How to fill a lecture hall, and how to empty it


I recently gave a lecture, on quite a solemn subject, the connection between freedom and the ownership of property, to about 200 people, and was gratified -- and surprised -- at how well it was received.

Thomas Carlyle

I think it was because I followed my own maxim, and spoke for only 25 minutes, leaving the rest of the hour for questions. It is a fact of life that any discourse, on any subject, whatever the occasion and whatever the status of the speaker, will always please if it is five minutes shorter than people expect. That is one reason why Lincoln's Gettysburg address became so famous.

Of course what made it so unusual was that in the Victorian period orations of all kinds were expected to be long. Gladstone, on one of his Midlothian campaigns, was told by a working man that no sermon could properly be less than an hour in length, as it took at least that time to explain any important theological point. He bore this in mind, and not long afterwards, when addressing the Cabinet on the subject of his proposed Home Rule bill, his exposition lasted a full three hours, and was listened to 'in perfect silence'. Of course, holding forth in the Cabinet Room required no great verbal force. But Gladstone often spoke for well over an hour in public, to audiences of 10,000 or more. How did he make himself heard? How did his vocal chords stand it? In the Middle Ages, Muslim clergy, sermonising to vast congregations in the open, were accompanied by a tall, barrel-chested figure with a powerful voice, who repeated fortissimo each phrase as uttered. This man was known as a Loud Speaker. The phrase has persisted into the electronic age. Odd to think that the diabolically amplified caterwauling issuing from pop festivals, which keeps awake decent people within a ten-mile radius, should have its verbal origins in ancient Islam.

Before microphones came along, public speakers had to take lessons in projecting their voices. In France, the voice coaches employed at the Salle Garnier, the big opera house in Paris, also took on pupils from the Chambre de Députés. Clémenceau had lessons. So did Poincaré. When I lived in Paris, Edouard Herriot was sometimes pointed out to me as the last politician who had taken trouble to 'speak properly'. Successful speakers were referred to as 'un ténor'. In England the last public figure to benefit from speech training was Oswald Mosley, as those who heard him speak in Trafalgar Square will remember. Mosley also used the formal and vigorous repertoire of oratorical gestures, which were still employed up to the second world war, and which were also taught. Natural speakers like Lloyd George and Aneurin Bevan did not need elocution training because they inherited the Celtic hywl and body movements of the Welsh tradition.

I have been reading about the famous address which Thomas Carlyle gave to the students of Edinburgh University, on 2 April 1866, after they elected him their rector. He was already 70, and had not spoken in public since his series on Heroes in 1840. He tried to wriggle out of giving a lecture but they would not have it. Worrying about it made him ill, and his wife Jane worried still more -- it is believed to have hastened her death, which occurred the same year. In the end Carlyle decided against a written text, and just before getting to his feet he threw away his notes too, and spoke extemporarily. This was an amazing thing for someone of his age and nervous temperament, for there must have been thousands present, and delivery cannot have taken less than an hour. But when he sat down the mighty audience rose to their feet and cheered, and the organisers were able immediately to send to Jane Carlyle, cowering in London and waiting anxiously for the outcome, a cable which read 'A perfect triumph'. The students followed Carlyle back to his lodgings and stood outside huzzahing until he told them to go, as he wanted to sleep. There is a superb drawing of Carlyle speaking at this event, done on the spot by one of those skilled instant-action artists in which Victorian journalism abounded. It shows the great man radiating wisdom and benevolence.

The students followed Carlyle back to his lodgings and stood outside huzzahing until he told them to go, as he wanted to sleep.

There ought to be an anthology of notable rectorial addresses. It would certainly include the notorious speech Lord Birkenhead made in November 1923 when he was installed as rector of Glasgow University. I say notorious because his subject was 'Idealism in International Politics', but his message was one of realism. The League of Nations, he said, would fail, along with all other idealistic schemes not rooted in historical experience. And he reminded his young audience that the world was still rich in 'glittering prizes' which would go to those who had 'sharp swords' and the will to secure them. Right-thinking people, especially the clergy, were deeply shocked by what they called Birkenhead's cynicism. But the students loved it. And why not? The world is a horrible place -- then, and still more now -- and why should not the young be encouraged to seek such glittering prizes as are still on offer?

Speaking to students can be a risky business, and they are far more likely to make any objections to what you say plain and vocal than an audience, say, of rich businessmen, army officers, advertising types, politicians and bureaucrats, or the general public. I have lectured all over the world since the 1960s, on more occasions than I care to recall, and I must have given a talk to students in at least 50 universities, chiefly in the United States. I love American audiences. They are often ignorant, especially first-year students, but they listen hard, are appreciative, often enthusiastic, and ask intelligent and thoughtful questions. They are always anxious to learn. There is none of that cynicism and contempt for sincerity, so common over here, radiating from Oxford and Cambridge, where it is encouraged by embittered dons who believe they are insufficiently rewarded for their brains and academic status -- as if the mere ability to pass exams and write turgid articles to specialist journals is the only true test of a person's worth. But I must not go on about this point. I am holding my fire for a great blast about Oxford, and the way it is run, or not run.

Panjandrums like Thackeray also got to enjoy lecturing to Americans, even if they had not read his books, or were not entirely sure why they were coming to hear him speak. He delighted to recall an incident in a Midwest hotel when, lounging in a deep armchair, he overheard two waiters talking. 'Say, do you know who we have staying here? The great Thacker!' 'You don't say so! And what does he do?' 'Damned if ah know.' Dickens loved Americans, too, once he got used to them as an unknown race. He said that, in a sleeping-car train, he once apologised for his ignorance, saying: 'You see, I am a stranger here.' The steward replied: 'Mister, in this country we are all strangers.'

The best lecturers I have ever heard were, in order, Kenneth Clark and C.S. Lewis. Clark I heard give two courses, one on the painter he called 'Rumbrunt', the other on 'Tintorette'. Both were perfection. Lewis was close to that, and could fill the hall at Magdalen to overflowing, the girls squatting at his feet. A.J.P. Taylor could fill the same arena but he attracted mainly men. By contrast, old Tolkein was a poor lecturer, dull and hard to hear, keeping his head down, nose to text. He was almost as bad as Jean-Paul Sartre, towards the end, the worst lecturer I ever heard, becoming almost inaudible, head sinking, and interminable so that the room gradually emptied. Hope that never happens to me.



Paul Johnson. "How to fill a lecture hall, and how to empty it." The Spectator (June 18, 2008).

This article is from Paul Johnson's "And another thing" column for The Spectator and is reprinted with permission of the author.


Paul Johnson, celebrated journalist and historian, is the author most recently of George Washington: The Founding Father. Among his other widely acclaimed books are A History of the American People, Modern Times, A History of the Jews, Intellectuals, Art: A New History, and The Quest for God: Personal Pilgrimage. He also produces brief surveys that slip into the pocket, such as his popular The Renaissance and Napoleon. He is a frequent contributor to the New York Times, the Wall Street Journal, the Spectator, and the Daily Telegraph. He lectures all over the world and lives in Notting Hill (London) and Somerset.

Copyright © 2008 Paul Johnson

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