The Gift of the Gab: How Eloquence Works?Jan 05, 2021
Review: David Crystal’s “The Gift of the Gab: How Eloquence Works”
“The Gift of the Gab: How Eloquence Works” by David Crystal
Word Nerds Unite
I realize I’m a word nerd. I fully embrace this: I have cold-weather writing gloves with screened pages of the original “Alice in Wonderland” text, an infinity scarf with text from Macbeth (shout out to Storiarts!, a Booklover’s Mug (with titles of the “canon” printed all around it - thanks, Ginger Fox!), and innumerable other signs, pillows, and paraphernalia. Hell, I even have a Shakespeare Punching Puppet (Yo, Archie McPhee).
Clearly, I have a problem.
So it should come as a surprise to no one that this book leaped off the shelf into my hands. Frankly, I’m surprised it didn’t happen sooner.
Yes, Eloquence for the Masses
Published in 2016, it only made its way into my life in late 2019. Obviously, I obligated to drop everything and read this book, cover-to-cover, as soon as humanly possible.
Most books that take up the idea of “eloquence” are, quite honestly, terrifying to the layperson. I am not a layperson, of course, but I do recognize that a subtitle like “How Eloquence Works” could be off-putting to the uninitiated.
If you have ANY INTEREST WHATSOEVER in the questions of “WHY” eloquence works as it does, then this is the book for you. I dare say it would even be palatable to a keen 12-year-old - and that’s not a light statement.
Full disclosure: I fangirl over most of what David Crystal writes. And much of the time, he’s writing for a specialist audience (as a linguist and an academic, he loves his Shakespeare - wonder if he has a Punching Puppet?).
The first part of the book explores the idea of “eloquence” - and, in fact, page 2 has a lovely list that I think would serve anyone quite well (but I’m not giving it away). The best quote of the entire book shows up on page 4 (he wastes no time getting to his point):
For me, [eloquence] is not primarily a literary phenomenon. Nor is it something to be found only in a few great speakers on special occasions. It’s something that we can encounter anywhere, and it can be produced by anyone.
Boom. Mic drop. Now THAT’S what I’m TALKING ABOUT.
After establishing the basic definition of the concept, he moves on exploring the basics that you would find in a regular public speaking manual - topics such as timing, venue, audience analysis, word choice, and so forth. What he does differently, though, talks to you (the reader). Standard texts on the topic are technical manuals, and they read like it, too. So, if you were tortured in college or university by a communication skills textbook, rest assured this is the book you wish you’d have been assigned.
The most interesting - and useful, to my mind - chapter in this first section is “Chapter 7 - Who am I talking to - abroad?”. In it, Crystal addresses the very real challenges of speakers who find themselves addressing diverse audiences in diverse locations. It’s typical for a Western speaker to assume that everyone who speaks/understands English does so in the same way, but that is far from the truth.
The book is broken up by vignettes he calls “Interludes”, so I will do the same right now.
Interlude - Discovering I’m Eurocentric
At 24 years old, I found myself in the highly unusual position of being a college professor. Without boring you with the gory details, let’s just say I was a speaking prodigy (please refer to the “word nerd” introduction, above), and I was already 5 years into this career by this point.
However, it was at this point I began teaching a strangely diverse group - there were three distinct populations in the same classroom. One group was Latter-Day Saints (Mormon), mostly consisting of RMs (Returned Missionaries); another group was Japanese exchange students from the Nippon Institute of Technology, and the final group was a mix of mature students from the Piikani Nation (Peigan Tribe) or Kainai Nation (Blood Tribe). These groups were almost in equal numbers.
Now, as a speaker AND as an instructor, this is quite the challenge, if I do say so myself. Most of the rules that govern audience analysis and accommodation fly out the door when you’re essentially teaching three entirely different groups at the same time. At 24, it was more than a little daunting. Hell, it’d be worth a gulp right now.
I’m embarrassed to admit that I was completely unaware of how clueless I was. I had all the same “rules” for public speaking and presentation that are the norm - time limits, requirements for eye contact, the usual. I didn’t even put two and two together when student after student in the First Nations groups got 0 out of 5 on eye contact, and completely disregarded time constraints (minimums OR maximums).
It wasn’t until a much older Kainai woman came to my office to (very kindly) tune me in that I got it. I just couldn’t figure it out - why was I failing as a teacher? What was I doing wrong?
It turns out that there are very different cultural norms around these ideas, and this was the first time that these students had been in a Western-style public speaking class. Between their newness to these conventions, and my obliviousness to the need for open exchanges around cultural norms, they weren’t doing “what I required” and I, in turn, was failing them.
Few times in my life have I been so stunned.
I was horrified.
Everything changed that day - not just my teaching and marking schema. And I count that day as one of the most important of my life. You may have heard the biblical (Acts) idiom that the “scales from my eyes” (well, it was actually Saul): yup, that’s about the size of it.
So I’m very happy Crystal deals with this early in the book. And it’s not just for “public speaking” exchanges - it’s any time you’re speaking to anyone. I’m not advocating paranoia and hyper political-correctness. Nope. Just awareness, honesty, and curiosity.
Tricks of the Trade
Once Crystal finishes with the nuts-and-bolts of the basics, he moves on to the rhetorical artistry of speaking. And no, I DO NOT regarding the word “rhetorical” as a curse word, just FYI.
He takes a number of long-established techniques and marries them to examples of excellence (Barack Obama being one of his favourites): this is useful in that it helps you see very clearly how things you’ve likely heard in your own lifetime, and possibly been impacted by, have actually been constructed.
His point, of course, is that these ARE constructed. Anytime you see someone doing something in public, odds are pretty good it’s written down (often not even by the speaker her- or himself), and then memorized and/or read off an autocue/teleprompter. If you’ve watched the Oscars and marveled at how eloquent all of these performers are, I’ve got news for you: they’re just really good at sight-reading text they’ve already practiced on that stage earlier that day or the day before. Just sayin’.
Each chapter in this section is entitled “How do they do it” - and followed by some techniques, such as the Rule of Three or Naturalness. If you are aspiring to natural eloquence, this section of the book gives you an excellent primer on ways to build these approaches into your prepared speaking - and trust me when I say that the more you practice it, the more instinctive it will become in everyday speech.
At this point in the book, he moves into a more detailed (but not pedantic) exploration of the ways your voice can be modified to create variety and effect. Again, full of excellent examples and references, he takes you through a very charming and clear explanation of ideas that could be (and often are) soul-sucking. I’d venture that this is the section that might lose your interest: I could be wrong, but it is still quite detailed, and you would need to be either a) very interested or b) already familiar with the ideas to get the full effect of what this section has to offer.
The last chapters take up a wide variety of linguistic and performance-related ideas and are more for your edification than for practical application. I found it fascinating - and so might you, depending upon your motivation.
This book, as I’ve already mentioned, is a wonderful overview of the technical aspects of eloquence, and will give readers quite a lot to consider. There is a danger, however (actually, there are two): the first is, despite his admonition that anyone can become eloquent (and he calls upon Ralph Waldo Emerson’s famous quote, “All the great speakers were bad speakers at first” to bolster his argument), the fact remains that if you come into this book without confidence, I doubt that you will leave it with more confidence. If anything, I suspect you will be daunted. If, however, you explore this book alongside another coaching, it could be invaluable.
The second danger is that, while a general book on the topic, it doesn’t address the specific challenges of speakers of different genders or backgrounds in any useful depth. As my particular interest is in helping women find and use their authentic voices, I would be hesitant to simply offer this book as a “how-to” that speaks to the unique needs and perspectives of women out in the world-at-large. Again, it is useful in specific contexts, with other supports in place.
I remain a faithful fangirl of David Crystal, in spite of these final observations. If you too become (or already are!) a word nerd like myself, then this book is your next little eloquence bon-bon.
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