Lawrence Clark Powell on Public Speaking

In his autobiography Fortune & Friendship (R.R. Bowker Co., 1968), well-known and respected librarian, Lawrence Clark Powell devoted a chapter(“Speaking of Books”) to a discussion of public speaking and how it came to play a major role in expanding his influence and enriching his life. Though exuberant and charismatic throughout his life, LCP was not always a brilliant public speaker, by his own admission:

“As birthright I had qualities of personality, energy, and a compulsion for self-expression; and yet I was panic-stricken when I had to appear before an audience, either in boyhood piano recitals or as yell leader in high school. I had to force myself to go on stage and to keep from running away”(137).

Hardly anyone is born with the gift of being able to stand before an audience and render thoughts into expression. I remember an interview with Dustin Hoffman where he says something like from his very first show-and-tell in grade school when he got up and cried in front of an audience, to other times where he cried in front of groups of people, he knew that something about being in front of people made him especially expressive. I’ve heard similar stories of actors, where they were said to have loved performing from youth. Notwithstanding, many public figures – actors included – are terrified of getting in front of an audience. I’ve personally seen actors cower backstage only to, moments later, deliver a spell-binding performance. Elvis Presley, before he would go up in front of people, was terrified of the thought; he was a shy guy – but something got into him when he was before an audience. Specifically, it got into his hips. Curious.

But back to Lawrence Clark Powell. What was it that gave LCP the courage to face audiences, and not running away? Let’s let him answer:

“…Orchestra work, dramatics, and debating gradually helped me to gain ease in front of large groups. I suppose it was a desire for recognition and applause that brought me through those terrors of stage fright” (137-8).

I think we all know that most tips, tricks, of which there are numerous lists are rather obvious. So it is here not surprising that LCP overcame his fear of public speaking through immersing himself in performing. In all three of his endeavors, LCP had to maintain his composure. He was constantly tested and he overcame his fear by facing it. Some people think that they can become better public speakers(and more frugal, and healthier, etc.) merely by reading about it. Though it is helpful to live vicariously, the best remedy is action.

Aside from practicing, LCP considered the aftermath of his performances: the applause. People respect others who take risks. Recently, I was at a Shakers n’ Bakers concert and during part of the show, the band asked the audience to look under their seats; some people had Shaker poems there. Those people were supposed to come up and read the poem to accompaniment by the band. I didn’t get a poem, but the lady two seats away from me did. She emphatically shook her head no and gave the poem to the guys to her right, who also demurred, passing the poem to me. I could’ve just hidden it, or passed it back. But I said, “why not?” and jumped on stage. I got the most applause of all the readers, and the people sitting next to me were relieved and thrilled that I went up and read, for them. Too often people are afraid of embarrassing themselves in front of large groups – why? There’s nothing embarrassing about a deafening applause.

“Extemporaneous speaking was hard because of an inability to assemble my diffused thoughts. My timing was bad. I didn’t know how to end. Then I would panic and say outrageous things…”(138)

Speaking without preparation is one of the hardest tasks for a public speaker. How do we provide a coherent experience for the listener without order in our own heads? When one is called on to speak, her heart starts to pound, she breaks into a cold sweat, and, like Lawrence Clark Powell, she panics and says outrageous, or like I’ve seen in Toastmasters, completely unrelated things, repeating these ad nauseum to fill her time. But just in the above statement, we have a few lessons. First, timing (I think of the old joke, “What’s the most important thing in comedy……”), having good timing in an extemporaneous speech takes an ability to deliver jokes, or profound thoughts with the correct combination of breath and a feeling of audience expectations. You want them “hanging on every word”! Second, knowing when to end: an easy rule of thumb – the sooner the better; when you’re repeating things unconsciously, it’s definitely time. Third, panic. One of the traits I admire in public speakers is poise, but many times this is actually a trick; inside they may be panicking, but on the outside, they’re calm, collected, and cool. As long as a speakers keeps cool on the outside, he can expect his inside to follow suit. It’s about breathing. Most of it.

“…I learned to jot notes on a card before speaking extemporaneously and never to rise without knowing the main points I planned to make”(138).

Sage advice. It admits just enough preparation to still be extemporaneous, but also prepared enough. We are not usually asked to speak off-the-cuff about things we don’t know about. Therefore, it is possible to create a very basic organization(remember five-paragraph essays?) very quickly. My brother, Igor, the political guy(who now blogs at gave a very eloquent improvised answer as a guest at a Toastmasters meeting, he was asked to tell of a person he admired and he, to everyone’s surprise, answered Lyndon Johnson. Because Igor was knowledgeable about President Johnson’s life, he was able to detail his admiration of him in a few direct points. He didn’t panic and begin a biography of the late president, or get caught in a repetitious cycle of fluff. No, he delivered his points and sat down. I was impressed, and so was everyone else. We even awarded him the “Best Table Topics Speaker” ribbon. A few minutes is only enough to make a few major points, it isn’t enough to go in-depth on them. The way to use the time wisely is to be direct. Now back to LCP:

“My best talks came when the time, the place, and the occasion produced a sense of certainty and power in my preparation and delivery. Before such times I worked on draft after draft, cutting and tightening, so that when it came time to give the talk, I had it all memorized. I learned to speak as though without a manuscript. By employing things I had learned in college dramatics about timing, pauses, silences, and contrasts, I was able to reach out and hold people”(140).

Everything comes together when the speaker follows the advice to practice, practice, practice. Nearly everything I read these days ends with those hard words. Preparation is the most important thing in public speaking. There is no substitute or comparison anywhere. In “timing, pauses, silences, and contrasts” we get the list of devises to give rhythm to a speech – all are vital in keeping an audience viral. But none of them can be exhibited to their greatest effect without the foundation of strong writing and adequate rehearsal. You may think it is difficult to memorize a speech, but it isn’t. Schools don’t emphasize drilling anymore, treating as cruel and unusual punishment, but it remains the best way to memorize. One need not even try to memorize; yet while repeating it, one will find that the speech has accidentally permeated his brain. If the speech is well-written, it is no struggle. If a part of the speech is annoying to repeat over and over – rewrite(note: “…draft after draft, cutting and tightening…”).

“I never brooded over unfavorable things said and written about me, nor did I attempt to strike back. On the contrary, it pleased me to find good to say about my severest critics”(144).

This is a trait common in two other men I admire: Will Durant, and Ben Franklin. More than a trait, it is a philosophy of life. And it is as applicable to public speaking as any other facet of a breathing narrative. So what if there’s a detractor in the audience? Maybe you’re getting a 20-mile stare? Keep on, and you’ll find that, in the end, the brooder will be of little significance.

Lawrence Clark Powell was the Head Librarian of UCLA, founding Dean of the Library School(which I am now attending), author of over 70 books and numerous articles and essays(many are collected in books), husband, father, friend to many, and sought-after public speaker. His efforts helped build UCLA into the world-class institution it is today, but his accomplishments are not the only reasons I admire him. LCP also preached humanity in library service; he challenged the mindless adherence to rules in lieu of personal decision-making. For him, library service was not classification schemes, technical services, or shushing. It was a love of library materials, especially books, and interaction with their users, the readers. Lawrence Clark Powell’s writing puts into words everything I feel about library service. No wonder UCLA decided to name a major campus library after him. He died in 2001 at 94 years old. I never knew him, but I miss him.

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1 Response to Lawrence Clark Powell on Public Speaking

  1. Interesting reading. By co-incidence I’m spouting on in my own blog at the moment about people not being ‘natrual’ public speakers: hence the fear (in the style of Hoffman).

    What surprises me, I guess, is that people appear to be surprised that it’s scary and – because in our society we don’t experience fear any more – they don’t know how to deal with it.

    Public speaking is hard – it takes practice (as you’re doing!) and expecting to do it without effort is nieve/silly.

    Cheers…. Simon

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