Saturday, March 14, 2015

Lessons of Gettysburg

Imagine that you are a Union infantryman during the American Civil War.  It is late March of 1865, tantalizingly close to the end of the war, and you can feel it, although you cannot know it. You and your regiment from Maine have found yourselves in a skirmish in Virginia at a place you think is called Quaker Road.  Muskets crackle on all sides, and the air is beginning to fill with the acrid smoke from black powder. The valour of your brigade commander, Brig. Gen Joshua Lawrence Chamberlain, is well known, and he is leading your regiment now from horseback against a Confederate position when he is suddenly shot through the chest.

Time seems to congeal, and you see the splash of blood, the stiffening of his body from the impact, the bullet exiting from the center of his back as his mount rears and he plummets ignominiously to the ground.

Emotions race through you, jockeying for position: terror at seeing another man, known to you, fall slain; confusion, wondering who is now in charge; fear, at the prospect that the next .58 caliber minnie ball might have your name on it; and anger and guilt that your commanding officer has been killed before your eyes.

Adrenalin and the primal urge to persevere bubble up out of you in a guttural scream that puts the yipping 'rebel yell' to shame, and you fire your one shot at the cloud of smoke that might well mask the musket that felled your leader, and then raise your bayoneted musket as you, and the rest of your regiment, prepare to charge headlong into the enemy position...

And then, somehow, impossibly, Chamberlain staggers to his feet.

He is shaken, unsteady, but still composed.  His pistol lost, he draws his saber and exhorts the men of his brigade to join him in the charge, which you do, gladly, and in awe, because you can see, clearly, the hole in his blue wool uniform jacket, directly between his shoulder blades.

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I've always enjoyed public speaking, so when they formed a Toastmasters club at work, I was quick to join and had the privilege of becoming a charter member.  It's a great organization, well structured and supportive, with a clear structure to follow to get one's first designation of Competent Communicator.  There are ten speech projects, each with a different focus such as body language or clear phrasing, five of which I had completed as of the start of this week.

I wasn't scheduled to make a speech this past week; in fact, with the exception of a 'Tall Tales' speech contest last Autumn, I'd gone 11 months without a project to accommodate some newer members. When the scheduled speaker announced on Wednesday that they would not be able to give their speech the next day, I said I would be happy to step in.

My regret was almost immediate; I normally would have had a month or more to think about a topic and focus that suited the particular project, and now I had 24 hours to do that, and prepare and rehearse the speech in its entirety before delivering it at lunch the next day.

A glance at the Competent Communicator manual informed me that the focus of Project 6 was vocal variety.  My delivery was already pretty decent, but I needed to make sure that my speech gave me ample opportunity to demonstrate it. My first five speeches contained a lot of references to my father and family, and I wanted to make sure this one was non-anecdotal, but the infinite variety of possible topics left me paralyzed with indecision.

Turning to the internet on my lunch break, I found a great website that suggested focusing on the 'Four Ps' of public speaking: pace, pitch, power and pauses. It also suggested that speaking without notes (as I usually tried to do) would make it easier to keep my head up to project my voice, and to focus on the auditory component of my speech.  This meant it would have to be a topic I had some familiarity with, but what?

Thinking of changes in volume made me think of shouting, which in turn made me think of war cries; unbidden, the image from a t-shirt purchased at Gettysburg came to me, with the steely gaze of Confederate Gen. Lewis A. Armistead perched over the words, "Come on boys, give them the cold steel!"

The American Civil War seemed a good choice, but too broad; even the Battle of Gettysburg would be difficult to encompass in a 5-7 minute speech.  Limiting my speech to three lessons of leadership, including Armistead, Chamberlain and of course, Robert E. Lee, however, that could work.  I feel to outlining my speech, and that evening continued to refine it until I'd whittled it down to 6 minutes and 40 seconds.

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The speech, "Three Days at Gettysburg" was well received, but I wasn't overly happy with it; I knew I had gone a few seconds over (but had been spared the embarrassment of being clapped off!), and felt I had rushed my delivery in quite a few places.  In the future, I must try to get the rehearsed speech down to 6 minutes in order to avoid this.

My evaluator was happy with it though, praising my passion for the material and vocal variety, but suggesting I leave longer pauses after rhetorical questions, in order to better engage the audience, which I took immediately to heart.

The club president also spoke warmly about the number of facts I was able to present without notes, something I hadn't really considered; you know what you know, y'know?

After the meeting, the Sergeant-At-Arms was collecting the place cards and ballots, and mentioned to me that she had learned the Gettysburg address in school.  "I didn't realize you went to school in the U.S.," I confessed.

"I didn't," she said. "This was in India. We largely followed the British curriculum, but I distinctly remember learning about 'Four score and seven years ago..."

How astonishing to think that a speech containing the words, "The world will little note, nor long remember what we say here," would be studied by someone a century later, on the opposite side of the globe.

I emailed the President that afternoon, to thank her for her kind words, and confessed that I could have done an entire speech - more than one, in fact - on just Chamberlain himself, In reading about him to make certain of my facts, I found the story on Wikipedia of how he earned the nickname, "Bloody Chamberlain", churlishly depicted by myself at the start of the post, and the manner in which his life was seemingly saved by a framed picture of his wife that he carried in his chest pocket:
The bullet went through his horse's neck, hit the picture frame, entered under Chamberlain's skin in the front of his chest, traveled around his body under the skin along the rib, and exited his back. To all observers Union and Confederate, it appeared that he was shot through his chest. He continued to encourage his men to attack. All sides cheered his valiant courage, and the Union assault was successful.

The American Civil War was a national tragedy, brimming with heroism and horror in equal measure.  It should hardly be surprising that such a conflict should provide so many intriguing characters and valuable lessons, and I am certain I will be plumbing its depths for future speeches.

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