Learn Public Speaking Skills From Greatest Orator Ever Demosthenes

Demosthenes lived between 384 BC and 320 BC, during this time he was renown in Ancient Greece as the greatest orator to ever utter a word. However he was definitely not a natural in public speaking, but that is what makes his story even more inspiring.

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

Demosthenes had a terrible speech defect. Nobody could understand what he said due to a crippling stammer. It was so noticeable, he was given the nickname “Batalus” which literally meant “to stutter”.

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

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

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

Demosthenes would find a cave deep underground, far away from civilization and take with him enough food and drink for 3 months. As soon as he got into the cave, he would shave off half his hair, so even if he wanted to leave, he couldn’t for fear of embarrassment. Hence, he would remain in the cave for 3 months at a time, practising speaking and breathing exercises.

One of these exercises involved filling his mouth with small pebbles and then reading aloud long complex worded scriptures. By doing this, he was forced to clearly pronounce and enunciate each word. This strengthened his tongue muscles, made sure he stopped the stammering and started to control his speaking.

Another key aspect of good public speaking is breathing. It’s easy to get out of breath and start rushing a speech. Demosthenes combatted this by again filling his mouth with pebbles, but this time he would run across a beach shouting out his speeches as he did so. This forced him to breathe through his nose and he was soon able to recite entire speeches while running without getting breathless.

Due to the lack of microphones at the time, speakers need to have a strong and loud voice, a trait Demosthenes definitely lacked. To improve this he’d practice speeches in front of a mirror to make sure his mouth was wide open when speaking and he was breathing from his diaphragm.

After months of brutal preparation, Demosthenes submitted a lawsuit against his guardians and a court date was set. Despite all his improvements the first court appearance was a disaster and the audience laughed him out the court.

Demosthenes realised it wasn’t just how the speech was presented, the content of the speech was important too. So he went away and learned how to write logical and meaningful speeches through reading other great orator’s speeches.

When he returned to court to battle against his guardians again his rhetorical skill was overwhelming, to such an extent some prominent politicians present immediately hired him to write their speeches for them.

Demosthenes had risen from an inarticulate speaker to the greatest Greece had ever seen. If he can deliver a perfect speech then so can you.

Lessons Learned From Demosthenes

You do not have to retire to an underground cave for 3 months, fill your mouth with pebbles, run along beaches like a mad man or shave half your head to become a good speaker. Most likely your oratory skills are pretty good, they just need fine tuning.

  • Speak really slowly. What you have to say is important and interesting, you do not have to rush it. Furthermore, it will give your message more weight. Imagine how a veteran judge delivers a verdict, that is what you want to aim for.
  • Pause. The power of pausing between sentences or even in the middle of them cannot be underestimated. This shows confidence as they know they won’t be interrupted.
  • Prepare. Although Demosthenes excelled in speech writing he still started to prepare for speeches months before they were to be delivered. Every word was carefully chosen and every pause deliberate. Nothing was left to chance. It was said that he had a response to all of his opponents remarks, they sharp wit was not down to luck. Take the time to prepare what you are going to say and practice it in front of a mirror. Body language is important also.
  • Breathing is key. There is a reason Demosthenes spent months working on breathing exercises, such as running up and down the beach with a mouth full 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.