What’s the point of doing speeches?

In April 2014 I did the opening talk at The Oxford Speechwriter & Business Communicators Conference. Here is what I said.

“Fire the speechwriters”!

In 2009 for­mer speech­writer for Pres­i­dent George W. Bush, Matt Latimer, wrote at piece in Wash­ing­ton Post urg­ing Barack Oba­ma to elim­i­nate his own pro­fes­sion. “Mr. Pres­i­dent”, he wrote,

fire the speech­writ­ers; it might be the only way to save the presidency.

Latimer argued that “The age of the Inter­net and cable news has opened the world to an onslaught of ideas, opin­ions and infor­ma­tion”, that is “strip­ping away the grandeur – and pow­er – of the high­est office in the land.”
Speech­writ­ers, he claimed

have become enablers, man­ning an assem­bly line of recy­cled bul­let points so pres­i­dents can serve as the nation’s pep-talk-givers, instant reac­tors, [and] TV friends.

Is that who you are? Assem­bly line work­ers pro­duc­ing recy­cled bul­let points?

I don’t think so. On the con­trary I have the utmost respect for the work you do. And I am very hap­py indeed that Bri­an [Jen­ner] has invit­ed me to speak to you today. To be hon­est, when I got to know Bri­an online, whom I meet in per­son for the first time yes­ter­day, I secret­ly hoped that he would one day invite me to this con­fer­ence. He did, and I am tru­ly thank­ful and hon­ored to be here.

As a researcher and teacher of rhetoric I strive to make peo­ple bet­ter at under­stand­ing com­mu­ni­ca­tion and more adept in com­mu­ni­cat­ing per­sua­sive­ly. I believe that I – and you – have an oblig­a­tion to do so. I am not a speech­writer, but I have done speech­writ­ing, I have coached CEOs, politi­cians, and pro­fes­sors; orga­nized speech­writ­ing cours­es for depart­ments, min­istries and par­ties. So, I have a sense of the chal­lenges you are facing.

Is speech-making cost-effective?

And like you, I believe that speech­mak­ing has a rhetor­i­cal pow­er that is unequal to any oth­er kind of com­mu­ni­ca­tion. Still, I also think that Latimer may have a point: many lead­ers, espe­cial­ly polit­i­cal lead­ers, prob­a­bly do too many speech­es. There are plen­ty of rea­sons not to spend time on speech­mak­ing – or to do a speech at all.

Many CEOs tell me that they do not want to do a speech; they just want to get the job done, instead of using valu­able time and resources talk­ing. Appar­ent­ly they do not con­sid­er speech­mak­ing a cost-effec­tive activ­i­ty. It is much eas­i­er, they think, to dis­trib­ute infor­ma­tion online, do a short video, send an email, or par­tic­i­pate in an inter­view. Why pre­pare a for­mal speech, if you can just do an infor­mal meeting?

The time of speechmaking is not over

If we are to save speech­mak­ing – and our jobs – we should think more about why peo­ple do speech­es at all – and why oth­er peo­ple lis­ten to them. What sep­a­rates speech­es from oth­er forms of com­mu­ni­ca­tion? What is the unique sell­ing point of a speech? What role should speech-mak­ing have in the age of Inter­net and cable news? We should start by dis­card­ing the notion that the time of speech­mak­ing is over. It is not.

Take the British jour­nal­ist and mem­ber of the Euro­pean Par­lia­ment, Daniel Han­nan. When he woke up on March 25, 2009, his phone was clogged with texts, his email inbox with mes­sages. The day before, he had deliv­ered a three minute speech in the Euro­pean par­lia­ment, call­ing Gor­don Brown, “the deval­ued Prime Min­is­ter of a deval­ued gov­ern­ment”. Now a YouTube clip of his short remarks had attract­ed over 36,000 hits. It was the most watched video in Britain that day, and today almost three mil­lion peo­ple have watched his speech.

Han­nan is not the only speak­er expe­ri­enc­ing his speech goes viral. Who can for­get the elo­quent attack that Australia’s for­mer Prime Min­is­ter, Julia Gillard, launched on her oppo­nent Tony Abbott, accus­ing him for dou­ble stan­dards, sex­ism, and misog­y­ny. Today 2.5 mil­lion peo­ple have seen this speech on Youtube.

New media is not a threat to speech­mak­ing. It is a pos­si­bil­i­ty. Inter­net and video are poten­tial vehi­cles for the words we write. New forms of com­mu­ni­ca­tion will nev­er dis­place the good speech. Think about Barack Oba­ma’s pres­i­den­tial cam­paigns, which are prob­a­bly the most advanced and tech­no­log­i­cal cam­paigns ever car­ried out. The use of social media, big data, and IT-tech­nol­o­gy was unequalled to any oth­er cam­paign in history.

There is no doubt that new tech­nol­o­gy helped him become pres­i­dent. But with­out the old­est tech­nol­o­gy in com­mu­ni­ca­tion, speech mak­ing, he would nev­er have become pres­i­dent. And think about the Arab spring or Occu­py Wall Street. These events, many argue, could not have hap­pened with­out social media as a tool for dis­sem­i­nat­ing infor­ma­tion and orga­niz­ing action.

It is true that new media are excel­lent in cre­at­ing and gath­er­ing a crowd. But, what then, do we do when we have a crowd? What did the thou­sands of peo­ple gath­ered in Zucot­ti Park in New York do? What did the mas­sive crowd in Tahir Square in Cairo do? They looked for a speaker.

Every crowd needs a speak­er. Because that is how we cre­ate uni­ty and gain pur­pose and direc­tion. We do it the way humans have done it for cen­turies: we give speeches.

A speech is an event

So, speech­es still have an impor­tant place in our time, and we should all be aware why this is the case. Why do peo­ple lis­ten to speech­es? What is it that speech­es do bet­ter than social media, inter­views or meet­ings? The first and most basic thing to remem­ber is that even though you write speech­es, and many peo­ple read speech­es; speech­es are not texts.

A speech is an event. It is a phys­i­cal meet­ing where one per­son has undis­put­ed access to many people’s atten­tion. Being in the same place not only makes it pos­si­ble for the speak­er to influ­ence the audi­ence, it also makes it pos­si­ble to let the audi­ence influ­ence each other.

In a sense the media put an end to mass com­mu­ni­ca­tion. Lis­ten­ers and the view­ers of broad­cast­ing or online com­mu­ni­ca­tion are not a mass; they are not part of a group or a crowd.

Gen­er­al­ly they sit alone or just a few peo­ple at home – often rather inat­ten­tive. But with a speech we can make every­body in a crowd react in the same way, at the same time. We can unite them in a community.

Speakers create community

No oth­er form of com­mu­ni­ca­tion can cre­ate com­mu­ni­ty and uni­ty the way a speech can. Where­as media audi­ences are nor­mal­ly at home or at work, scat­tered in dif­fer­ent parts of the com­pa­ny, the city, or even the coun­try; a speaker’s audi­ence is phys­i­cal­ly present as a group in front of him.

Just by being togeth­er in the same place this audi­ence is already unit­ed as an estab­lished “we”. A leader can send out a report, an email, or any kind of text. But it does not allow him to look the audi­ence in the eyes. Of course the leader can make a video; he can look in the cam­era and address the view­ers as “we”. But it is very hard to make an audi­ence tru­ly feel as a “we” – as a com­mu­ni­ty, when you are phys­i­cal­ly sep­a­rat­ed from them, and they are sep­a­rat­ed from each oth­er. Lead­er­ship is bring­ing peo­ple togeth­er: emo­tion­al­ly, men­tal­ly – physically.

Think of us here and now. Even though I work in acad­e­mia and you are speech­writ­ers, even though we are dif­fer­ent; you can­not but accept it, when I say “us” and “we”; sim­ply because we are actu­al­ly here, togeth­er, in the same room. We are, per def­i­n­i­tion, a group. And we are all here because we want to feel that we are part of a group. We are here because want the expe­ri­ence of being part of a community.

Now, some of you might think: well I am here to learn more about speech­writ­ing, I am here to get new ideas and infor­ma­tion. Are you sure? If you do a cost-ben­e­fit-analy­sis of the sit­u­a­tion, the state­ment doesn’t real­ly make sense. Does it?  If all we want­ed was ideas and infor­ma­tion, it would be much eas­i­er for every­one just to send their ideas on email, or put them online, or we could watch short videos of each other’s talks. But we don’t.

Instead we all pay lots of mon­ey to attend. We kiss our fam­i­lies good bye. We get on taxis, and trains, and busses; in the air­port we take off our belts and our shoes, and sud­den­ly real­ize that we are wear­ing socks in two dif­fer­ent col­ors. Why do we both­er with the has­sle? Why do we use mon­ey and trav­el far? We do this because we want to be part of a group. We want to expe­ri­ence and feel – and learn – some­thing togeth­er – as a community.

We want to see the speak­er in the flesh, sense his pres­ence. We want him to see us – and we want to see each oth­er see him. No oth­er form of com­mu­ni­ca­tion does this as well as speech­mak­ing. No oth­er form of com­mu­ni­ca­tion can more effec­tive­ly cre­ate com­mu­ni­ties, and make the com­mu­ni­ty see the world as you do.

The power of storytelling – or just stories?

Often the best way to cre­ate com­mu­ni­ty is to tell – or cre­ate – the sto­ry of the group. This is what Barack Oba­ma does so well. His fab­u­lous speech to the Demo­c­ra­t­ic con­ven­tion in 2004 weaved his own life sto­ry into the fab­rics of the Unit­ed States’ his­to­ry. There he was, the black man with the odd name, on the enor­mous stage in Boston, trans­mit­ted to mil­lions of tele­vi­sion screens. “Tonight is a par­tic­u­lar hon­or for me”, he said:

because, let’s face it, my pres­ence on this stage is pret­ty unlike­ly. My father was a for­eign stu­dent, born and raised in a small vil­lage in Kenya. He grew up herd­ing goats, went to school in a tin-roof shack. His father, my grand­fa­ther, was a cook, a domes­tic servant.

The sto­ry of generation’s hard work and per­se­ver­ance that helped bring Oba­ma in front of this huge audi­ence is not just the sto­ry about Oba­ma, it is also the sto­ry about the US and the Amer­i­can dream.

We use sto­ries because they turn our mes­sages into some­thing vivid and present. The spe­cif­ic, the vivid, and that which has pres­ence, engages the audi­ence. It makes them involved, and sticks in their mem­o­ry. We remem­ber sto­ries, not bul­let points. So, sto­ries are good.

But we should take care, because sto­ries also run the risk of being just sto­ries. The audi­ence may enjoy the sto­ry, but they are not nec­es­sar­i­ly moved in the direc­tion you want them to. A research study of news in the US, for instance, made two ver­sions of a news seg­ment about unem­ploy­ment: One group of view­ers was shown a vivid sto­ry about the dif­fi­cul­ty and dis­tress of an unem­ploy­ment indi­vid­ual, liv­ing in the sub­urbs of Chicago.

Anoth­er group was pre­sent­ed with nation­al facts and sta­tis­tics about the increas­ing unem­ploy­ment. Now, which group do you think was more like­ly to be per­suad­ed that unem­ploy­ment was a prob­lem? The group who got a sto­ry in flesh and blood? Or the group who was pre­sent­ed with num­bers and facts? Here is what the researchers concluded:

Con­trary to much con­ven­tion­al wis­dom, news sto­ries that direct view­ers’ atten­tion to the flesh and blood vic­tims of nation­al prob­lems prove no more per­sua­sive than news sto­ries that cov­er nation­al prob­lems imper­son­al­ly – indeed, they tend to be less per­sua­sive. (S. Iyen­gar & D. R. Kinder, News that mat­ter. Tele­vi­sion and Amer­i­can Opin­ion, 1987: 42).

Per­haps, the authors say,

vivid pre­sen­ta­tions are gen­er­al­ly less per­sua­sive […] because they are so suc­cess­ful as melo­dra­ma. View­ers may get so caught up in one family’s trou­ble that they fail to make the con­nec­tion back to the nation­al con­di­tion. Over­whelmed by con­crete details, they miss the gen­er­al point. (ibid.).

Sto­ries may arrest your atten­tion and enter­tain you, but they do not nec­es­sar­i­ly per­suade you. So, if you want to do more than enter­tain, if you want to per­suade peo­ple, then your sto­ry should be an argu­ment. Obama’s sto­ry was not just a sto­ry. It was also an argu­ment: an argu­ment about him and about the US. If this young man has come so far then he can go even fur­ther. And if a per­son with his back­ground can make it, then we can all make it. Con­clu­sion: The Amer­i­can dream is alive and kicking.

The power of argumentation

Argu­ments are at least as impor­tant as sto­ries. I don’t know if you think con­scious­ly about argu­men­ta­tion, when you write speech­es. But I know you should.

I am not talk­ing about argu­men­ta­tion in a log­i­cal or philo­soph­i­cal way. What you have to use is rhetor­i­cal argu­men­ta­tion: you have to pro­vide good rea­sons. Good rea­sons come not only as facts, num­bers and deduc­tion; but also as sto­ries, images, and examples.

If you want to per­suade peo­ple that unem­ploy­ment is a prob­lem, then you should com­bine the vivid sto­ry of the unem­ployed per­son in Chica­go with the indis­putable facts and sta­tis­tics, because both are good rea­sons to do some­thing about the prob­lem. In a sense the per­son­al and involved argu­ment is even more char­ac­ter­is­tic of speech mak­ing than sto­ry­telling is. We get sto­ries every­where today: in films, books, games, tele­vi­sion-series – even in the news. Sto­ries are not spe­cial to speech­mak­ing, but I think that the per­son­al argued case is.

What we risk los­ing in our frag­ment­ed, twit­tered, bul­let point­ed, sound­bite-soci­ety, is the cogent, coher­ent case, well-argued by an indi­vid­ual who wants to make a dif­fer­ence. Medi­at­ed argu­men­ta­tion is not the same as per­son­al argumentation.

If you make an argu­ment in a writ­ten text, the argu­ment put down in words are now phys­i­cal­ly sep­a­rat­ed from you. In a sense it is not your argu­ment any­more, it is just an argu­ment in the paper, in the newslet­ter, or on Face­book. How­ev­er, if I as a speak­er actu­al­ly stand before you and make an argu­ment, then it is not just an argu­ment. Then it is me, per­son­al­ly reach­ing out to you, try­ing to touch you with my ideas and val­ues, hop­ing that you might accept them.

In doing so I put myself on the line much more than when I tell a sto­ry. When I make a claim, I oblige myself to back it up. I invest myself in the cause, and leave the faith of my cause in your hands. Doing that is tak­ing a stand. Tak­ing a stand is tak­ing a risk. And, tak­ing a risk in front of oth­er peo­ple is show­ing char­ac­ter and respect for the listeners.

You may be proved wrong. But you do it any­way, because you believe in the cause and trust the audi­ence. This is the hall­mark of tru­ly great speech­es: A speak­er invest­ing him­self in the cause aim­ing to change the world by sway­ing the audi­ence. This was what Neil Kin­nock did in his famous speech to the Labour Par­ty Con­fer­ence in Bournemouth 1985, when he argued that you “can’t play pol­i­tics with people’s jobs”. This was what Kennedy did with “Ich bin ein Berlin­er”, what Mar­tin Luther King did with “I have a dream”, what Mar­garet Thatch­er did with “The Bruges speech”, and what Barack Oba­ma did with “A more per­fect union”. And this is what you should do when you write speeches.

Cre­ate com­mu­ni­ty, tell sto­ries; but first and fore­most, you should pro­vide your speak­er with per­suad­ing argu­ments for his cause. Help­ing him to find good rea­sons is the best way to help him make a dif­fer­ence. This is what good speech­writ­ers have done since antiq­ui­ty. So, my friends, roll out the parch­ment, grab your sty­lus, and write down the good reasons.

The Oxford Speech­writer & Busi­ness Com­mu­ni­ca­tors Con­fer­ence Con­fer­ence, 2014

The Euro­pean Speech­writer Network







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