Street Speaking


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.


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

a lawyer.

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.

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