Faithful Vital Speeches correspondent Neil Hrab, upon whom I've bestowed the title "Rhetoric Editor"—or "rheditor," for short—sent me something this week that said in three paragraphs something I've been trying to articulate for my whole career as a shepherd of professional speechwriters (and noted industry clothes horse).
One of the rigors of public office is maintaining the constant flow of words it demands, and trying to sustain these utterances with at least a minimum diet of reasonable good sense. The land is covered with organizations given to the habit of weekly, monthly or annual meetings, all to be addressed by speakers summoned from as great a distance as the organizational treasury permits. While other advanced societies have wisely put the siesta after the noonday meal and reduced after-dinner eloquence to the sensible brevity of the toast, we continue here to nourish the illusion that extended oratory is an aid to digestion. It is part of the code that government officials are fair game for the predatory pursuits of program chairmen, whether their blandishment is a free meal or an honorary doctoral degree.
…[C]ommunication is both the most difficult and most critical part of making democracy work. Words are the necessary currency for exchanging the capital of ideas and ideals, and if speeches are a declining and corrupted art form there is nevertheless some purpose in trying to put what seems right and worthwhile in understandable shape—without making it any drearier than the circumstances demand. Even if an audience has relinquished voluntarily its freedom from speech it retains the right, I think, not to be bored. Indeed, as the world gets more complicated it may be less important for its speakers to appeal to their listeners’ sense of destiny than to their sense of humor—which is only knowing how to distinguish between what is important and what isn’t.
It may also compensate some who are tired of listening to note that even a poor speech has had some value, in its preparation, of putting to the tough test of contemplated exposure some thoughts that might otherwise have stayed in the speaker’s mind despite their fatal weakness. I have been appalled sometimes at the realization of having come within a final draft of expressing some idea I had grown fond of but which emerged, when it went onto paper, as naked nonsense.
The happiest speechwriters I have known are those who maintain a sense of all of the above: That speeches are too many and too long. That speeches are often much more symbolic ceremony than literal communication. That amusing audiences is usually a more realistic and laudable goal than "changing hearts and minds." That the good that speechwriters do for their speakers may be indirect, unappreciated and even unnoticed. But that speechwriters do indeed do good, as long as they do their best to make speechmakers better.
How hard was that?
I've been helping a smart non-writer friend on a project lately. I've been reminded that one of the underrated skills writers bring to the table isn't necessarily the ability to use rhetorical and linguistic skillz to say something eloquently—but rather, to sidestep an issue gracefully.
Like adult children of alcoholics (and parents of asshole children), writers have developed a number of ways to sashay past the elephant in the living room. Here are a few:
• Describing the elephant in a droll way: Perhaps you've noticed the resident wildlife shambling around the coffee table? A friend once saw me notice his teenage daughter's tramp stamp. With a wink he whispered to me, "That's our family coat of arms."
• Stressing the Tyrannosaurus Rex in the restroom—or better yet, the baby seal in the bedroom. Once, my adman dad bought a ring for his girlfriend, which he had inscribed, "For all the years we've had, and all the years we will have." When he showed it to me, he whispered, "Buddy, you gotta be a pretty good writer to say all that and not wind up married."
• Appealing to your intellectual originality. "Obviously, there's an elephant in the living room. What's interesting is what isn't in the living room ..."
• Pointing out how conventional are your "traditional attitudes toward elephants in living rooms."
• Making you face the racist roots of your aversion to elephants in living rooms. "What is it about elephants that makes them unworthy of a living room, in your opinion?"
• Taking you out the screen door in the kitchen and coming in through the back porch, because "the living room is only for formal occasions."
• Distracting you by wondering aloud whether elephants excoriate one another for ignoring the people on the Serengeti.
I thought all of those up in about 90 seconds.
Writers despise euphemisms, doublespeak and spin—not because we believe everyone should go around telling the truth all the time.
But because those tools are cheap shortcuts to honest obfuscation.
I write some pretty facile marketing copy to promote Professional Speechwriters Association events like this seminar series we're putting on in New York (Sept. 22-23) and Atlanta (Dec. 1-2), Strategic Speechwriting: The Method and the Art.
I call the seminar a "two-day mind-blowing blast of ideas." I promise that you'll be "taken aback by the quantity of Mike's lessons, riveted by their quality and inspired by the warmth and humor of the teacher." And I predict, "You'll stagger out of this seminar with more ideas from two days than you've had in two years. And you'll storm back into the office on Monday, recharged and ready to go."
I ascribe to a theory that American audiences, anyway, appreciate what I call "the hint of the hustle"—a little of the old razzle-dazzle that tells 'em, Step right up and win the prize!
But of course when you're also the executive director of the Professional Speechwriters Association, you always hope the thing you're describing doesn't let 'em down.
I recently attended Long's Strategic Speechwriting course—his first one, here in Chicago.
What he actually said during what one participant called "terrific two days of invaluable instruction and spirited conversation" sells the seminar better than than any marketing copy I could have written. I hope anybody with any corporate writing experience at all will read some of Long's lines that I jotted down and be compelled to sign up for one of the remaining two courses. Why? Partly because you'll be able to tell he knows what he's talking about—and partly because you'll want to know what the hell he's talking about.
"Speechwriting is primarily collaborative," he said. "And I don't mean that in a good way."
"Writer's block is the fear that what you put on the page will not be as good as what is in your head."
"If you're [writing speeches] professionally, you're digging ditches."
"I'm tolerating you, I'm tolerating you, I'm tolerating you. I hate you! I hate you! I hate you!" (That's the audience's reaction precisely at the 20-minute mark of a speech, according to Long.)
"Don't show up with your invoice in your hand. Show up with your friendliness."
And last but not least, Long said of rhetoric: "You may not believe I love you, but you can't argue with what happened in the middle of the night."
And he wasn't talking about what you think he was talking about.
Donn't take it from me, take it from one of the speechwriters who attended the Chicago show: "I had no idea there was so much to learn about the discipline of speechwriting. Nor that such a wealth of information could be delivered with such an effective combination of rigor, passion, and humor. I found the course invaluable in challenging what little I thought I knew, and giving me much, much more to think about. I have no doubt that it will help me to be a better writer in all formats, from speeches and op-eds to news releases and ghost-written emails."
Or do take it from me: You'll be scribbling notes with one hand, and wiping tears of laughter out of your eyes with the other.
A motherfucker who, after you've been hounding him by email, voice mail and cell phone for a month to give you something that he promised you and that you need, finally emails you back in response to your latest near-hysterical entreaty, "Thanks for reaching out."
On April 4, 1968, Robert F. Kennedy told an audience of African-Americans in Indianapolis that Martin Luther King had been assassinated, and then laid out a choice for them: hate, or love.
On Monday, Utah Lt. Governor Spencer Cox spoke at a vigil for victims of the Orlando shootings, and the speech sounded the very same timeless notes.
First off, have you ever had a beer with anyone? I never have. But I do know what the first beer you have with a new acquaintance is like. It's like having coffee—spastically agreeable, with all the natural human communication of a high-stakes spelling bee.
Things don't settle into any kind of tolerable rhythm until halfway through Beer Two. (Which is why I've always argued that beers should come in twos.)
Candor? Begins with beer three.
Belly laughs? Beer four.
Something you probably shouldn't say but what the hell, life is short? Five.
You think that too?! Wow, we really have much more in common than we thought—and we can totally hold our liquor! That's six.
I'm a little hazy on what happens at seven—(sometimes eight happens at seven)—but I know it's usually good. How do I know? Because many's the time I've had seven beers with a person I just met. And many's the lasting friendship that such a session spawned.
And if you have seven beers with a person and you don't like 'em? Uber away and never Uber back.
Anyway, the politician question should clearly be changed to, "Which candidate would you rather have seven beers with?"
And just incidentally, I have on good authority that Hillary Clinton once drank John McCain silly on an overnight flight.
Meanwhile, Trump doesn't drink, supposedly because he was commanded not to touch alcohol by his alcoholic older brother.
(Which makes me wish his brother had been a political junkie, instead.)
Got a note yesterday from a speechwriter friend in Brussels—one of several she has sent, between several I have sent, in moments like this. Starting darkly to wonder if we should stop reinventing the wheel with these. —DM
I'm thinking of my friends in ________ today, after __ of your fellow citizens were murdered in cold blood and __ injured senselessly at a _______ while they gathered peacefully for _______.
_____ times in the last __ years, you and I have had to console one another after a terrorist attack. How many more?
We _______s are very much with you ________s today, and I know friendship and solidarity will remain longer than hate.
But I do worry about our stamina. And so I've created this form letter so that, as we call on our reserves of nerve, sympathy and love, we don't we don't have to tax our creative powers too.
Warm wishes—for you, for us, and for the whole human family, which must find a better way, somehow, some day.
Your Friend in _________