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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