The Faculty of Impromptu Speech, Part 3


From Lectures to My Students: A Selection from Addresses Delivered to the Students of The Pastors’ College, Metropolitan Tabernacle

First Series, Lecture X
By C.H. Spurgeon

Read the series.

The power of impromptu speech is invaluable, because it enables a man on the spur of the moment, in an emergency, to deliver himself with propriety. These emergencies will arise. Accidents will occur in the best regulated assemblies. Singular events may turn the premeditated current of your thoughts quite aside. You will see clearly that the subject selected would be inopportune, and you will as a wise man drift into something else without demur. When the old road is closed, and there is no help for it but to make a new way for the chariot, unless you are qualified to drive the honks over a ploughed field as well as along the macadamised road on which you hoped to travel, you will find yourself off the coach-box, and mischief will befall the company.

It is a great acquisition to be able at a public meeting, when you have heard the speeches of your brethren, and believe that they have been too frivolous, or it may be, on the other hand, too dull, without any allusions to them, quietly to counteract the mischief, and lead the assembly into a more profitable line of thought. This gift may be of the utmost importance in the church-meeting, where business may arise which it would be difficult to foresee. All the troublers of Israel are not yet dead. Achan was stoned, and his wife, and his children, but others of his family must have escaped, for the race has certainly been perpetuated, and needs to be dealt with discreetly and vigorously.

In some churches certain noisy men will rise and speak, and when they have done so, it is of great importance that the pastor should readily and convincingly reply, lest bad impressions should remain. A pastor who goes to the church-meeting in the spirit of his Master, feeling sure that in reliance upon the Holy Spirit he is quite able to answer any untoward spirit, sits at ease, keeps his temper, rises in esteem on each occasion, and secures a quiet church; but the unready brother is flurried, probably gets into a passion, commits himself, and inherits a world of sorrow. Besides this, a man may be called upon to preach at a moment’s notice, through the non-arrival of the expected minister, or his sudden sickness; at a public meeting one may feel stirred to speak where silence had been resolved upon; and at any form of religious exercise emergencies may arise which will render impromptu speech as precious as the gold of Ophir.

The gift is valuable—how is it to be obtained? The question leads us to remark that some men will never obtain it.

There must be a natural adaptedness for extemporaneous speech; even as for the poetic art: a poet is born, not made. “Art may develop and perfect the talent of a speaker, but cannot produce it.” All the rules of rhetoric, and all the artifices of oratory cannot make a man eloquent, it is a gift from heaven, and where it is withheld it cannot be obtained. This “gift of utterance,” as we call it, is born with some people, inherited probably from the mother’s side.* To others the gift is denied; their conformation of jaw, and yet more their conformation of brain, never will allow of their becoming fluent and ready speakers. They may, perhaps, make moderate stutterers and slow deliverers of sober truth, but they can never be impromptu orators; unless they should rival Methuselah in age, and then perhaps on the Darwinian theory, which educes an Archbishop of Canterbury from an oyster, they might develop into speakers. If there be not a natural gift of oratory a brother may attain to a respectable post in other departments, but he is not likely to shine as a bright particular star in extemporary speech.

* “There are men organised to speak well, as there are birds organised to sing well, bees to make honey, and beavers to build.” —M. BAUTAIN.

If a man would speak without any present study, he must usually study much.

This is a paradox perhaps, but its explanation lies upon the surface. If I am-a miller, and I have a sack brought to my door, and am asked to fill that sack with good fine flour within the next five minutes, the only way in which I can do it, is by keeping the flour-bin of my mill always full, so that I can at once open the mouth of the sack, fill it, and deliver it. I do not happen to be grinding at that time, and so far the delivery is extemporary; but I have been grinding before, and so have the flour to serve out to the customer.

So, brethren, you must have been grinding, or you will not have the flour. You will not be able to extemporise good thinking unless you have been in the habit of thinking and feeding your mind with abundant and nourishing food. Work hard at every available moment. Store your minds very richly, and then, like merchants with crowded warehouses, you will have goods ready for your customers, and having arranged your good things upon the shelves of your mind, you will be able to hand them down at any time without the laborious process of going to market, sorting, folding, and preparing.

I do not believe that any man can be successful in continuously maintaining the gift of extemporaneous speech, except by ordinarily using far more labour than is usual with those who write and commit their discourses to memory. Take it as a rule without exception, that to be able to overflow spontaneously you must be full.

The collection of a fund of ideas and expressions is exceedingly helpful.

There is a wealth and a poverty in each of these respects. He who has much information, well arranged, and thoroughly understood, with which he is intimately familiar, will be able like some prince of fabulous wealth to scatter gold right and left among the crowd. To you, gentlemen, an intimate acquaintance with the Word of God, with the inward spiritual life, with the great problems of time and eternity will be indispensable. Out of the abundance of the heart the mouth speaketh. Accustom yourselves to heavenly meditations, search the Scriptures, delight yourselves in the law of the Lord, and you need not fear to speak of things which you have tasted and handled of the good word of God.

Men may well be slow of speech in discussing themes beyond the range of their experience; but you, warmed with love towards the King, and enjoying fellowship with him, will find your hearts inciting a good matter, and your tongues will be as the pens of ready writers. Get at the roots of spiritual truths by an experimental acquaintance with them, so shall you with readiness expound them to others. Ignorance of theology is no rare thing in our pulpits, and the wonder is not that so few men are extempore speakers, but that so many are, when theologians are so scarce. We shall never have great preachers till we have great divines. You cannot build a man-of-war out of a currant bush, nor can great soul-moving preachers be formed out of superficial students. If you would be fluent, that is to say flowing, be filled with all knowledge, and especially with the knowledge of Christ Jesus your Lord.

But we remarked that a fund of expressions would be also of much help to the extempore speaker; and, truly, second only to a store of ideas is a rich vocabulary. Beauties of language, elegancies of speech, and above all forcible sentences are to be selected, remembered, and imitated. You are not to carry that gold pencil-case with you, and jot down every polysyllabic word which you meet with in your reading, so as to put it in your next sermon, but you are to know what words mean, to be able to estimate the power of a synonym, to judge the rhythm of a sentence, and to weigh the force of an expletive. You must be masters of words, they must be your genii, your angels, your thunderbolts, or your drops of honey. Mere word-gatherers are hoarders of oyster shells, bean husks, and apple-parings; but to a man who has wide information and deep thought, words are baskets of silver in which to serve up his apples of gold. See to it that you have a good team of words to draw the wagon of your thoughts.