The ancients placed great emphasis on public speaking. They devoted considerable attention to the art and science of captivating a listener. Entire books were written on the subject. Many of their notions no longer possess modern relevance, but some of their ideas still can be examined and utilized to this day. They insisted on rigorous clarity, but they also looked to the texture and quality of the spoken word. They aspired to achieve what they termed an “ornate” delivery.
“Delivery will be ornate,” writes Quintilian, “when it is supported by a voice that is easy, strong, rich, flexible, firm, sweet, enduring, resonant, pure, carrying far and penetrating the ear (for there is a type of voice which impresses the hearing not by its volume, but by its peculiar quality)…” That’s a rather specific list, and each element deserves attention, but the most interesting aspect of that sentence is that which is contained within the parenthetical.
What exactly is a “peculiar” voice, one that can “penetrate the ear?” A peculiar voice is the type of voice which, in and of itself, is capable of holding attention. It does not attempt to mimic the pitch, tone, volume, or mannerism of another. It’s entirely one’s own, organized with sound thinking and supported by genuine emotion. It’s a voice that’s brought to bear only in the most urgent of instances, is understandable and easy to listen to—and, most importantly, is authentic.
Can such an authentic voice be developed? There’s no question practice and training can help, but authenticity ultimately has to come from the heart. Forget about overthinking the process, there has to be a naturalness where subject and method flow together seamlessly. Or as phrased somewhat differently by Emerson—“[I]f only you can be the fanatic of your subject & find a fibre reaching from it to the core of your heart, so that all your affection & all your thought can freely play.”
There’s no mistaking a speech that carries the listener along surely, evenly. Indeed, at one point Quintilian writes: “For the first essential of good delivery is evenness.” Disrupted, disjointed, discordant—these, it would seem, would be the opposite of evenness. Nor should spoken speech be grating or rasping, shrill or vituperative. In this regard, Quintilian cautions against reaching for the extremes of pitch and tone: “The deepest base and the highest treble notes are unsuited to oratory…”
Many today take their speech for granted, mistakenly believing that little thought is required since spoken words can flow so effortlessly. The ancients believed otherwise, taking great pains to structure and deliver their speech in precise ways. “In addition, the voice must be easily managed and must possess all the necessary inflexions and modulations, in fact, it must, as the saying is, be a perfect instrument, equipped with every stop…” Small choices, yes, but ultimately of consequence, meaningful and significant, even today.
All quotations from The Institutio Oratoria of Quintilian, Volume IV, Pg. 265 (Harvard University Press)(The Loeb Classical Library)(Translated by H.E. Butler)(1979).