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What Makes A Political Speech Boring?

January 15, 2018

New York Mayor Bill De Blasio isn’t pleased with the speeches he is reading, we learn from recently released City Hall emails, reported in the New York Post.

Who’s to blame? De Blasio’s speechwriters, he says. From the Post: 

In particular, de Blasio raged at underlings after a speech about his Mayor’s Fund to Advance New York City that apparently had his audience paying more attention to their watches than to him. …

“I insist that you all improve the messaging around the Fund. My proposed remarks tonight are dull and uninspiring—as are my remarks too often when the topic is the Mayor’s Fund,” de Blasio wrote to three Fund officials …

“My job — in case this wasn’t clear — is to lead and inspire, particularly when we’re trying to build support,” the mayor continued in the email from March 2015 recently obtained by The Post. “Tonight’s remarks are a disconnected laundry list. I expect much better for the Fund board mtg.”

The finger-pointing came at a time when the administration was trying to hire new scribes to bolster the mayor’s public addresses.

“I’m really suffering because of underwhelming texts to work from,” the mayor complained to three top aides on March 10, 2015.

So De Blasio, never known to be a compelling speaker, has been dissatisfied with his speechwriters for three years.

My prediction: He’ll be dissatisfied with his speechwriters forever. That’s because he orders speeches like one orders room service—sent up on command. Why are they not cooked to his liking?

Because speeches aren’t hamburgers, and speechwriters aren’t line cooks. Most memorable speeches in history—and most interesting speeches at the local Chamber of Commerce—were contributed to mightily, if not written in part or in whole, by the speaker him- or herself. Speechwriters structure speeches, they add rhetorical power, they do research the speaker doesn’t have time or skill to do. They do a great deal more than that, but I wouldn’t want to create a laundry list.

Some speechwriters might like potential employers or clients to believe they can transform a dull speaker into a fascinating one without a significant investment in intellectual and emotional energy from the speaker, who must be part of the conception of any truly compelling speech, the contribution of personal anecdotes, and the rehearsal of the performance.

It may be that De Blasio has had bad luck with speechwriters (he’s gone through a few of them in recent years). And it’s true that a laundry list never sold an idea. But the speaker’s participation is crucial to the transformation of a laundry list into a narrative and an argument that’s organically connected with the humanity of the speaker who delivers it.

If De Blasio hasn’t figured this out by this late stage in his political career, he likely never will. He’s not the only bad speechwriting client. Many speechwriters complain about bosses whose hands-free attitude can be summed up by one bitter scribe, “Write down my ideas as if I had them.” But I hope this rare revelation about his attitude toward his speechwriters will discourage self-respecting scribes from applying for the job. At the very least, anyone who applies for it must insist on a meeting with De Blasio, to discuss his misguided notions about how good speeches get made.


This article originally appeared on David Murray’s personal blog writingboots.com


  • David Murray

    David Murray heads the global Professional Speechwriters Association and the Executive Communication Council, and comments daily on communication issues on his blog Writing Boots. He is an award-winning journalist and is editor and publisher of Vital Speeches of the Day. He is the author of Raised By Mad Men, a memoir about his advertising parents, and co-author of the New York Times bestseller Tell My Sons: A Father’s Last Letters.

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