We may seem a quiet, cerebral group, practitioners of a refined craft dating back to classical Greece, when the likes of Aristotle, Plato, and Socrates dusted the hems of their scholarly robes meandering Athenian streets and moral enigmas.
Don’t be fooled.
Speechwriters are classic, all right. Classically BADASS.
You heard correctly. Don’t make me repeat myself. We speechwriters pride ourselves on getting points across clearly, directly, by whatever (profane) means necessary. And c’mon – badass carries far more cache today than shame.
We gathered our gang of rhetorical rebels in Washington, D.C. last week, for the Professional Speechwriters Association’s 2022 World Conference. It was, as always, a cozy, congenial homecoming. Ask anyone – first-timers or veterans – this conference is a cocoon of encouragement, insight, and edification.
If 2022 is any indication, it’s also a place for busting out, busting loose, and spreading one’s inked-up wings.
It began for me when during our pre-conference Speechwriting School. I was explaining to the class that speechwriters must know the rules of structure, style, grammar and all the rest so we can break the rules. And what’s more badass than a dangling participle or ending a sentence with a preposition? Not a damn thing.
And that, dear readers, was just the beginning of badassery.
As the conference progressed, it became clear that we weren’t in Kansas anymore. Folks seemed a bit feistier – not flying monkey crazy, mind you – but just a little more ready and willing to tackle the tough stuff head-on. Maybe the prolonged pandemic pause had something to do with it: We’ve all been apart for too long and don’t have quite the patience for politeness or pussyfooting around tough topics? The masks have come off and so have the gloves? Or maybe it’s a sign of the times. Society as a whole is less decorous and more divisive, and speechwriters soak up the tone and tenor of culture, nuance and societal norms – for better or worse. Or we’ve just reached that level of ease with one another: When you’re here, you’re family.
Whatever the reason, it was a rollicking good time. And a grand exchange of ideas, opinions and words, so many exquisite words!
We debated issues that deserve – demand – spirited debate: The need for far greater diversity within our ranks, and the reality that good intentions aren’t nearly good enough. The inexorable pace of change that carries with it the imperatives of sturdier global connections … more deeply rooted cultural sensitivity … a broader embrace of technology … and rebuilding (or reimagining) failed public trust in institutions.
When a speaker (someone who clearly didn’t read the room well) extolled the virtues of simplistic brevity (and – blasphemy! – urged us to toss our thesauruses), we locked arms and argued back. That debate continued for days, in the breakfast buffet line, over evening adult beverages, in shared Uber rides to the airport.
During a panel discussion about the future of our profession, we were challenged to ‘own the moment,’ use our battalion of words to ‘make people more free,’ and ‘do something that scares you.’ (No cowardly lions here.)
In the spirit of thunder’s noise and lightning’s illumination, our keynote address was delivered by Brenda Jones, long-time speechwriter for the late, great Congressman John Lewis.
And, while we were somewhat rowdier and ready to rumble than in years past, we wept hearing the stirring, final words of Congressman Lewis, penned by Brenda, read by Morgan Freeman, that included these fine lines and call to arms: “I urge you to answer the highest calling of your heart and stand up for what you truly believe. In my life I have done all I can to demonstrate that the way of peace, the way of love and nonviolence is the more excellent way. Now it is your turn to let freedom ring.”
Another speaker suggested that speechwriters possess ‘an unhealthy degree of empathy.’ One could argue that point, too, I suppose. But we didn’t, because we know, regardless of how you stack the health benefits or harm of empathy, we are a deeply caring community.
So yes, we shed some tears during the conference. We also, I believe, shed some of the fears that hold us back from getting into ‘good trouble.’
And what’s more badass than that?