Begin Well

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

English language:

"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.

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