Most of my working career has been spent in speechwriting. It’s tempting (the temptation being smugness) to think that the 30 years I spent immersed in speechwriting (roughly 1976 to 1980) were the last hurrah of formal discourse. Television, PowerPoint, and now social media have all had an impact, and not necessarily positive.
Instead of civil discourse, we utilize videos and talking points.
Instead of speeches, we have PowerPoint.
Instead of intelligent conversation, we tweet.
For someone like me, whose day-to-day work occurs online and largely within social media, I understand what we have and what we have lost.
The change was already obvious by the mid-1980s, largely due to television. “Sound bite” had entered the communications lexicon. So had “talking points.” Up to that time, most large companies had speechwriting departments (we didn’t call them teams then). But change was underway. The great corporate restructurings of the 1980s did not spare the speechwriting departments. In 1980, I was one of four full-time speechwriters for the company I worked for. In 1990, I was the sole corporate speechwriter left, and I had supervisory responsibility for other functions.
The conventional wisdom about speeches had become (1) shorter is better, (2) use illustrations like photographs and videos, and (3) be entertaining.
And then I attended an event that turned the conventional wisdom on its head.
In 1992, I attended a speechwriter’s conference in Chicago. One of the speakers was Kathleen Hall Jamieson, a former aide to U.S. Rep. Claude Pepper and now with the Annenberg School of Communication at the University of Pennsylvania. A few years before, she had published Eloquence in an Electronic Age: The Transformation of Political Speechwriting. The book spoke to political and corporate speechwriters alike, and it articulated the unease that many of us speechwriters felt. It wasn’t only speeches and speechwriting that were changing; it was all discourse – corporate, political, academic, and social. And it wasn’t change for the better.
Jamieson spoke with interruption or a break for an hour. A solid hour. The audience was spellbound. No one got up to leave. She finished to thunderous applause. She was asked one question, and spoke for 45 minutes. Forty-five minutes to answer one question, and the audience remained spellbound.
What she said resonated with me and the other 200 people in the room. I still consider it to be one of the best speeches I’ve ever heard. Two years later, I arranged for her to speak at a company conference. She had the same effect. By 1994, many of us could see what was coming with electronic communications technology, and how it was already transforming how we communicated with each other.
Today, I hear and read very few “speeches” as I understood and wrote them. Speakers string together message points and call it a speech. Virtually no one utilizes the tools of rhetoric. Few marshal evidence. Instead we make assertions as emotionally as we can, and it passes for thought leadership.
In Die Empty: Unleash Your Best Work Every Day, Todd Henry talks about the importance of resonance, which he calls a “valuable clue on the path to performing your best, most unique work.” We each have, he says, “resonant frequencies that we respond to naturally, and when we encounter them in others, their words or actions are amplified in us and we begin to resonate with the other person…Typically, these points of resonance are thematic, not specific in nature. It’s more about the deeper theme their words or actions point to and not just what was said.”
Her words resonated. In the years that followed, I wrote some of the best speeches I had ever written. What she said also had an impact on how I approached social media, and I generally use it in atypical ways.
I still remember that speech. I still remember the room, and being there. The impact was lasting.
Over at The High Calling, Laura Boggess is leading us in a discussion of Die Empty. To see what people are saying about this section of the book, please visit the site.
Photograph by Peter Griffin via Public Domain Pictures. Used with permission.