William Jennings Bryan on Eloquence

William Jennings Bryan, three-time Democratic nominee for president and secretary of state in Woodrow Wilson’s first administration, was among the foremost public speakers of his day. His “Cross of Gold” speech of 1896 has been described as “one of the greatest pieces of American political oratory ever,” and he played a starring role in the Scopes Monkey Trial of 1925. In In His Image (1922), he devoted a chapter to “The Spoken Word” and the attributes of eloquence. Here is an excerpt:

“Eloquence may be defined as the speech of one who knows what he is talking about and means what he says – it is thought on fire. One cannot communicate information unless he possesses it. . . .

“The first thing, therefore, is to know the subject. One should know his subject so well that a question will aid rather than embarrass him. . . . Before discussing a subject one should go all around it and view it from every standpoint, asking and answering all the questions likely to be put by his opponents. Nothing strengthens a speaker more than to be able to answer every question put to him. His argument is made much more forcible because the question focuses attention on the particular point; a ready answer makes a deeper impression than the speaker could make by the use of the same language without the benefit of the question to excite interest in the proposition.

“But knowledge is of little use to the speaker without earnestness. Persuasive speech is from heart to heart, not from mind to mind. It is difficult for a speaker to deceive his audience as to his own feelings; it takes a trained actor to make an imaginary thing seem real. Nearly two thousand years ago one of the Latin poets expressed this thought when he said, ‘If you would draw tears from others’ eyes, yourself the signs of grief must show.’

“If one is master of an important subject and feels that he has a message that must be delivered he will not lack a hearing. As there are always important subjects before the country for settlement there will always be oratory. In order to speak eloquently on one subject a man need not be well informed on a large number of subjects, although information on all subjects is of value. One who can in a general way discuss a large number of subjects may be entirely outclassed by one who knows but one subject but knows it well and feels it.”