I was browsing in a New York bookstore when I overheard a man ask for a book on how to win an argument. The two young women behind the counter giggled. I wondered if they knew about Demosthenes. Persuasion is a serious subject, and this bookstore customer wasn’t just a victim, he was doing something about his problem.
Sometimes we must fail to know what we must learn.
Thousands of years ago Demosthenes, a prominent citizen of Athens, also needed to win an argument. His father had died when he was seven years old and his guardians neglected him. It’s a Cinderella story. The boy’s guardians squandered the money for his care and education.
Young Demosthenes heard about a famous trial where Callistratus was to plead a celebrated cause. In ancient Greece orators had rock-star status, and Callistratus was the Elvis of his day. Demosthenes managed to get one of his teachers to smuggle him into the trial. He was so impressed by the power of language he vowed to emulate the great public speaker.
When he reached adulthood, Demosthenes brought his guardians to account in court. But people laughed at him because of his speech impediment. His stutter was so bad that few could understand what he said.
What he did next was remarkable.
Demosthenes retired to the countryside. He shaved off half the hair on his head so he wouldn’t be tempted to return to Athens until it grew back. He used this period of self-imposed exile to train himself in the art of persuasion and public speaking.
Demosthenes developed exercises to strengthen his voice. He practiced speaking with stones in his mouth to overcome his debilitating stammer. He ran up hills while reciting poetry to gain command of his breathing. In his house he had a full-length mirror (a rare piece of technology) where he practiced gestures.
Demosthenes prepared well. He refused to speak extemporaneously. He went on to be what Plutarch called a “matchless orator.” Generations of persuaders have studied the work he left behind.
I hope the man in the bookstore wasn’t deterred by being laughed at. I like to think he found what he was looking for and won his argument.