24 February 2012

To read or not to read? That is the question for speechwriters - or is it?

Yesterday's conference of the UK Speechwriters' Guild was another stimulating treat, for which founder Bran Jenner deserves the thanks of all of us who were lucky enough to attend.

As with the last one (HERE), he'd pulled yet more rabbits out of the hat, including speakers from Russia and the Netherlands, rounding it off with a memorable double act starring Graham Davies and Phil Collins (even if it was an extended plug for a forthcoming book that might eventually compete with mine!).

But, had there been more time, an interesting argument might have developed between some of us who were there and some of the speakers.

Authenticity?
For me, the most worrying buzzword of the day was 'authenticity'. Although several speakers had it high on their agendas, I doubt if I'm alone in remaining unclear about what exactly it's supposed to mean - other than different things to different people.

It was certainly curious (and vaguely challenging) for an audience of speechwriters to be told that it's not a good idea to write speeches at all. Nor was it particularly encouraging for people who make a living by writing speeches to be told that it's not a good idea to let your clients read scripts either - whether from pieces of paper or a teleprompter.

So what were they on about?
As far as I could tell, the prophets of doom were giving voice to some rather misconceived and misleading concerns about some well-known facts about the experience of public speakers and audiences.
  1. The language of the written word often sounds stilted and conceals the personality of the speaker in a cloak of formality when read aloud - i.e. they don't come across as themselves (sincere, passionate, etc.).
  2. Reading from a script can sometimes (though by no means always) result in an unacceptable loss of eye contact and rapport with your audience.
  3. The answer to these problems is not to use a script or notes.
To which my reactions are:
  1. True (but easy to remedy).
  2. True (but easy to remedy).
  3. False.
There's obviously no point in my trying to substantiate these by reproducing the sections from Lend Me Your Ears that deal with these issues (Chapters 1-3: 'The Language of Public Speaking' - on how the languages of everyday conversation, the written word and the publicly spoken word differ).

But a few famous examples (and thousands of not so famous ones that I've seen over the years) might help to reassure any colleagues whose confidence might have been dented by yesterday's claims that writing a speech will inevitably lead you (and your unfortunate clients) down the road to inauthenticity.

Freedom from scripts?
I don't deny, of course, that there are a few business and political speakers (e.g. Tom Peters, Steve Jobs, Tony Benn and David Cameron) who have impressed a lot of audiences with their apparent ability to speak without referring to notes or scripts. Nor do I deny that this might be a worthwhile objective for speakers to aim for.

But for most people, it's safer to regard it as a longer term goal, not least because it depends on their having enough time to work on the techniques for doing it effectively - which most don't have.

Exceptions that prove the rule?
Although Steve Jobs may have excelled at ex-temporising when speaking at Apple product launches (e.g. HERE), he was quite open about reading out his brilliant Stanford Commencement Address (HERE) - which would hardly have attracted more than 15 million YouTube viewers had he dismally failed to be authentic and/or 'come across as himself'.

The point is that, if you get the language of public speaking right, it works. Some extreme cases from my own experience even suggest that, if you get the script right, your client has to be virtualy dyslexic to fail

And if the timing of looking up and down from a script is roughly equivalent to the way gaze works in everyday conversation (where eye-contact is spasmodic rather than continuous), audiences hardly even notice it.

Nor, in the hundreds of courses I have run, would the vast majority of delegates have found that they feel more comfortable and easier to 'come across as themselves' when using notes than when they were pretending not to have any (while trying to ad-lib from headings on PowerPoint slides).

And, if being seen to use notes were such a terrible sin, how, in later life, would former UK prime minister Harold Macmillan have captivated so many of his audiences at after dinner speeches by pretending to use notes on cards that were in fact completely blank (and when he was, in any case, almost blind)?

Writers: keep on writing
As Martin Shovel (@MartinShovel) pointed out in one of the discussions, if speechwriting were such a waste of time, how had Barack Obama and his team of writers got away with it?

And how were so many of those at yesterday's conference managing to make a reasonable living by pursuing such a pointless exercise as writing speeches?

The answer is as simple as it is obvious: it isn't pointless.

Nor should anyone seriously believe that the problem of authenticity is an insurmountable one for writers or speakers. It might be so if the world were populated by brilliant actors, all of whom were equipped with the technical skills to act out parts that were different from themselves.

Fortunately for all of us (and I don't just mean professional speechwriters), that isn't the case either.

P.S. Since posting this, one of the speakers at the conference, Alexei Kapterev (to whom, many thanks), has taken the trouble to write a reply HERE. He was not, however, the only speaker who seemed to have doubts about writing and reading out speeches - so maybe we can look forward to a continuing debate on the subject...

P.P.S. Also just posted is a chance to judge for yourself whether or not you think that a speech read out for 3 minutes on TV news came across as 'inauthentic' (HERE).

13 comments:

Ken Norman said...

Great blog, thank you.

I totally agree. I'd MUCH rather watch someone read well from a well written speech than tuning their back on the audience to read out loud from poorly written PowerPoint slides. This seems to be the default position for most of the speakers I see.

To dismiss Speech Writing because some people don't deliver well would be like dispensing with PowerPoint on the basis MOST don't use it well. (actually now I've typed that it does have some appeal as an idea!)

A well crafted speech is a rarity and is always a privilege to hear regardless of the quality of delivery skills employed.

As far as "authenticity" is concerned surely the paradox is that if you "work" on it surely by definition you become inauthentic.

Give me a speaker who has clearly thought hard about her message, her audience and invested some time in writing a decent speech over somebody who has saved themselves some time by creating a PowerPoint auto-cue for themselves.

Max Atkinson said...

Thanks for this, Ken. And very good point about dispensing with PowerPoint on the grounds that most speakers don't use it well.

Didn't mention that one of the presentations at the conference had some of the most awful PowerPoint slides you could imagine - essays written in fonts so small that no one could read them even if they'd wanted to - and we were left to guess at what possible connection there might be (if any) between the slides and what they were talking about.

Worst of all, the offenders were university teachers - which confirms my ongoing worries about how much damage has been done to higher education by PowerPoint since I left the said profession more than 25 years ago (when chalk & talk was already under fire from overhead projectors)...

Cordelia Ditton (@DillyTalk) said...

Hi Max

Great post. I do agree with your point that it is far better to see someone reading a good speech well than stumbling around or using PowerPoint. I actively encourage people away from PP whenever possible as it's so badly used, most of the time.

I agree about being able to maintain eye contact whilst reading a full script. It is absolutely possible to do this so well that people entirely forget you are reading something.

(I've adapted a theatre technique to help public speakers sound natural when reading a script. If interested it's here: http://talkaboutspeaking.com/how-to-sound-really-natural-when-delivering-a-fully-scripted-speech/)

Alan Barker said...

An interesting conversation developing here.

Rhetoric has been dogged, hasn't it, throughout its history, with the reputation of falseness. The word these days is 'authenticity'. Can a performance be authentic?

Great to see one of the recent comments from a coach using theatre techniques: as an ex-actor, I naturally see good performance as authentic. But the fact remains that, for many public speakers, delivering a speech *feels* inauthentic: embarrassing, false, unnatural.

So, then: another paradox (to complement Ken Norman's!). Audiences demand more authenticity from speakers; speakers standing before an audience feel inauthentic. What can we do? (I'm talking as a coach or trainer, now...)

I think the answer came later in the conference, from Phil Collins.

Someone asked him how Ed Miliband might improve his speaking. Collins answered that the problem was not that Miliband spoke poorly; it was that he has nothing to say. 'What Ed needs,' he said (I'm paraphrasing slightly), "is a philosopher."

Maybe *that's* how we release a speaker's authenticity: by finding what it is they most want to say, and then helping them to say it more eloquently. The key is to articulate an idea that the speaker is passionate about.

When passion is allied to an idea, the audience senses authenticity. And, perhaps, the speaker also feels it.

I expand on all this here: http://justwriteonline.typepad.com/distributed_intelligence/

Alan Finlayson said...

A very interesting discussion. I was sorry to miss the conference and learning that this very interesting issue came up makes me more so.

My hunch is that the critics confused authenticity and sincerity. Authenticity - a much devalued word - probably means 'coming across on telly well'. Nobody being normal comes over well on TV; it's a very artificial medium. So, in fact, what the criticis want is people to be sufficiently inauthentic to come over well on TV.

Sincerity on the other hand is about the words. It involves presenting reasons that others can accept and share (that's a key term) with the one providing them.. It requires the right tone in language, appropriate to the situation (decorum is the term the Romans used, but its also what Kenneth Burke means when he refers to 'identification'). And it also requires an argument of some kind which the speaker wants to share. If the speaker knows what they mean, and explains what they mean sensibly and in terms congruent with the audience then they will be judged sincere.

All of which is just a way of saying that ethos, pathos and logos should all work together. That this ancient insight has been forgotten by a lot of politicians (and that they might want to push it away even more, by getting rid of the speechwriter) is very depressing indeed.

Max Atkinson said...

Neil Harvey-Smith has just posted the following on his blog at wp.me/p1xv8O-1c -reproduced here with his permission, for which thanks.

AUTHENTICITY - A RESPONSE TO MAX ATKINSON
Max Atkinson’s blog is one of the very best of its kind – informative, passionate and relentlessly sound on the dumbing down of news. I recommend it.

I am a huge believer in the importance of authenticity in verbal communication and I use the concept a great deal. In his new post, to read or not to read, Max calls authenticity ”the most worrying buzzword of the day” and says “I doubt if I’m alone in remaining unclear about what exactly it’s supposed to mean – other than different things to different people.”

I hope I can reassure him – and other professional speechwriters in fear of their livelihoods – that authenticity is a quality needed whether you are talking off the cuff, using notes or reading a script. While I can’t control how others use the term, I want to suggest that it should not be used as a synonym for “unwritten” or “extemporaneous”, any more than the ‘real you’ is the bleary-eyed grouch who falls out of bed in the morning.

Authenticity is about bringing a person’s character, values and personality to their presentation. A nervous wreck, stumbling through random thoughts connected only by “um” and “er”, is no more an authentic presenter than a corporate droid speed-reading paragraphs off a pile of A4.

With practice and confidence, extemporaneous speeches can be highly authentic because speech patterns tend to be most natural, moments of humour spontaneous, and illustrations genuine visualised connections not pre-prepped metaphorical cliches.

But notes can aid the presenter. Maintaining structure, ensuring key moments are phrased carefully, being accurate in using quotations can all improve an authentic performance if they are used as a support, rather than a crutch. Notes fail when there is an uncomfortable disconnect between the unscripted parts, delivered like a man chatting at a barbecue, and the scripted parts, delivered in the hesitant monotone of an 8-year-old reading the Old Testament at school assembly.

A fully written speech can be highly authentic. Max uses the famous Steve Jobs Stanford Commencement Address as a terrific example of a powerful speech read off the page. But look at the subject matter. It deals with extraordinary personal episodes in Jobs’ life and the lessons he drew from them. His voice is clear, his pace measured and the listener can feel the genuine emotion behind each incident. It is brilliantly written AND authentic – it brings the man’s character, personality and values to the presentation.

Each of us can benefit from digging beneath our workplace persona and revealing something of the real person beneath. I don’t mean starting your pitch with a tangential story about Barney the dog’s trip to the vet. I do mean talking in natural speech patterns, working in appropriate real-life examples, talking about how you feel about things, making us feel that we know who you are. That is authenticity. It is the good speechwriter’s friend.

Matt Eventoff said...

Excellent post Max, and great points Alan and Neil. I believe that Alan is on point in terms of the usage of authenticity when the proper word would seem to be sincerity. Delivering an address that the speaker has had little to no input in putting together is a recipe for an underwhelming speech, as is speaking extemporaneously without preparing properly. I would be remiss if I did not mention Ken and his well-delivered point regarding PPT, as we have all been subjected to watching a presenter’s back as he or she quite literally reads the slide, verbatim, into the screen.

Kate Peters said...

Thanks for inviting me to weigh in on this one, Max. Great post and, as always, you make us think!

My take on authenticity is similar to that of Neil Harvey Smith. However, I believe it starts with Intention. Similar to values, intention is what guides a person's actions. It's an aim that is an unconscious filter for what we say. Communication that is framed through a clear intention will be genuine and authentic whether it is read or ad-libbed. The greatest speakers have clear intention aligned with content and both aligned with delivery.

Alignment with delivery, however, means knowing what you are saying, connecting with it. A speaker can be disconnected from her words whether reading or not, so delivery that is aligned with intention and content is connected! Saying words so that they sound like what you are saying makes them sound authentic, although when you aren't used to doing that, it can feel dramatic. Funny, isn't it??!

Charles Crawford said...

Max

As one of your Prophets of Doom I have replied here:

http://charlescrawford.biz/blog/speechwriting-and-spontaneity

That links to my further thoughts at HuffPo: http://www.huffingtonpost.co.uk/charles-crawford/down-with-speechwriting-u_b_1313075.html

Alan Barker's comment nails it!

Anonymous said...

I had a number of presentation courses, but as they were given by a consultancy it was more about fitting inside their "model" than actually presenting well. I freed myself from this misery using 3 principles:

1 - *I* talk, and it's about what I know/think/see. This means that my notes contain structure and timing rather than knowledge - at most there will be a turn of phrase I like to bring out (the press needs quotes to report). I would be interested in training myself to work from a script, but I also know I will deviate from it as my speaking also involves a degree of audience sensing. You can't 100% plan this ahead of time.

2 - I talk in freedom. My pet hate is people hiding behind table and lecterns - I prefer to wander around, and most audiences seem to prefer that too. So whatever I use to guide the speech must support this mobility. I prefer cards for this, also because of reason 3:

3 - assume nothing works. My principal area of operation besides privacy management is in crisis management and recovery, so it's part of my psyche to plan ahead for failure. This means that any media has at best a supporting role.

Your discussions seem to simply be a back-and-forth on the one variable you have to plan for: your speaker's nature. If they can make a text fully their own, respect to them. If they can't you have to leave them the margin to be themselves (I'd be a prime example of that). Both can result in a speech that SOUNDS authentic.

Authenticity is an impression. You only have control over the delivery, not over the reception.

Thank you for the debate - I find it very interesting.

Ian Price said...

At risk of adding more fuel to the debate - too many people have suggested they woudl rather hear a well constructed speech read out aloud rather a speaker turning his back and using PowerPoint badly. Well i agree with them all. And I disagree with their argument as well. It is not either/or. Reading a script or using PowerPoint is as limited a choice as the Monty Python Spam menu! A good speaker can have on the lectern or in his hand some well crafted notes that enable him to speak well to an audience. It is neither reading (as the bulk of the content is semi-impromptu but with a structure) nor does it require PowerPoint (but can go alongside it). A good speaker using notes is as authentic as it can be without a boundaries of content management. The speech writing skills are still required when formulating the content, and then further developed during the speech. That is what makes a great speaker in my humble opinion.

Tom Morrisey said...

Max, here's the rub. While the "wing it" crowd cited the "stevenotes" that Steve Jobs used to present at the Worldwide Developers Conference, and the "read it" crowd cited his Stanford commencement address, most expert observers agree that he was actually operating from a written script in both cases (in fact, Carmine Gallo wrote a book about it).

The difference was that, for a "stevenote," jobs would begin with a script and then over a course of several weeks he would digest it -- first to paragraph thesis statements, then to bullet points, and then to single words (in later years he appears to have gone even a step further and associated the upcoming images on his Keynote monitor to remind him of the next element in his script.

I remind speakers of that when they tell me, "Oh, I'll just speak off the top of my head," or "I'll speak from slides."

The difference between memorising a speech and winging it is the difference between wearing vertical stripes (to appear thin) and going on a diet. In either case, the method involving willpower and preparation will invariably result in a superior product.

Neringa Vaisbrode said...

My take on authenticity is this: we perform several roles in our life, and even if I'm a politician who likes to wear pyjamas at home, I'm not less authentic if I wear formal attire on stage. another setting, different rules. So if my role is to make things right for the community, my task is to convince others to believe and follow me. that hardly can be achieved in my pyjamas, even if I like wearing them a lot and they (i think) look good on me. so i better use any public speaking techniques that make my case and make them sound authentic on me rather that imposing my "pure me" to others.