"We are the cowbell we've been waiting for."
Lately here we've discussed reasons people still attend speeches when they could be under the covers, Snapchatting. For handshakes and hugs, I said last month.
I'm going to one and maybe two speeches next week, for those very reasons:
1. I'm seeing David Axelrod at the Chicago City Club Monday for a handshake.
Though I have no reason to expect that Axelrod will say anything at the City Club that he hasn't said a million times on MSNBC, a private event offers that fond possibility. But either way, going to see the big guy in person makes me a big guy myself—an insider, by definition. I once saw James Carville speak at a conference, and I've dined out on the story for years, partly because it's a decent story but partly because I saw it in person. You can't dine out on a story that begins, "I was watching C-SPAN one night ..." So I guess I'm hoping Axelrod gives me some stuff to dine out on. And even if he doesn't have a clear view of the future—well, Axe and me both.
2. I'm hoping to see President Obama's farewell speech on Tuesday night for a hug.
Yes, the editor and publisher of Vital Speeches of the Day is lowering himself to stand in line with a lot of jamokes at Chicago's McCormick Place on Saturday in hopes of getting a golden ticket to see the speech on Tuesday night. Why? Professionally, because I want to cover the mood in the room and the utterings of the people around me, the way I was able to do last summer during the Trump speech at the Republican National Convention. Personally, I think I'm looking forward to taking in the speech with a few friends and with some thousands of Chicago Democrat strangers who will feel like friends—maybe not just for the moment, but maybe, in my mind, for a long time. How long a time—and how substantive our bond—will rely on the words Obama says and the way in which he gets them across. Will we walk out with just a feeling—group nostalgia for 2008?—or will we share an idea, and a few unforgettable words that will hold that idea together in a group mind.
So I'm going to see Axelrod for a handshake, and Obama, if the lines aren't too long (and out the door into the frigid Chicago lakefront air), for a group hug.
I'll let you know how it goes.
Yes, we're all appalled at Donald Trump's foreign policy-by-Twitter. But as the only poor dumb bastard in the world who will spend his own money for paper to print and postage to distribute Secretary of State John Kerry's 9,500-word (and more than 70-minute) speech on Israel and Palestine, I'm calling for a happy medium.
David Murray, Editor & Publisher
Vital Speeches of the Day
In the desert, Stephen Crane
saw a creature, naked, bestial,
Who, squatting upon the ground,
Held his heart in his hands,
And ate of it.
I said, “Is it good, friend?”
“It is bitter—bitter,” he answered;
“But I like it
“Because it is bitter,
“And because it is my heart.”
Along with everyone else, I've been sick since Christmas, and not sleeping well. Yesterday I woke up at four, remembering a series of related dreams, all of which I understood to be related, emotionally, to Trump.
In one, I'd created a New Yorker cartoon showing the look on the face of a delivery man who, after humping a roomful of electronic gadgets, is being told by the rich liberal family that, like, they're not feeling that materialistic this Christmas. The look said, "What am I supposed to do with this shit?"
In another, I was going somewhere on my motorcycle with a Winchester rifle. I have no idea where I was going. All that remains is the good feeling that finally, a chance to get into some action.
In the most vivid dream, I had conceived of a kind of Socioeconomic Empathy Fantasy Camp designed to help People More Out of Touch Than Me understand what it is like for People Less Fortunate Than Me. No doubt partly inspired by a long story I read in Sunday's New York Times Magazine, the fantasy camp would work like this: Participants would fly into town on Friday, and somehow during a boozy night out with their fellow campers, out they'd cleverly be lured into doing something very stupid, that could get them put in jail for many years. They'd spend all of Saturday in jail, coming to understand that their life is over and realizing they don't have one friend who can help them. Then on Sunday morning someone would miraculously spring them. They'd be home for dinner Sunday night, but they'd never be the same.
What does all that have to do with Trump? I can't say, exactly. I just have the strong sense that I wouldn't be dreaming in semi-satirical sociopolitical sequence if Hillary Clinton or Mitt Romney were preparing for office. And I know I wouldn't be willing to share my dreams, all of which reveal that my self-righteous savior complex never sleeps.
There's so much we don't know about how Trump will unfold in the world, and should all be watching, and waiting in an athletic position.
We must also occasionally taste our hearts.
I remember my dad reading the paper and saying, "Aw, Peggy Lee died." Or "Aw, Count Basie died." Or "Aw, Cary Grant died."
I remember just how he said it, too: He said it in a muted version of the same tone that he would use to announce that a onetime colleague or an erstwhile friend had died.
What Dad did not do was express outrage or sadness—this is madness!—that we heard all last year on Facebook as aging rock-n-rollers, actors and sports heroes died before they made 90, before they warned us they were turning final and worst of all, and before we did.
When Eleanor "Sis" Daley died some years ago in her 90s—she was Chicago's first lady through the 1950s, 60s and 70s—a young public radio producer ran with her microphone to the home of Studs Terkel, breathlessly asking him for comment.
"Whaddya want me to say, kid?" said Studs, then pushing 90 himself. "That's what old people do! They die!"
I thought of that when a friend blamed 2016 for taking Zsa Zsa Gabor from us.
Statistically, are some of our shared cultural icons dying a little younger than they used to? Some are, I guess. When actor Alan Thicke died at 69 in December, a Facebook friend called it "insane." And I grant you, at very the end of the year, losing Princess Leia felt like the work of Trump. But Carrie Fisher would have been the first to admit that she was hardly The Greatest, and you didn't see me crying when Ali died last spring.
Mourning famous strangers is not a grown-up thing to do. If we thought we knew their spirit, let's carry it on. We have to be the heroes now.
Happy New Year, everybody. Now let's get after it.
I've noticed a trend that seems to run counter to the march of senseless productivity that characterizes modern life: People really totally completely shut down their work stuff around the holidays.
In my circles, even though speechwriting is not an emergency, I used to get some work emails over Memorial Day, July 4, Labor Day and between Christmas and New Year's.
Almost none now—which makes me happy, for myself and for my correspondents, too.
We could all use a break, and it's got to be especially good for a community and a society when everyone takes that break at once, listens to this kid sing this song ...
... (while trying for one last week not to contemplate the hopeful Christmas eight years ago when this kid sang this song, about a reindeer who'd down in history, "like Obama!") ...
... and then takes a bunch more time off after that, in a nearly eerie week-long pajama day.
And then returns at the same time as everyone else, not so much recharged as 10 more pounds overweight, fuzzy-headed and reminded and that work is good. And without a thousand emails to answer, because everyone else has been lazy too.
To the extent that synchronized sloth and group guilt can unite our divided society—well, whatever works.
So at the end of this really hard and incredibly rewarding first year owning my own business, I and Pro Rhetoric, LLC's COO Benjamine Knight are shutting down completely until Tuesday, Jan. 3. And we're planning to do it every holiday season—and also for a week around July 4—from now on.
Meantime, here's something to keep you warm. Watch it til the end!
Longtime Writing Boots readers may have noticed that I am no longer quite the rabble-rousing gonzo communication commentator that I once was. I'm an association executive now. I need to be a nice guy, a friendly presence. Starting gratuitous fights in order to get attention? These days, I leave that to the President-Elect.
But every once in while a fella needs to know he still knows how to call out some nonsense, fast and hard.
Last week Vital Speeches issued a call for entries for the 2017 Cicero Speechwriting Awards, a program that, now in its 11th year, has been established as the award for speechwriting excellence.
Per usual, fine speeches started coming in the very day of the launch, and they'll keep coming until our early-bird deadline Feb. 3 and our final deadline, Mar. 3.
Unusually, I received an email from a longtime correspondent who told me he'd emailed his boss to ask permission to enter a speech into the contest, and his boss had responded "with a question a lot of other speechwriters' bosses might ask: 'What would we get out of this?' Note the word we. Your call for entries and the Cicero Awards web page appeal to speechwriters' vanity and our hunger for recognition and marketability. Totally legit appeals. But many/most speechwriters are not footing the $150-per-entry bill out of their own pockets. So I'd recommend that the next time you send out a call for entries, you frame it in terms of what winning can do for the organization."
God help me, here was my response, name changed to avoid revictimization of the recipient:
Henry, your boss is a fucking asshole, and you can tell him I said that. Or at least he’s posing as one, for effect.
Seriously, how is it MY responsibility, or yours for that matter, to explain to the head of a corporate communication department why he would want to say he had award-winning staffers doing award-winning work.
I would sound, and I would BE, a ridiculous solicitor if I included language [in our call for entries] about the strategic benefits to the organization that employs a speechwriter who won a Cicero Award.
If your boss can’t figure that out for himself—or if for some reason he’s pretending he can’t—it’s not a marketing problem on my part. It’s an intellectual honesty problem on his.
Don’t you agree?
My correspondent was taken aback, and apologized tongue-in-cheek for not including a "trigger warning" in his original email.
I guess he had a point. I guess here's the trigger: As the head of the Professional Speechwriters Association, I find it more than palatable—I find it rewarding—to help speechwriters write better speeches, find better clients, do more meaningful work, even find a better job. But I draw a bright line—no, a bright line actually draws itself—between helping people do better for themselves, and helping them mollycoddle dickhole bosses who instead of telling their adult employee, "I'm really sorry, but I don't think we have the budget to enter awards this year," ask douchy questions like, "What would we get out of this?"
To answer that, I'm supposed to include in our marketing material language about the strategic branding boon to an organization that employs an award-winning speechwriter?
"Stressed out or something?" Henry asked me.
Nope. I feel goddamned fantastic.
In 25 years of talking to people who write speeches and provide other communication counsel to CEOs, I guess I've seen the whole range of ways that people without power interact with people with it.
When I was very young, I once passed a note to PR legend Fraser Seitel while he was in the middle of giving a speech at a conference. The note said, "Call David Rockefeller. Urgent." Seitel thanked me and went on with his speech.
Speaking coach Virgil Scudder told me about the time a CEO client told him, "You've got 10 minutes." Scudder replied, "I bet you don't tell your golf pro that."
CEO portrait photographer Rodney Smith, who died this month, told of a CEO who demanded that Smith make a photo session as brief as possible. According to The New York Times:
“I ask him quickly to stand in one place, to look directly at me, and I take one frame and put my camera down and announce to him that he is finished and can now go,” Mr. Smith wrote on his blog. Asked by the executive if he was serious, Mr. Smith recalled telling him that he had “a competent picture equal to the effort” that the man had “put into the experience.” Without more time, he said, one shot was enough.
Goddamn, I love stories like that. Those are stories of communicators who are sufficiently confident in the knowledge they have and the value they bring that they can speak, not necessarily truth to power, but just plainly to power. Which is usually good enough.
That's why I'm especially excited about a particular session at the CEO Communication Summit, which the Professional Speechwriters Association is putting on at the John Molson School of Business Montreal June 13-14. Erie Insurance strategic communications VP Kathy Felong will interact in person with her former CEO, a big, bold Chicago-style boss, Terrence Cavanaugh. They're going to talk about how "she had to help him acclimate to the culture while challenging the status quo and strengthening the bottom line. At stake: The foundation and future of a 90-year-old company with a legacy of success. Luckily for Erie Insurance, the two established a candor and rapport early, and built a relationship that endured through one of the company's most profitable growth periods. Together, they’ll reflect on the rocky and just-right moments in an eight-year change journey."
What Felong and Cavanaugh say will be interesting, I'm sure. But how they interact with one another will be instructive, to all people in the difficult but potentially invaluable position of providing confident counsel to powerful people, who need it whether they know it or not.
So join us in Montreal, where in addition to the Felong/Cavanaugh conversation and many other sessions and strategy meetings on executive communication, we'll hear directly from CEOs themselves, who will reveal their own attitudes about communication via an original study commissioned specifically for this one-of-a-kind event.