It was a relatively good week for speeches and speechwriters!
On Sunday, Queen Elizabeth gave a widely appreciated televised speech calling on British citizens to show “the quiet, good-humored resolve” they’ve been known for going back to her first radio address, in 1940. On Tuesday, American Medical Association President Patrice Harris delivered a major speech through the National Press Club’s livestream, on “COVID-19: The Importance of Science in an Era of Distrust and Disinformation.” And perhaps most starkly highlighting the need for good judgment and the speechwriters who provide it was Acting Navy Secretary Thomas Modly’s disastrous Monday morning speech to the crew of the U.S.S Theodore Roosevelt, that led to Modly’s resignation the very next day.
So: Speeches are still taking place, and speechwriters still matter—as they always have and always will.
But conference speeches, the bread and butter of workaday speechwriters, are on ice for the moment. One Fortune 100 exec comms chief we know says his CEO’s in-person speaking calendar is blank until July. Another says, “Technically an event is still on the calendar for June, but with a high probability of canceling. Then nothing until August … but even that’s iffy.”
To the extent that we have the insight and the emotional wherewithal to peer beyond that, the question is: How many speeches will be taking place in the future? And what kinds of speeches will they be?
Surely some will be conventional. In whatever “80 percent economy” we find ourselves in this fall or next spring or next fall, conferences will surely convene again. Professional communities need to meet in person, and Zoom won’t replace all business gatherings any more than it will replace all corner taverns.
But likely for the fore-guess-able future, a significant percentage of conferences will go by the boards because attending them won’t be worth taking any lingering personal risk, or spending any remaining budget dollars. So exec comms folks are envisioning a rise in virtual conferences, and thinking about how to help their speakers stand out at those.
They’d better think very, very hard.
Because the kinds of speeches that most speakers have long given at in-person conferences, are not the kinds of speeches people will listen to in virtual conferences.
Because 95% of the speeches you happily endure in a ballroom, you wouldn’t sit through in your bedroom. I’ve written and spoken for many years about why people attend speeches. It’s not, primarily, to hear new ideas. It’s mostly to hear familiar ideas, artfully articulated, in the bosom of the community the leader leads. And to experience, cheek to jowl with members of that community, what the leader sounds like, what the leader looks like, and what it feels like, to hear those words spoken out loud with everybody present.
And if the answer is (and it often is) “pleasant enough, but a little boring,” that’s no problem at all. In fact, it’s a comfort, for the audience to experience that together. The speaker said the expected thing and everyone listened politely and clapped at the end. What could be more reassuring than that? (In fact, at a conference, almost any shared experience is a good thing. Once, after truly terrible session at a speechwriting conference, I heard two audience members praising the speaker for having galvanized the crowd against his loathsome self!)
But when you’re listening to a speech by yourself, its criteria for success is entirely different, and much more demanding. If you’re watching a dull speech at home alone, you won’t give it 30 seconds before you start realizing you have a half hour you didn’t know you had, to do whatever you want! We’re middle-aged people. We’ve heard it all before. We’re not easily scintillated.
However rhetorically powerful, however intellectually informative and however emotionally charged, speeches are and always have been largely social phenomena that depend on the vibrations of people, gathered in a room. A tech guy I was talking with the other day is doing online conferences. “We’re putting a lot of shit on the screen,” to remind the audience that many others are watching the speech, that they are not alone with this talking head.
At last year’s World Conference of the Professional Speechwriters Association, I delivered the closing keynote address, in which I quoted Australian speechwriter Lucinda Holdforth on the reason people attend speeches, “We come together to breathe in tandem, to experience our own responses and feelings alongside each other.”
In a world where we don’t want to breathe in tandem, speeches will be fewer. They’ll need to be more purposeful, more novel, and probably more emotional. And if they’re going to sing in the wire sufficiently to make us feel connected spiritually despite being distant physically, they’ll have to be much, much better.
For some speechwriters (and some leaders) that order will be far too tall.
For others, it’s the moment they’ve been waiting their whole careers for: Finally, the time to bring rhetorical and intellectual and emotional power to bear (not to mention blood, toil, tears and sweat) to unite human beings around better ideas.
It’s the leaders and the speechwriters in the middle who I’m worried about—and the people the Professional Speechwriters Association will dedicate itself to serving in the very best way we know how—not just for the sake of their survival, but for the sake of society’s, too. —DM
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