The Shakespearian saying that "all's well that ends well" is only a half
truth. A good lecture must not only end well; it must begin well.
The value of first impressions is universally recognized, and an
audience will be much more lenient with flaws that may come later if its
appreciation and confidence have been aroused at the commencement.
It is almost impossible to drive a nail properly if it was started
wrong, and the skillful workman will draw it out and start it over
again. But such a blunder in lecturing cannot be remedied--at least for
that occasion. A stale or confused beginning haunts and depresses the
mind of the speaker and makes his best work impossible. It also destroys
the confidence of the audience, so that what comes later is likely to be
This necessity is recognized not only by lecturers, but by all the great
masters of poetry, fiction and music. Wilhelm Tell is best known by its
overture and what could be more solemn and impressive than the opening
bars of "El Miserere" in Verdi's "Il Trovatore."
The genius of Dickens shines most clearly in his opening pages, and his
right to be ranked with Juvenal as a satirist could be easily
established by the first chapter of "Martin Chuzzlewit." Sir Walter
Scott would rank as one of the world's greatest wits if he had never
written anything but the exploits of "Dick Pinto," which serve as an
introduction to "The Bride of Lammermoor."
The opening lines of Keats' first long poem, "Endymion," are immortal,
and the first line of that passage has become an integral part of the
"A thing of beauty is a joy forever;
Its loveliness increases; it will never
Pass into nothingness, but still will keep
A bower quiet for us, and a sleep
Full of deep peace and health and quiet breathing."
The first stanza of the first canto of Scott's "Marmion" gives a picture
of Norham castle that never leaves the memory. Milton's greatest poem,
"Paradise Lost," a poem which fascinated the imagination of the great
utopian, Robert Owen, at the age of seven, has nothing in all its
sonorous music that lingers in the mind like its magnificent opening
lines, and one searches in vain through the interminable length of
Wordsworth's "Excursion" for a passage equal to the first.
No lecturer who aims high should go upon a platform and confront an
audience, except in cases of great emergency, without having worked out
his opening sentences.
Floundering is fatal, but many an otherwise capable speaker "flounders
around" and "hems" and "haws" for the first ten or fifteen minutes, as a
matter of course.
If his auditors are strange, they get restless and disgusted, and some
of them go out. If they know him, they smile at one another and the
ceiling and wait with more or less patience until he "gets started." If
it is a meeting where others are to speak, by the time he "gets started"
the chairman is anxiously looking at his watch and wondering if he will
have as much trouble to "get done."
A lecturer should remember that an audience resents having its time
wasted by a long, floundering, meaningless preamble, and it is sure to
get even. Next time it will come late to avoid that preliminary "catch
as catch can" performance or--it will stay away.
Next: Speak Deliberately