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Chapter XX. Influencing By Description

The groves of Eden vanish'd now so long, Live in description, and look green in song.

- Alexander Pope, Windsor Forest.

The moment our discourse rises above the ground-line of familiar facts, and is inflamed with passion or exalted thought, it clothes itself in images. A man conversing in earnest, if he watch his intellectual processes, will find that always a material image, more or less luminous, arises in his mind, contemporaneous with every thought, which furnishes the vestment of the thought. . . . This imagery is spontaneous. It is the blending of experience with the present action of the mind. It is proper creation. - Ralph Waldo Emerson, Nature.

Like other valuable resources in public speaking, description loses its power when carried to an extreme. Over-ornamentation makes the subject ridiculous. A dust-cloth is a very useful thing, but why embroider it? Whether description shall be restrained within its proper and important limits, or be encouraged to run riot, is the personal choice that comes before every speaker, for man's earliest literary tendency is to depict.

The Nature Of Description

To describe is to call up a picture in the mind of the hearer. "In talking of description we naturally speak of portraying, delineating, coloring, and all the devices of the picture painter. To describe is to visualize, hence we must look at description as a pictorial process, whether the writer deals with material or with spiritual objects."1

If you were asked to describe the rapid-fire gun you might go about it in either of two ways: give a cold technical account of its mechanism, in whole and in detail, or else describe it as a terrible engine of slaughter, dwelling upon its effects rather than upon its structure.

The former of these processes is exposition, the latter is true description. Exposition deals more with the gen-eral, while description must deal with the particular. Exposition elucidates ideas, description treats of things. Exposition deals with the abstract, description with the concrete. Exposition is concerned with the internal, description with the external. Exposition is enumerative, description literary. Exposition is intellectual, description sensory. Exposition is impersonal, description personal.

If description is a visualizing process for the hearer, it is first of all such for the speaker - he cannot describe what he has never seen, either physically or in fancy. It is this personal quality - this question of the personal eye which sees the things later to be described - that makes description so interesting in public speech. Given a speaker of personality, and we are interested in his personal view - his view adds to the natural interest of the scene, and may even be the sole source of that interest to his auditors.

The seeing eye has been praised in an earlier chapter (on "Subject and Preparation") and the imagination will be treated in a subsequent one (on "Riding the Winged Horse"), but here we must consider the picturing mind: the mind that forms the double habit of seeing things clearly - for we see more with the mind than we do with the physical eye - and then of re-imaging these things for the purpose of getting them before the minds' eyes of the hearers. No habit is more useful than that of visualizing clearly the object, the scene, the situation, the action, the person, about to be described. Unless that primary process is carried out clearly, the picture will be blurred for the hearer-beholder.

1 Writing the Short-Story, J. Berg Esenwein.

In a work of this nature we are concerned with the rhetorical analysis of description, and with its methods, only so far as may be needed for the practical purposes of the speaker.1 The following grouping, therefore, will not be regarded as complete, nor will it here be necessary to add more than a word of explanation:

Description for





In motion



Including action


Preceding change

During change

After change







1 For fuller treatment of Description see Genung's Working Principles of Rhetoric, Albright's Descriptives Writing, Bates' Talks on Writing English, first and second series, and any advanced rhetoric.

Some of the foregoing processes will overlap, in certain instances, and all are more likely to be found in combination than singly.

When description is intended solely to give accurate information - as to delineate the appearance, not the technical construction, of the latest Zeppelin airship - it is called "scientific description," and is akin to exposition. When it is intended to present a free picture for the purpose of making a vivid impression, it is called "artistic description." With both of these the public speaker has to deal, but more frequently with the latter form. Rhetoricians make still further distinctions.

Methods Of Description

In public speaking, description should be mainly by suggestion, not only because suggestive description is so much more compact and time-saving but because it is so vivid. Suggestive expressions connote more than they literally say - they suggest ideas and pictures to the mind of the hearer which supplement the direct words of the speaker. When Dickens, in his "Christmas Carol," says: "In came Mrs. Fezziwig, one vast substantial smile," our minds complete the picture so deftly begun - a much more effective process than that of a minutely detailed description because it leaves a unified, vivid impression, and that is what we need. Here is a present-day bit of suggestion: "General Trinkle was a gnarly oak of a man - rough, solid, and safe; you always knew where to find him." Dickens presents Miss Peecher as: "A little pincushion, a little housewife, a little book, a little work-box, a little set of tables and weights and measures, and a little woman all in one." In his "Knickerbocker's" "History of New York," Irving portrays Wouter van Twiller as "a robustious beer-barrel, standing on skids."

Whatever forms of description you neglect, be sure to master the art of suggestion.

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