In traveling through the country on a street-speaking tour about the
first thing a speaker observes is the poor judgement shown by the local
comrades in the selection of street corners for their meetings. The
chosen corner is usually where the down-and-outs and drunks congregate
and is hemmed about by cheap noisy saloons. If a speaker is to be in a
town one or two nights he can hardly show the local comrades their
error. If I am to be in a town any longer I look through the town during
the day and early evening and pick out a down-town corner where there is
a steady flow of average citizens and nobody will stop unless they stop
to listen. Then the night after making the announcement at the old stand
I begin a revolution in the method of running street meetings. I have no
hard feelings against drunks but they are useless and worse in a street
meeting. There are two reasons for the present bad selection of corners
in so many cities. First, it is easier for a poor speaker to get an
audience where there are hangers-out waiting to be entertained. Second,
the city authorities like to have Socialist speaking done where it will
not reach the live members of the community. A change of corners
sometimes means a hard fight with the police but if the proper methods
are used victory is sure and the result is always worth the labor spent.
Street speaking is widely different from hall lecturing and this the
reason so many speakers succeed at one and fail at the other. The hall
lecturer opens easily and paves the way for the treatment of his theme,
but the street speaker would get no crowd or a small one by such a
He must plunge at once into the heart of his talk and put as much energy
into addressing the first dozen as when his crowd grows larger. As soon
as he adapts his voice and manner to the size of his crowd the crowd
will stop growing. The only way to add another hundred is to talk as if
they were already there.
A hall lecture should have one subject and stick to it because the
audience is the same in its composition throughout. At a street meeting
about half the audience is constantly changing, and hopping from one
question to another has many advantages. A street speaker must be
interesting or he will lose his crowd, and the better his crowd the
sooner he will lose it. If he is talking to "bums" they will stay
whether he talks or not, but if he has an audience of people who have
other things awaiting their attention they will pass on the moment the
speaker loses his grip.
This is why telling stories at street meetings is not so good a thing as
some unobserving speakers suppose. No matter how good a story is, it has
a tendency to break up a crowd. I noticed it often before I caught the
reason. A story always carries its own conclusion and it thereby makes a
sort of a breaking off place in a speech like the end of a chapter in a
book. At the end of a good story the audience will laugh and take a
moments rest. For about a minute your spell is broken and men whom you
might of held the rest of the evening remember during that minute that
they have stayed too long already. Of course this does not apply to a
story of two or three sentences thrust into the middle of an argument
without breaking or closing it. Longer stories may be used to advantage
but they are not very useful to a speaker who has much to say and knows
how to say it. Of course wit is a valuable factor but wit shows itself
in a lightning dart, not in a long story.
The street speaker should use short sentences of simple words. He should
avoid oratory and talk as if he were telling something to another man
and in dead earnest about it. I have watched a man talk to another man
on the street forgetting the outside world completely and using forceful
language and eloquent gestures. If such a man could only talk like that
to an audience he would be surprised at his own success. Put him before
an audience and his natural manner disappears, he shuffles his feet,
does not know what to do with his hands, and brings forth a voice nobody
ever heard him use before.
As to people who disturb your meeting, if you are speaking in hobo-dom
you may well despair. There are so many drunks, that interruptions are
constant and irrepressible, and every interruption breaks your grip on
the audience. Moral: Don't speak there.
On a corner where you get an audience of typical working men
disturbances are rare and in a majority of cases if they are not easily
suppressed it is lack of tact on the part of the speaker. A speaker
should never try to be smart at the expense of a man in the audience,
even when he speaks out of his turn. A courteous explanation of why you
wish him to keep his questions until after your speech is much better.
If he persists after that, he is either an ignoramus or drunk. If drunk
ask two or three of your supporters in the audience to lead him off down
the street. If he is a natural fool the problem is not so easy. But if
you keep unbroken courtesy and he keeps up his unprovoked interruptions
some indignant person standing near will abate the nuisance with a punch
in the eye--which is the most effectual method in such cases.
There is no easier task in the world than to defeat the police
authorities in a free speech fight. In the few cases where we lose it is
our own fault. The police are usually acting under orders when making
arrests and nothing is gained by making bitter enemies of them unless
they treat you brutally.
A cool head, a disposition to reason the matter out with the district
attorney, the chief of police, the mayor, or in the courts, without ever
offering to compromise your speaking rights, will always triumph. The
realization by the authorities that they are in a dirty and tyrannical
business is one of your strongest weapons. Courtesy and persuasive but
firm and unflinching reasoning makes them more conscious of their
humiliating part in the matter. If you do or say foolish or offensive
things they will forget their conscience in their anger, and give you a
fight for which you alone are to blame.
There are a few exceptions to this rule; cases where the authorities are
bent on victory; even then there is no excuse for losing your head. But
you must give them all the fight they want and never under any
circumstances show the white feather or accept anything less than all
you need to make your meeting successful. In handling the police and
their relations to street meetings the New York comrades have set other
cities an example to go by. The comrades select any corners they please
and during the day notify the police by telephone that Socialist
meetings will be held that evening on such and such corners and a
policeman is instructed to protect each meeting. The New York comrades
have had many hard battles with the police to keep this system, and they
have reason to be proud of the result.
The permit system is all right if it does not keep you from the corners
you wish to use. If it does, the best thing is to fight it out for a new
arrangement or the right to hold your meetings without arrangements. If
you conduct your case properly the public will be overwhelmingly on your
side. It is good at such times to "view with alarm" the introduction of
Russian methods into "free" America. If there is real intelligence on
the other side your opponents will soon conclude that you are getting
more publicity for your ideas out of the police fight than you could
ever get at peaceful street meetings. After this light has dawned you
will proceed undisturbed.
BOOK-SELLING AND PROFESSIONALISM
A man who does a day's work in a shop and speaks on a street corner in
the evening has about as much chance of becoming an effective speaker as
he would have of becoming an effective musician, physician or lawyer by
the same method. It is necessary, however, to train before going wholly
into the work just as a man studies law evenings, before starting out as
In New York, Socialist street meetings are a force and count for a great
deal, because the committee keeps a staff of capable speakers on salary
to do nothing else. In Chicago street, speaking is a failure and many
have concluded we should be better without it. This is because Chicago
lacks the enterprise to follow the example of New York and depends on
voluntary, haphazard, untrained, inefficient speaking.
New York, I believe, spends a good deal of money on its street meetings,
and for some reason Chicago does not seem to be able to do that. But
this barrier is not insurmountable. Street meetings with efficient
speakers may be made self-supporting, but professional speakers are the
only ones who have any chance to become efficient to the point of making
their meetings pay a salary and other expenses.
I hardly think it can be done by collections but I know by experience
that it can be done by book-selling.
I worked several weeks in New York one summer at the highest rate they
pay and instead of sending a bill for wages I sent a paper dollar which
represented the surplus from book sales after I had paid myself all that
was due to me, and no collections were taken. My best book-sale at one
meeting was $34 but it would just as easily have gone over $40 if the
supply had held out. $20 to $30 worth of literature can be sold easily
enough on any one of half a dozen corners in New York.
Chicago is not as good as New York but it is at least half as good and a
good speaker could work for $25 a week and make three or four meetings
foot the bill. I did this very easily in Chicago last summer. The
beginner should sell 10c booklets or pamphlets, and elsewhere in this
volume he will find two speeches that will show him how to do it. At a
street meeting he need not make these speeches in detail, but just give
the pith of them.
After a while 25c books may be sold, and with practice and hard study
50c books will sell readily. This question is more fully dealt with in
the next chapter.
About two different books may be sold effectively at the meeting; one
early in the meeting and the other about the close. The closing book
talk however, should be begun while the meeting is at its full strength.
One street meeting that puts ten to twenty dollars worth of good books
into circulation is worth a dozen where the only result is the
remembrance of what the speaker said.
Next: Book-selling At Meetings
Previous: The Audience