I’m writing this missive from a bar at the Brussels airport, with the best-earned beer I’ve had in a while at my elbow—a boozy Duvel gold blonde—and another on ice.
I just came from a nine-hour day of presenting three different versions of my Speechwriting Jam Session to three wholly different crowds of big European government types, at the headquarters of the European Commission here. And submitting myself to their natural skepticism during extended Q&As, one lasting 75 minutes.
Oui, another Duvel, merci.
The sessions actually went far better than I’d feared—and as I think about it, far better than I’d dreamed, too. Why? Because by now in my embarrassingly pinpointed field of study of speechwriting and political rhetoric, I have an answer for just about everything.
How can we write speeches for audiences of different cultures proficient in different languages? Speak simply, about things that matter to every human being, regardless of culture.
How do I convince my boss not to use PowerPoint? Draw a distinction between presentations and speeches, and point out that no speech that has remained in human memory was ever accompanied by PowerPoint.
How do I get my rigormortistic speaker to appear to be a human being? Find some intersection between their personal interest and professional responsibility, and aim speeches at it. (If there is no intersection, you are fucked; but then, so is the organization that the soulless careerist creep leads.)
I’m even ready, after years of presenting sessions for international organizations mostly peopled by women, for women who thank me for flying all this way and to share my wisdom with them HOWEVER: How dare I use my Jam Session to promote my personal brand of American misogynism? Too many speeches by men, not enough speeches by non-Americans in general (I showed only three) and non-American women in particular (the two women’s speeches I showed were both by Americans).
I wasn’t exactly prepared, this time, for accusations that women’s speeches I showed—one by late U.S. Rep. Barbara Jordan and the other by New York State Rep. Diane Savino—were examples of women speaking in the “male style” of aggressiveness and “me, me, me.” As opposed, it was angrily explained to my ignorant American male self during the Q&A, to Hillary Clinton’s and Angela Merkel’s speeches, which are somehow of a “softer,” more inclusive style.
After briefly checking to make sure I actually do respect the women who surround my life, starting with my dead feminist mother who did everything she could to counteract the inevitable sexist influence of my father, a male—after that, I asked one of the women to give me an example of the kind of “woman’s” speaking style she was referring to. I expressed my honest lack of understanding of what in the world my questioner actually meant by this sort of speech.
She mumbled a couple of names of speakers and referred to Merkel’s victory speech, given the day before, in which Merkel—this was my insight—said she appreciated the mandate given her and that she would use it “carefully” or some such. Not that I believed this was some fundamental difference in rhetoric from President Obama—or Mister Fucking Rogers, whose simultaneously spellbinding and deeply effeminate testimony I had just shown. This is a man who Barbara Jordan could pick up and carry around the house, rhetorically and realistically. At this late date, how does a anyone really believe there is a woman’s style of public speaking, and a man’s?
Thankfully a third woman interrupted with a speech I couldn’t have written in a more masculine style myself, about how there is no such thing as a woman’s speaking style. Rather, there are two types of rhetoric—persuasive and empathetic (or some such) and how any good speaker, regardless of gender, should be able to handle them both, depending on the situation.
After that the day was downhill, in a happy way—through a 90-minute session with the EU’s heads of communication, and down into a flowery valley of fellow speechwriters. I always quote Ruth Gordon who told Bud Cort in Harold & Maude that she has a way with people, because, “They’re my species, Harold.” Speechwriters—at home and abroad—are my species.
(We make better Belgian waffles than Belgians make hot dogs, I can tell you that much.)
And after all, I leave Brussels—for a quick session in Copenhagen and a party with friends there, and then home—with less a sense of accomplishment and more one of astonished gratitude that perfectly capable adult intellectuals had minds open enough to allow an American “speech expert” to share his admittedly American rhetorical techniques in their halls. (Try to imagine the situation in reverse; you can’t.)
So here’s to the European Commission—I’m onto Leffe now, which is only 6.6% alcohol, and I’m beginning to calm down—and to the European Parliament and the European Union and Europe itself. May your open-mindedness overcome your blinders and your bitterness be overwhelmed by the light of your generosity of spirit.
And may mine, too.