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.

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).