation with an audience that holds its tongue. But what would you have? That is the way that Brunetière talks, and he talks as he is. He is a man of doctrine, who loves to dogmatize; he feels an invincible need of demonstrating that which he advances, and to force conviction on those who hear him. He manœuvres his battalions of arguments with a precision of logic and an ardor of temperament that are marvelous. The phrases fall from his authoritative lips with an amplitude, correctness, and force to which everything bends. He is to be found entire in his lecture: the lecture is excellent, then, because it is of him; or rather, because it is he.  26
  Old Boileau had already expressed these truths in some verses that are not among his best known:—
  “Chacun pris dans son air est agréable en soi;
Ce n’est que l’air d’autrui qui peut déplaire en moi.” 2
  If I should try to talk like Brunetière, I should be execrable: it is possible, on the other hand, that if Brunetière tried to appropriate some of my methods he would not succeed; because, to tell the truth, my air of good-fellowship, my familiarities of language, my jovial anecdotes interspersed with frank laughter, my unpolished and torrent-like phrases, are not methods, they are all of a piece with myself; it is all I—a little more I perhaps than I ordinarily am, but Brunetière is also probably a little more himself in his lecture than in his chimney-corner at home.  28
  May I be permitted to end these reflections on the art of the lecturer with some practical advice?  29
  Never dine before the lecture hour. A soup, some biscuits dipped in Bordeaux, nothing more. If you fear gnawing at the stomach, add a slice of roast beef, but without bread. Do not fill the stomach. There is a rage in the provinces for inviting you to a gala dinner when you have a lecture to give. It’s the worst of all preludes. It is in vain to try to restrain yourself. You eat and you drink too much; you arrive at the lecture hall chatting with the dinner company. You have infinite trouble in recovering yourself.  30
  Dine lightly and alone an hour beforehand; stretch yourself for half an hour on a sofa, and take a good nap. Then go, entirely alone, to where you are expected, improvising, reimprovising, pondering upon your exordium, so that when the curtain rises you are in perfect working order; you are in form. I do not know how the political orators manage to deliver their long discourses after gala banquets. It is true that they generally do not dine. I have seen some who all during the repast abstractedly roll balls of bread under their fingers, and only respond vaguely with insignificant monosyllables to the tiresome talk of their neighbors.  31
  Speak standing: one commands a fuller and stronger voice, but especially the audience is dominated; you hold it with your eye. Speak from behind a table, even though (according to the rules that I have laid down) you have no notes to read, no quotation to make, book in hand. One is sustained by the table, and brought around to the conversational tone. If one has before him the wide space of the platform, in proportion as one warms up he makes more motions, he surprises himself striding across the stage; the voice rises, and is soon no longer in harmony with the level of the things that are to be delivered. Beware of these balks. Watch the play of your physiognomy and your gestures, but not too much. I leave mine to the grace of God; what is natural, even though it be exuberant and trivial, is worth more than a factitious and studied correctness.  32
  Have I other recommendations to make? No, I truly believe that I am at the end of my list. All the rest can be put into one sentence: “Be yourself.” It is understood, is it not, that it is necessary first to be some one? You now know the processes which I have used, which I still use.  33
Note 1. “True brilliancy comes from greatness of spirit.” [back]
Note 2.
  “Every one taken in his own manner is pleasing in himself;
It is only another’s manner that is displeasing in me.”    [back]

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