Dispatch from the Rhetorical Deep State

"In a world of political despondency and apathy ... people who still care and want to make a difference, no matter how hard that might be or how long it might take." 2019 PSA World Conference Report.

“Hey, how did the big conference go?”

I’m asked by my wife, my kid, soccer moms and dads, by speechwriters who couldn’t make it this year. I stare off into the middle distance.

Maybe it wasn’t the gore that kept gramps from talking about the war. Maybe he just didn’t know where to begin.

I’ll begin at the beginning, and I’ll do my best.

The day before the 2019 World Conference of the Professional Speechwriters Association was the annual PSA Speechwriting School, where Papa Hemingway lookalike and Ted Sorensen write-alike Fletcher Dean and his all-star faculty made writers into speechwriters. (And made speechwriters more confident.) Among the 60-some participants in our fifth Speechwriting School were eight scribes from the U.S. State Department and an equally large cohort of undergrads on PSA scholarship from Howard University.


Meanwhile, the speechwriters began to gather, in preparation for their annual reunion at the World Conference. A group of women scribes, for instance, has been meeting for dinner before the conference for a couple of years. But they act like they went to college together.


(Conversely, although former White House Speechwriters Eric Schnure and Bob Lehrman have been working and teaching together for three decades and co-wrote the second edition of The Political Speechwriter’s Companion, Lehrman doesn’t seem to know what Schnure is going to say or do next, and he doesn’t have very high hopes.)

Eric and Bob

On the morning of the conference, the speechwriters crossed a catwalk into a wooden spaceship, where they will speak an ancient alien language for two days, that only other speechwriters understand.


In that language, they spoke of strange things.

Like how strange it is that most speech anthologies contain 100 men for every woman—and how wonderful (and useful) it is that suddenly most speeches that go viral these days are speeches by women. That was the thrust of the keynote by standup comic, TV personality and author Viv Groskop, who celebrated the idea that women speakers how have a variety of oratorical styles—extroverted, introverted and quietly powerful—to study, and make their own. (Groskop also got the conference off to a bracing start by answering the very first question asked during the Q&A, “Boo fucking hoo.”)


And did you know that yesterday’s ear candy is today’s green beans—and how instead of stories, we should be serving vivid scenes. There were lessons on “vivid preaching for visual listeners,” from the brilliant and quietly humorous homiletics guru Alyce McKenzie.


And in fact, the effectiveness of speeches can be quantified, behavioral scientist Noah Zandan told a simultaneously skeptical and curious crowd, transforming them into a simultaneously skeptical and nervous crowd.


And Howard University legal communications undergrad Michael Franklin (he/him/his) taught some middle-aged dogs some pretty new tricks for bringing more color (and other kinds of inclusion) into our lily-white profession.


And of course I talked and talked and talked and talked. (About my work organizing speechwriting communities around the world. And about the results of a new PSA study where we asked speechwriters’ bosses what speechwriters could do to be better.)


And talked and talked and talked and talked. (About the meaning and the purpose of modern speeches.)


But the speechwriters seemed much more interested in hearing from one another.


And getting a few things off their chest. (This is the silent profession no longer.)


Meanwhile, we heard from Jaina Pareya about the state of speechwriting in Mexico.

And Isabelle Gaudeul-Ehrhart about the state of speechwriting in Europe.

At the conference cocktail party, Cicero Speechwriting Awards grand winner John La Rue used his terminal earnestness to make all the speechwriters cry. (Oh, and I sang a country duet with speechwriter/cabaret singer Karen Gross, no biggie.)


And in the end, the organizers were tired but very happy.


And that wasn’t the half of it. And if this summary feels inadequate? Well, you’d best make sure you don’t miss the next World Conference, which will take place right here, just a few weeks before the 2020 U.S. presidential election—an inevitably traumatic moment in rhetoric when you’ll want, when you’ll need to commune with your fellow speechwriters.

“What an amazing group of people,” Viv Groskop said in an email to me this week. “In a world of political despondency and apathy, it was great to be amongst people who still care and want to make a difference, no matter how hard that might be or how long it might take.”

We are. The rhetorical deep state. —DM


Photo credits to speechwriter and conference social media chief Lauren Mueller. 

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