by Ari Armstrong
During your best speeches, your sway over the audience may seem almost magical. A powerful speech can bring an audience to tears, evoke from the most stolid listener boisterous laughter, change somebody's thinking, or motivate a crowd to action. In our "Muggle" (nonmagical) world, the power of language often serves as our truest form of magic.
Indeed, the mythological magic of wizards often draws from the very real "magic" of language. "Enchantment" comes from the word for a rhythmic saying or song. While we "spell" out letters of a word or an idea, a sorcerer "casts a spell." The uniquely human capacity for language gives us the ability to conceptually unravel many of the universe's great mysteries. Language serves as our tool for enlightenment and communion; is it any wonder that the myths of magic draw from the powerful energy of words?
Those who doubt the almost-magical force of language need only observe the cultural impact of J. K. Rowling's wonderful Harry Potter novels. Yes, on the surface the stories concern wizards and witches, magic wands, elves, and potions. But the deeper "magic" of the works inspires children and adults alike to contemplate the meaning of love and friendship, the virtue of courage and independence, and the nature good and evil. Rowling's pen carries more power than any wand.
Harry Potter offers many lessons, among them how to become a better speaker. Fittingly, a Distinguished Toastmaster first suggested to me that "Harry Potter is a great communicator," as illustrated by Harry's leadership of a student group. (I met the fellow while delivering a speech for an evaluation contest in Colorado; yes, Toastmasters offers fantastic opportunities for networking and sharing ideas!) I mentioned that, while I had written about many other themes of the Potter novels, addressing the stories' lessons about communication had not previously occurred to me. With a couple of sentences, this fellow speaker put me under the idea's spell.
Among the novels' lessons about communication, three stand out for the speaker.
1. Attend to your audience's context and needs. Dumbledore, Harry's mentor and head of the magical school, illustrates this point nicely in a couple of speeches to his students.
Just after Harry arrives at the school, the students join their houses and attend a banquet. The atmosphere sparkles with revelry and celebration. Dumbledore sees the students hold little patience for long-winded speeches; therefore, he says just a few lines before returning the students to their fun. He welcomes the students and adds, "I would like to say a few words. And here they are: Nitwit! Blubber! Oddment! Tweak! Thank you!" While Harry thinks Dumbledore might be "a bit mad," in fact he shows appropriate sensitivity to the spirit of the evening, and "everybody clapped and cheered."
Contrast Dumbledore's first speech to his students to the one he delivers several years later, after the treacherous villain Voldermort returns to full power, murdering a student in the process. Dumbledore sees in his students confusion and fear, and he responds in an appropriately somber tone of reflection and simple truth. He movingly eulogizes the fallen student, then explains bluntly but respectfully what happened to him, telling his students they have "the right... to know exactly how it came about."
While we as speakers rarely face such extreme differences of setting, we too must effectively gauge the needs of our audience.
2. Speak sincerely from the heart. Neither Harry nor his friend Hermione Granger begin their speaking careers with technical proficiency. Yet when they believe they need to speak out they do so sincerely and with great conviction, largely overpowering their technical flaws.
Seeing their school fail to prepare them to confront Voldemort's forces, Harry and Hermione decide to form a student group to learn defensive magic. In introducing this group to her fellow students, the nervous Hermione likely would send a Toastmaster "ah counter" into apoplectic fits: "Well, er, hi. Well... erm... well, you know why you're here. Erm... well..." But she eventually comes round to the point, and she and Harry bluntly explain their goals and address the other students' skeptical questions. Harry goes on to become a wonderful teacher to the other students in their unofficial classes.
Especially beginning speakers may share Hermione's nervousness and stylistic quirks. Those can be overcome with practice. More important is speaking with purpose, honesty, and conviction.
3. Step forward with courage. Sometimes the hardest part about speaking is simply standing up. Neville Longbottom demonstrates this as he grows from a shy and fearful boy into a confident warrior by the time of the final battle against Voldemort. After the villain pronounces his apparent victory, Neville steps forward to publicly proclaim, "I'll join you when hell freezes over." Those are precisely the words to rally his allies.
Tellingly, the final confrontation between Harry and Voldemort involves the two of them arguing, alone, in the midst of hundreds of their compatriots. Harry addresses Voldemort, but he speaks to inform the crowd of the truth of Voldemort's evil and the virtues of Harry's allies. The dialogue consumes several pages of the final novel, leaving the final magical duel almost a brief afterthought. Yes, the climax of these world-renowned novels reveals Harry the public speaker. And he speaks with the clarity and force of simple truth in the face of a deadly threat to his life and values.
Hopefully we will never need to speak extemporaneously against a mortal enemy! Still, each of us likely will face times when we need to stand up and say something important in trying circumstances.
The Harry Potter novels offer many important lessons. Thanks partly to a fellow Toastmaster, I recognized the stories' insights for addressing one's particular audience with sincerely and courage. Harry Potter welcomes the reader to the magical world of communication.
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