Wesley’s “Directions Concerning Pronunciation and Gesture”

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Editor’s Note: Here at the Preaching Collective, we endeavor to bring forth the Wesleyan tradition’s best wisdom on preaching. To that end, it’s often instructive to reach back to our heritage and, especially, to Wesley’s own advice to his preachers. We talk a lot about preaching techniques here, and Wesley was no exception in his day. In this pamphlet, published in 1749, Wesley gives preachers a master class in speaking technique which is as helpful today as it was then. 

Directions Concerning Pronunciation and Gesture

How We May Speak So As To Be Heard Without Difficulty, and With Pleasure

wesley john directions M00009 16Before we enter upon particular rules, I would advise all who can, (1) To study the art of speaking betimes, and to practice it as often as possible, before they have contracted any of the common imperfections or vices of speaking; for these may easily be avoided at first, but when they are once learned, it is extremely difficult to unlearn them. I advise all young persons, (2) to be governed in speaking, as in all other things, by reason rather than example, and therefore, to have an especial care whom they imitate therein; and to imitate only what is right in their manner of speaking, not their blemishes and imperfections.

The first business of a speaker is, so to speak, that he may be heard and understood with ease.

The chief faults of speaking are:

1. The speaking too loud. This is disagreeable to the hearers, as well as inconvenient for the speaker. For they must impute it either to ignorance or affectation, which is never so inexcusable as in preaching.

Every man’s voice should indeed fill the place where he speaks; but if it exceeds its natural key, it will be neither sweet, nor soft, nor agreeable, were it only on this account, that he cannot then give every word its proper and distinguishing sound.

2. The speaking too low. This is, of the two, more disagreeable than the former. Take care, therefore, to keep between the extremes; to preserve the key, the command of your voice; and to adopt the loudness of it to the place where you are, or the number of persons to whom you speak.

In order to this, consider whether your voice he naturally loud or low; and if it incline to either extreme, correct this first in your ordinary conversation. If it he too low, converse with those that are deaf; if too loud, with those who speak softly.

3. The speaking in a thick, clustering manner. Some persons mumble, or swallow some words or syllables, and do not utter the rest articulately or distinctly. This is sometimes owing to a natural defect; sometimes to a sudden flutter of spirits; but oftener to a bad habit. To cure this, accustom yourself, both in conversation and reading, to pronounce every word distinctly. Observe how full a sound some give to every word, and labor to imitate them. If no other way avail, do as Demosthenes did, who cured himself of this natural defect, by repeating orations every day with pebbles in his mouth.

4. The speaking too fast. This is a common fault; but not a little one; particularly when we speak of things of God. It may be cured by habituating yourself to attend to the weight, sense and propriety of every word you speak.

5. The speaking too slow is not a common fault; and when we are once warned of it, it may be easily avoided.

6. The speaking with an irregular, desultory, and uneven voice, raised or depressed unnaturally or unseasonably. To cure this, you should take care not to begin your periods either too high or too low; for that would necessarily lead you to an unnatural and improper variation of the voice. And remember, never either to raise or sink your voice, without a particular reason, arising either from the length of the period, or the sense or spirit of what you speak.

7. But the greatest and most common fault of all, is the speaking with a tone: some have a womanish, squeaking tone; some a singing or canting one; some a high, swelling, theatrical tone, laying too much emphasis on every sentence; some have an awful, solemn tone; others an odd, whimsical, whining one, not to be expressed in words.

To avoid all kinds of unnatural tones, the only rule is this: Endeavor to speak in public just as you do in common conversation. Attend to your subject, and deliver it in the same manner as if you were talking of it to a friend. This, if carefully observed, will correct both this and almost all the other faults of a bad pronunciation.

For a good pronunciation is nothing but a natural, easy and graceful variation of the voice, suitable to the nature and importance of the sentiments we deliver.

If you would be heard with pleasure, in order to make the deeper impression on your hearers, First, study to render your voice as soft and sweet as possible; and the more, if it he naturally harsh, hoarse or obstreperous; which may be cured by constant exercise. By carefully using this every morning, you may in a short time wear off these defects, and contract such a smooth and tuneful delivery as will recommend whatever you speak.

Secondly, Labor to avoid the odious custom of coughing and spitting while you are speaking. And if at sometimes you cannot wholly avoid it, yet take care you do not stop in the middle of a sentence, but only at such times as will least interrupt the sense of what you are delivering. Above all take care, Thirdly, To vary your voice, according to the matter On which you speak. Nothing more grates the ear, than a voice still in the same key. And yet nothing is more common; although this monotony is not only unpleasant to the ear, but destroys the effect of what is spoken.

The best way to learn how to vary the voice is to observe common discourse. Take notice how you speak yourself in ordinary conversation, and how others speak on various occasions. After the very same manner you are to vary your voice in public, allowing for the largeness of the place, and the distance of the hearers.

Rules For Variation Of The Voice

The voice may be varied three ways: First, as to height or lowness; Secondly, as to vehemence or softness; Thirdly, as to swiftness or slowness.

1. As to height, a medium between the extremes is carefully to be observed. You must neither strain your voice, by raising it always to the highest note it can reach; nor sink it always to the lowest note, which would be to murmur rather than to speak.

2. As to vehemence, have a care how you force your voice to the last extremity. You cannot hold this long without danger of its cracking and failing you on a sudden. Nor yet ought you to speak in too faint and remiss a manner, which destroys all the force and energy of what is spoken.

3. As to swiftness, you ought to moderate the voice so as to avoid all precipitation; otherwise you give the hearers no time to think, and so are not likely either to convince or persuade them. Yet neither should you speak slower than men generally do in common conversation. It is a fault to draw out your words too slow, or to make needless breaks or pauses. Nay, to drawl is (of the two) worse than to hurry. The speech ought not to drop, but to flow along. But then it ought to flow like a gliding stream, not as a rapid torrent.

On all occasions let the thing you are to speak be deeply imprinted on your own heart; and when you are sensibly touched yourself you will easily touch others, by adjusting your voice to every passion which you feel.

You should begin a discourse low, both as it expresses modesty and as it is best for your voice and strength; and yet so as to be heard by all that are present. You may afterward rise as the matter shall require. The audience likewise, being calm and unmoved at first, are best suited by a cool and dispassionate address.

Yet this rule admits of some exceptions; for on some extraordinary occasions you may begin a discourse abruptly and passionately, and consequently with a warm and passionate accent.

On Gesture

1. That this silent language of your face and bands may move the affections of those that ace and hear you, it must be well adjusted to the subject, as well as to the passion which you desire either to express or excite. It must likewise be free from all affectation, and such as appears to be the mere, natural result, both of the things you speak, and of the affection that moves you to speak them. And the whole is so to be managed that there may be nothing in all the dispositions and motions of your body to offend the eyes of the spectators.

2. But it is more difficult to find out the faults of your own gesture, than those of your pronunciation; for a man may hear his own voice but be cannot see his own face; neither can he observe the several motions of his own body; at least but imperfectly. To remedy this you may use a large looking glass, as Demosthenes did, and thereby observe and learn to avoid every disagreeable or unhandsome gesture.

3. There is but one way better than this; which is to have some excellent pattern as often as may be before your eyes, and to desire some skillful and faithful friend to observe all your motions and inform you which are proper and which are not.

4. As to the motion of the body, it ought not to change its place or posture every moment; neither on the other hand, to stand like a stock, in one fixed and immovable posture; but to move in a natural and graceful manner, as various circumstances may require.

5. You should always he casting your eyes upon some or other of your auditors, and looking from one side to the other, with an air of affection and regard; looking them decently in the face, one after another, as we do in familiar conversation. Your aspect should always be pleasant and your looks direct, neither severe nor askew; unless yen design to express contempt or scorn, which may require that particular aspect.

6. If you speak of heaven or things above, lift up your eyes; if of things beneath, cast them down; and so if you speak things of disgrace; but raise them in calling God to witness, or speaking of things wherein you glory.

7. The mouth must never be turned awry; neither must you bite or lick your lips, or shrug up your shoulders, or lean upon your elbow; all which give just offense to the spectators.

8. We make use of the hand a thousand different ways; only very little at the beginning of a discourse. Concerning this you may observe the rules following: (1) Never clap your hands nor thump the pulpit. (2) Use the right hand most; and when you use the left it be only to accompany the other. (3) The right hand may be gently applied to the breast when you speak of your own faculties, heart or conscience. (4) You must begin your action with your speech and end it when you make an end of speaking. (5) The hands should seldom be lifted higher than the eyes nor let down lower than the breast. (6) Your eyes should always have your hands in view, so that they to whom you speak may see your eyes, your mouth and your hands, all moving in concert with each other and ex pressing the same thing. (7) Seldom stretch out your arms sideways, more than a foot from the trunk of your body. (8) Your hands are not to be in perpetual motion: this the ancients called the babbling of the bands.

9. There are many other things relating to action as well as utterance, which cannot easily be expressed in writing. These you must learn by practice; by hearing a good speaker and speaking often before him.

10. But remember, while you are actually speaking, you must not be studying any other motions, but use those that naturally arise from the subject of your discourse, from the place where you speak and the characters of the persons whom you address.

11. I would advise you, lastly, to observe these rules, as far as things permit, even in your common conversation, till you have got a perfect habit of observing them, so that they are, as it were, natural to you.

We at Seedbed believe that a new revival of that movement is poised to once again break out in churches and communities across the world and the Preaching Collective is designed to give those who bring God’s Word to people, be they men or women, clergy or laity, serving in small rural churches or suburban megachurches, the tools, ideas, and resources that we pray will enable us to “shake the gates of Hell and set up the kingdom of Heaven upon Earth.”

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