The Guardian recently ran a feature article about great speeches – a timeless topic, even in an age where – despite the dreams of the digital prophets, and the predictions of the demise of language under an onslaught of little dancing icons – words are probably being read more than ever. (Is it just me, or is the Kindle the most ironic invention yet? Wireless connectivity, USB, cloud computing, mobile that, digital the other – and it does what: mimics a book? Mmm.) So, still timeless, but let’s ignore the fact that the times are changing. Significant moments still call for The Big Speech – usually now televised (and then YouTubed and viralled off across the Internet’s virtual pontoon of social networking platforms): Kennedy in Berlin, Obama in Tuscon, Gaddafi in Tripoli, Cameron in Battersea Power Station …

Some situations – whether they are a time of crisis, a sense of a crisis that may occur later unless they are pre-empted, or an urgent desire to kindle change (rather than merely changing Kindle) – demand a response. As there is only so much that any of us can achieve single-handedly, that response is very often a statement: the first action is the call to the action that will – it is hoped – follow. It helps to be mindful of the ‘meta message’ you’re sending, of course.

(A few days ago, my partner commented on the evening news as Western leaders issued statements to tell Colonel Gaddafi that ‘the world was watching’. A fairly standard statesperson’s utterance, but – as was pointed out – what impact does it have on Gaddafi to be assured that other leaders are so concerned about the situation that they’re all now watching telly?) Actions speak at least as loudly as words, as actor and comedian Adam Sandler has pointed out:

I never had a speech from my father ‘this is what you must do or shouldn’t do’ but I just learned to be led by example. My father wasn’t perfect. ”

One of those follow-through actions must, of course, be to carry on communicating. Communication strategies that end at ‘Thank you all for coming today’ share the same failure as learning interventions that end as the delegates hand in the happy sheets and leave the classroom: that failure is to see their respective processes as a case of hit-and-run, when the effective approach is to stay-and-nurture. This is a point that’s not lost on John Baldoni, who recently published a good posting on the topic – Help Employees Listen When They Don’t Want to Hear – at Harvard Business Review. Rather than repeat him (especially as you can click the link and read him yourself), I wanted to explore some further thoughts that spun off from his first sub-heading – ‘Test the Message’. As Robert Louis Stevenson commented:

All speech, written or spoken, is a dead language, until it finds a willing and prepared hearer.”

One point that strikes me is that we live, by and large, in an age ill-suited to the masterpiece of nuanced speech-making, to the oral essay that develops its arguments over a sequence of thoughts and ideas. To paraphrase Gil Scott-Heron’s most famous song, the revolution probably will be televised, but in discrete five minute chunks that are then endlessly cycled on rolling news channels. (When the serious documentary about the revolution comes round, we’ll probably record it on our Sky boxes, before probably forgetting to watch it later.)

I have learned that it is far easier to write a speech about good advertising than it is to write a good ad.”
[Leo Burnett]

One of the most successful consultants on speech delivery and personal presentation was Dorothy Sarnoff, who drew on her own earlier career in opera and theatre when later advising clients such as President Jimmy Carter, Menachem Begin and Danielle Steel. As a self-hep author, you’d expect her to be a source of many a quotable quip on the topic: this is my favourite:

Make sure you have finished speaking before your audience has finished listening”

Although Ingrid Bergman’s advice on a similar theme – “a kiss is a lovely trick designed by nature to stop speech when words become superfluous” – is infinitely more delightful, it does sadly score lower on applicability. Our era is not one for masterful rhetoric, at least not in the word’s original sense of the skilled art of argument and discourse. This isn’t an era for totaalvoetbal, it’s the age of the set piece – the verbal equivalent of the free kick that neatly fits the 15 second slot on the headline news.

While a speech is about far more than the sound bite, the nugget, the pull quote, the contemporary speech needs to include them for two reasons – to keep its ‘live’ audience engaged, and to disseminate itself more readily over other media. Delivering the live speech nowadays is like the inverse of preparing the PowerPoint presentation: the .ppt file is there as a prop for the real focus (the speaker), while the speech maker needs to focus at least in part in delivering the ‘verbal bullet points’ that will be picked up elsewhere and remembered. It’s like writing the successful popular song – you need hooks: a great chorus and something to pass ‘the old grey whistle test’.

That no doubt sounds more terrifying then the prospect of delivering the Great Speech already is for most of us. As comic Jerry Seinfeld once pointed out:

According to most studies, people’s number one fear is public speaking. Number two is death. Death is number two. Does that sound right? This means to the average person, if you go to a funeral, you’re better off in the casket than doing the eulogy.”

Former US President Lyndon Johnson put that same fear less eloquently (Did you ever think that making a speech on economics is a lot like pissing down your leg? It seems hot to you, but it never does to anyone else.”), but the pop song comparison is valid other ways. Firstly, that it needs to be crafted by someone with a good ear for language: in addition to TV and radio, web-streaming now brings the sound as well as the presentation of words to our computer screens. Newspapers and Ceefax are among the few silent media left. The importance of listening skills have always been immensely under-estimated in many aspects of work and business: when the task at hand is talking, they become even more important. Secondly, there is nothing to ordain that the speech – like the pop song – must be delivered by the person(s) who wrote it. Indeed, as Gore Vidal once waspishly observed:

Today’s public figures can no longer write their own speeches or books, and there is some evidence that they can’t read them either.”

Unlike pop songs, cover versions are not acceptable: the canon of great speeches is not a songbook for jazz singers to plunder in the hope of modeling some borrowed sophistication or gravitas. Indeed, like many current popular singers, speakers have writers working specifically for them. There’s nothing particularly new in this in either speechmaking or pop music, as this extract from Robert Schlesinger’s White House Ghosts: Presidents and their Speechwriters that quotes speechwriter Dick Goodwin shows:

“The two roles — writer and policymaker — were symbiotic,” he later wrote. “Active participation made accurate articulation likely; personal contact with the president made it far easier to ensure that his public statements reflected his thoughts and philosophy, the natural cadences of his voice, and his distinctive mannerisms of expression.”

Audiences respond to authenticity: working together, writer and orator must have an ear not just for each other, but also for their audience. Neither a great song badly sung nor a stunning performance of something average are truly winning: the metaphorical bird needs both wings to achieve lift off. But the final temptation to resist is the urge to dazzle: the point of any message is to deliver it, not to send it flying over the heads of the listener. I’ll leave the final words to Gustave Flaubert as both a warning and a recognition of human aspiration:

Human speech is like a cracked kettle on which we tap crude rhythms for bears to dance to, while we long to make music that will melt the stars.”

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