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September 19, 2011


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David, I've a bone to pick with you! A theme in both your pieces about the UK Speechwriters' Guild is, "If they (the Brits) want to write dry speeches for insecure speakers to be delivered to audiences who expect to be bored, that's perfectly all right with me."

But in neither piece do you mention our presentation – mine and Martha's, that is – which was titled 'Speaking to the Mind's Eye'. In it we identified the fact that great speeches are built on visual language; and visual language is of course the antidote to dry, dull speeches. We used examples from great American speeches, as well as a great English one.

The audience’s response to our presentation was overwhelming positive, which suggests you might have seen what you were expecting to see, rather than what was actually going on.

Did you pop out to the loo while we were giving it?! Be careful or I may have to accuse you of attacking a straw man!

I look forward to having that pint with you one day!


Martin, your presentation was indeed very good, and the audience response to it (as to mine) was positive.

But the first question that came out of the crowd after your talk was (paraphrase): Yes, Martin Luther King is wonderful and all, but how could any of this apply to British corporate speeches? I almost used that in my piece, Martin.

Look: My point isn't black and white here. British speakers use imaginative and sometimes personal rhetoric; and American speechwriters complain about their speakers are often reticent to do so.

I'm talking in very general terms, and in very general terms, North American speakers and audiences are more comfortable with upfront sharing of feelings. (I say "North Americans" because actually think Canadians are better with this than Americans.)

All these are vast generalities, I acknowledge. What do we know for sure? The pint. Why don't we have it at a speechwriting conference over here, Martin? This time it's on me.

Thanks for your response David.

Two quick points. I agree that the general health of corporate speechmaking in the UK is pretty poor (I don't know, but is it really that much healthier in the US?), but the encouraging thing is that our presentation inspired a question, "how could any of this apply to British corporate speeches?", not an outright rejection of the idea of making UK corporate speeches more engaging.

Let me also suggest that the foundations of your position are still a little shaky as you've only given a single questionable example to backup your claim.


David, I wonder if you would agree with the views expressed here: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=WpebAOyiHo0

It's about the difference in the speaking styles on both sides of the puddle.

As a rule I never generalise, but I think N. Americans have more emotional content in their speeches, while the Brits prefer more fact.

But consider the expectations of the audiences. US audiences want to be moved, uplifted, inspired. They want the speakers to be heroic, wear their knickers outside their tights, bear 'mid snow and ice a banner with the strange device, "Excelsior".

Brits want to be informed,and they want to be able to verify that the info they are given is valid. They would never make a production out of a small personal experience, as I have heard quite a few Americans do.


In the Netherlands we lack the tradition of great public speakers. We pride ourselves in being 'modest'. We, the Dutch, congratulate ourselves with our being as 'down to earth' as we are. We fear the spotlights. Everything, whether it’s success or failure, is always a team-effort. We tend to loathe everyone who ‘thinks something of himself’.

In the Netherlands, you know, all decisions are made after thorough consultation, consideration and calculation only. It's always the heart that takes the backseat to the mind. Because over here we are positive that facts and figures speak for themselves. We find speaking from the heart to be manipulative. Insincere. Poetic rhetoric is nice for theatrical plays, not for businesses. That's close to offensive.

Anyone in the Communications Department who can spell and who has proven to know the corporate values by heart is deemed able to write speeches. And anyone who can mumble or stutter is welcome to take the stage, being his ‘authentic self’, to utter speeches.

And you think you face a challenge..?

@Martin: Points all well taken. And you must understand that my article wasn't only based on attending a one-day conference, but also upon reading hundreds of British speeches over the last couple years, as editor of Vital Speeches International. But it's not meant as a doctoral thesis: Only a conversation-starter.

@Phillip: I agree with everything you say in that presentation, and everything you say in your comment.

@Hans: You describe the situation in the Netherlands as I've heard it described so many times before. I'd only add that many of those instincts are also the instincts of our own clients, especially business execs. They aren't culturally bound to be boring, but they're emotionally afraid to express themselves. So they express facts, instead.

Here's what I tell those people (or tell their speechwriters to tell them): Facts and even arguments can be made in a thousand ways other than in speeches. THE ONLY UNIQUE OPPORTUNITY that a speech affords is the ability to look people in the eye and have them look you in the eye.

When you have a unique, onetime chance to look your audience in the eye, what do you want to tell them? That projections indicate that sales will rise in the fourth quarter? Or that you believe with everything you've ever known and felt that the mission is well-conceived, the cause just and the team is a band of heroes?

If you're afraid to say that, fine. If you think your audience will reject it for cultural reasons--OK, don't do it.

But the human connection is the reason we have speeches; and humans are connected to one another by feelings, not by facts.

Thanks David. One fundamental thing we agree on is that the success of a speech depends primarily on forging an emotional connection with an audience.


Thanks, I'll keep that in mind next time some joker orders a 'once in a lifetime'-speech 'that people will talk about long afterwards!'

Some Dutch business execs really do want to make an impression on their audiences. And they do accept some guidance in the preparation - hesitantly, mostly. But somehow, when the Big Moment is there, they crumble and look into the spotlights like a rabbit gazes into the headlights of the car about to hit them.

At that point they fall back to their mumbling voice, their plank-like gesticulation while every fibre of their body shouts 'I Don't Want To Be Here!'. Somehow the speech never comes across the way it was intended.

So sad.

(Okay, enough of the self-pity already. Thanks for your ammunition. I'll use it as wisely as I know how to.

Oh, and thanks for your patience with my stiff use of the beautiful English language. I'm doing the best I can...)

Godverdomme, Hans, our best is all we ever can do!

Incidentally, you know who's doing some good speeches in Holland? The Defense Minister, who has speechwriting help from one Annelies Breedveld. Know her? She actually one one of our Cicero Speechwriting Awards for her work ....

>She actually one one of our Cicero Speechwriting Awards

Perhaps you were overtaken by predictive text. I think she WON one ...


Phillip, you're a vigilant won.

Annelies Breedveld? Thanks, I'll look into it/her. I must say: mentioning her and Defense minister Hans Hillen in one breath isn't really that much of a recommendation nowadays, I'm afraid... ;-)

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