Sunday, July 06, 2008

a few thoughts about speechwriting, or maybe just one thought

I spent the morning cranking out an emergency speech for my big boss, the shadowy Minister of Reading My Speeches. I don't much like working on weekends, but I can't resist the allure of the Emergency Speech: get some words into that politician STAT! Otherwise it's just an unprepared person behind a podium somewhere, thumb-twiddling and telling off-colour jokes for a horrified crowd. "This is what our tax dollars are paying for?" says one audience member. "We voted in a monster!" screams another, and then anarchy reigns, civilization topples on its noggin and the world drops down into the vortex of misrule. And that's why I write my speeches.

Even though a speech often needs time to gestate, really good ones are written in little bursts of speed, like sudden violent burps. The one I wrote today took several hours of procrastination and maybe thirty minutes of actual writing. Maybe even less. And the result was a speech that I was entirely pleased with, one that contained the precise balance of information and rhetoric, hit the correct rhythm and tone, and more or less rocked.

It also confirmed my suspicion that speechwriting is analogous to caricature. Like the caricaturist, the speechwriter usually works for speed, and you need to economize. Strokes and lines stand in for more complex issues; it's important to hit just the correct minimum amount of detail necessary to get your point across, and then you're on to the next line. The language of speeches needs to be vivid, memorable and excrutiatingly correct. Above all, as with a caricaturist, the final product is intended for the audience. The speaker must speak to and for the people who have gathered to listen. They are the ones who will be moved, persuaded, informed, what have you. They are the ones who need to remember what the speaker has said.

I work in a bureaucracy. I am soaked in paper and process. Bureaucratic language is the enemy of speechwriting. It is abstract, vague, colourless and often free of content. When you're inside the bureaucracy, this kind of language becomes normalized, to the extent that it is possible to become enthused by the prospect of 'continuing on a go-forward basis' or 'engaging with key stakeholders on a needs assessment framework'. Speeches addressed to fellow bureaucrats may have this kind of language, but there is nothing more poisonous than the leakage of this non-communicative jargon into a speech or a media release intended for actual people.

In order to avoid this, I need to work as a sort of translator, pulling out the thread of the ordinary from the insane tangle of government speak. If I worked for a private corporation the challenge would be the same. Emails, notes, Cabinet documents, annual reports, budget estimates and casual conversations all go in to the mix. Out of that I devise something that the speaker is comfortable saying and the roomful of Rotary Club members or folk festival goers will want to hear.

Also, jokes don't usually work. You can't depend on your speaker having the presence to pull off a joke. And you can't depend on the audience having a sense of humour. I made the mistake when I delivered a speech for an annual event in 2007 and 2008. 2007: friendly audience that laughed at my jokes. 2008: I got heckled. So gauge your audience.

Those are my thoughts: speechwriters are like those guys down by the dock who will draw an insulting pencil sketch of you for five bucks while you sit and smile and the ice cream you're holding slowly runs down your wrist in cold, itchy rivulets. And they're kind of like translators, except they shouldn't translate the jokes. And one day, I'm going to write a Frank Herbertesque tale of heroic speechwriters in the far future who do nothing but spout maxims all day and take weird drugs.


fatboyfat said...

But your Frank Herbertesque tale - how could you condense it into 10 minutes?

You can call me, 'Sir' said...

I listened to the unabridged version of Dune during a recent long trip driving through the midwest and although it was good, by the time I hit Illinois, I was like, 'God, Frank, get to the f***ing point already!' (I began the trip in North Carolina).

So, to me, Frank Herbert and speechwriting seem kind of like a match made in hell.

savia said...

I read the end of your first paragraph as "civilization topless on its noggin" and I was thinking that sounded kind of fun. Upside down nipples for everyone!

palinode said...

fatboyfat - 'The speecher must awaken!' 'The Palinode no longer needs the weirding module. He IS the Kwisatz Haderach!' 'Holy crap, who is that freaky little kid in the wimple with the poison thimble?' The end.

'sir' - In the future, time will be measured in the length of time it takes to read the entire Dune cycle out loud. "I'm twenty-one Dunes old, sir, and I claim my right to the estate".

savia - A topless society is a polite society.

Bill Braine said...

"If I worked for a private corporation the challenge would be the same."

Yes, almost precisely that, in a large corporation. Spelunking for meaning and spinning it out into actual language. Speechwriting sounds like its purest form.

lotus07 said...

I don't know if I could do this. I would be to tempted to slide some subtle plot text or code into the speach and use the politican delivering it as a puppet to serve my own ends. The temptation would be to great. I would be fired, or lynched, or both.

Dana said...

I think the world dropped down into the vortex of misrule a long time ago, and that it had nothing to do with your writing or not writing speeches. I'm just sayin'. We wouldn’t want you going and getting all puffed up, fancying yourself a world-saving writer. I mean, you’re good. But … could you save George Bush from the Bushisms? Nobody’s writing interventions are THAT good.

(But in truth, I always marvel at your writing. And I do think it could save the world.)

maarmie said...

I used to write press releases and talking points when I worked for a PR firm. Yes, I sold my soul to the devil for six months. But, hey, it got me a great trip to Washington DC and a good amount of cash. I didn't do it for nothing, right? Anyway, I found that this type of writing (as well as TV/radio commercial scriptwriting) was right up my alley. Colorful, fun, memorable. I'd like to do more of it, but only for issues I'm passionate about.