Tommy Douglas, Notes on Public Speaking

Master political orator Tommy Douglas provided Notes on Public Speaking
Tommy Douglas

Tommy Douglas was one of Canada’s great political orators. He first honed his technique as a university student in Brandon participating in debating clubs and drama. He became an ordained minister and perfected his craft from the pulpit before going on to become a Member of Parliament and then Saskatchewan’s premier for 17 years, and later still leader of the federal NDP. Most articles or biographies mention his oratorical skills but gloss over them. Fortunately, Douglas left us with a Note on Public Speaking.  I have adapted it and provide it here:



The Notes

Public speaking is a combination of natural gifts, self-discipline and years of practice. All of us can improve our public speaking ability. Someone has laid down three basic rules for public speaking: Stand up – to be seen. Speak up – to be heard. Shut up – to be appreciated

Get their attention

Your first few sentences are important. Know what you are going to say when you get up, and say it without wasting time.

Get your material off the paper. Look at your listeners – not at a sheaf of papers.

Hold their attention

It isn’t what you “say” that counts but what your audience “hears”. If their attention wanders you are merely talking to yourself.

If you must use notes, make them as inconspicuous as possible. Put notes on cards (postcard size) and refer to them as seldom as possible.

If using a manuscript, place it on a lectern and read from it. Avoid lengthy quotations and if you use them, they should be so well committed to memory that a cursory glance at your manuscript will be all that is necessary.

Avoid distracting mannerisms. Speakers who play with their watch, their glasses or a sheaf of notes will soon find that the audience has become more interested in their antics than their utterances.

Avoid distracting dress and accessories. Speakers should pay the audience the compliment of being neatly dressed. Flamboyant clothes can distract the audience’s attention from what you are saying.

Prepare carefully

No speaker has the right to waste the time of an audience trying to make up a speech while in the process of delivering it.

Avoid manuscripts wherever possible. Where manuscripts are inevitable they should be so familiar that only an occasional glance at the paper is necessary. The best speech is one in which the speaker has a skeleton outline and then puts flesh on the bones as the speech progresses. The great advantage of this technique is its flexibility, since you can adjust style and language to occasion and audience.

Prepare an outline of what you are going to say with main headings and sub-headings. Place under the various headings any statistics or illustrations you may wish to use. With the outline fixed firmly in your mind your arguments will follow in logical sequence and you will avoid the danger of wandering.

Vary your material to maintain interest. An anecdote to illustrate a point or a quotation to epitomize an idea will help to keep your listeners on their toes.

Avoid the lengthy quoting of statistics. If figures are necessary, make them as simple as possible — “Of every dollar spent for bread the farmer gets 13 cents.”

Use your voice well

Speak so that you can be heard. Don’t shout, but don’t whisper.

Don’t get too close to the microphone or your voice will be distorted and unintelligible.

Watch the people in the back. If they pay attention, your voice is carrying to the back of the hall.

Speak naturally – avoid bombast, but remember you are addressing a public gathering. Elongate your vowels and enunciate distinctly while keeping your tone as conversational as possible.

Avoid dramatic gestures

Be natural and use only those gestures that come naturally to you.

Forget about your hands. As you warm up to your subject they will take care of themselves. Speakers should not talk with hands in their pockets.

Have an effective conclusion

Don’t let your speech end as though you had merely run out of something to say. With a good introduction and a good conclusion you can be forgiven for a lot of mediocrity in between.

Your conclusion should be the sum up and it should contain an appeal for action.

Stop when you have made your point. Having driven home your arguments and finished with a rousing call to action, quit while the audience is still with you. The mind can only absorb what the seat can endure.


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