«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.