Wednesday, December 3, 2014

Eloquence Achieved the Henry Clay Way

It's time to get seriously eloquent. 

I have a secret! Ready? For most of my adult life I have been reading newspapers published centuries ago. While I've done this professionally as part of doing research work, I've been fascinated by how some news simply does not change. I've also learned that we have much in common with our antecedents.

Eloquence is often defined as the "practice or art of using language with fluency and aptness." Fair enough. Long before I started to teach personal and public speaking or the existence of Toastmasters people were very preoccupied with how they were perceived based on their ability to speak eloquently.

One afternoon I was paging through a 19th century newspaper published in Honolulu titled The Polynesian. It was the official news source of the Hawaiian Kingdom in those years. The Secret of Eloquence was a story published on August 6, 1859 caught my eye since at that time I was teaching speaking skills to Asian students at Hawaii Tokai International College.

The entire piece consisted of a quote from Henry Clay (1777-1852), an American lawyer, politician and skilled orator from Kentucky. He had served in both the Senate and the House of Representatives before going on to Speaker of the House and Secretary of State. So, you can imagine that the art or practice of eloquence would be vital to Mr. Clay's success.

"I owe my success in life to one single fact, viz., that at the age of twenty-seven, I commenced a continued process of daily reading and speaking upon the contents of some historical and scientific books. 

Never underestimate the multiple, clever uses of your neighborhood barn. 

Where did he practice and hone his speaking skills?

"These off-hand efforts were made sometimes in a corn field, at others in the forest, and not infrequently in some distant barn, with the horse and ox as my auditors. It is to this early practice in the great art that I am indebted for the primary leading impulses that stimulated me forward, and shaped and moulded my entire subsequent destiny. 

"...with the horse and ox as my auditors." Tough audiences have their value.

Clay's advice?

"Improve then, young gentlemen, [nothing personal, ladies] the superior advantages you here enjoy. Let not a day pass without exercising your power of speech. There is no power like that of oratory. 

He cited this example from ancient Roman history:

"Caesar controlled men by exciting their fears; Cicero by captivating their affections and swaying their passions. The influence of the one perished with its author -that of the other continues to this day."

If you sift through the 19th century verbiage you quickly recognize that Clay was on to something. Leaders of all types then, now and forever will need to be good public speakers and orators. And as you know anyone -including you- can arise to leadership status. Whether its delivering a birthday toast, reporting at a meeting of peers or pitching a brand in a marketing campaign.

Don't be shy; take the initiative. True, you may not have ready access to a barn, horses and oxen like Henry Clay had over 150 years ago. It's that first step that will get you started towards refining and re-defining how others perceive you through eloquence, giving you that extra edge in a successful future.

Jeffrey Bingham Mead is the founder and president of The Pacific Learning Consortium. 

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