Learn public speaking skills from the greatest speaker of all time, Demosthenes

Demóstenes lived between 384 a. C. and 320 a. C., during this time he was known in ancient Greece as the greatest orator who ever uttered a word. However, he was definitely not a natural at public speaking, but that’s what makes his story even more inspiring.

He was born into a wealthy Greek family in 384 BC. C., but despite the advantages that this provided him, he could not cure his disabilities.

Demosthenes had a terrible speech impediment. No one could understand what he said due to a crippling stutter. It was so remarkable that he was given the nickname “Batalus”, which literally meant “to stutter”.

On top of all this, at the age of seven his parents had died and he was left in the care of guardians who proceeded to squander his inheritance. At the age of 20, Demosthenes found himself with no way to support himself financially, a crippling speech impediment, and completely alone in this world.

The only way to get her inheritance back was to go to court and sue her guardians. Athenian law stated that any citizen who wanted to sue another had to speak and represent himself in the court of Athens. Demosthenes knew that if he was to successfully sue his ruthless guardians, he would have to improve his public speaking skills; for him it was life or death.

Therefore, Demosthenes began training. Plutarch, an ancient historian, describes some of the methods Demosthenes used to improve his oratorical skills.

Demosthenes would find a cave deep underground, far from civilization and bring enough food and drink for 3 months. As soon as he entered the cave, he would shave off half of his hair, so even if he wanted to leave, he couldn’t for fear of embarrassment. Therefore, he would stay in the cave for 3 months straight, practicing speech and breathing exercises.

One of these exercises consisted of stuffing pebbles into one’s mouth and then reading long and complex scriptures aloud. By doing this, he was forced to pronounce and enunciate each word clearly. This strengthened his tongue muscles, he ensured that he stopped stuttering and began to control his speech.

Another key aspect to speak well in public is breathing. It’s easy to get out of breath and start rushing through a speech. Demosthenes fought this off by again stuffing his mouth with pebbles, but this time he would run across a beach shouting his speech as he did so. This forced him to breathe through his nose and he was soon able to recite entire speeches as he ran without getting out of breath.

Due to the lack of microphones at the time, speakers must have a loud, strong voice, a trait Demosthenes definitely lacked. To enhance this, he practiced speaking in front of a mirror to ensure that he had his mouth open wide when speaking and was breathing through his diaphragm.

After months of brutal preparation, Demosthenes sued his guardians, and a trial date was set. Despite all his improvements, his first court appearance was a disaster and he was laughed at by the audience.

Demosthenes realized that it was not just how the speech was presented, but also the content of the speech that was important. So he went away and learned how to write logical and meaningful speeches by reading the speeches of other great speakers.

When he returned to court to fight his guardians again, his rhetorical skill was overwhelming, to the point that some prominent politicians present immediately hired him to write their speeches for them.

Demosthenes had gone from being an inarticulate orator to being the greatest Greece had ever seen. If he can deliver a perfect speech, so can you.

Lessons learned from Demosthenes

You don’t have to retire to an underground cave for 3 months, fill your mouth with pebbles, run like mad on beaches, or shave half your head to become a good speaker. Chances are your public speaking skills are pretty good, they just need some fine tuning.

  • Speak very slowly. What you have to say is important and interesting, you don’t have to rush it. In addition, it will give more weight to your message. Imagine how a veteran judge gives a verdict, that’s what you want to aim for.
  • Break. The power of pausing between sentences or even in the middle of them cannot be underestimated. This shows trust as they know they will not be interrupted.
  • Prepared. Although Demosthenes excelled at speech writing, he still began preparing for the speeches months before they were delivered. Every word was carefully chosen and every pause deliberate. Nothing was left to chance. It was said that he had an answer to all of his opponents’ comments, his sharp wit was not due to luck. Take time to prepare what you are going to say and practice it in front of a mirror. Body language is also important.
  • Breathing is key. There’s a reason Demosthenes spent months working on breathing exercises, like running up and down the beach with a mouthful of pebbles: Breathing is key. You should aim to inhale and exhale through your mouth. Breathing through your mouth can make you sound breathless and anxious.

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