These good-for-nothing post-millennials!
Some undergrads at Georgetown run a speechwriting agency in order to get practice writing pro bono speeches for nonprofits. The group's members show up at the crack of dawn to volunteer at the PSA World Conference.
An undergrad at Howard University is pushing the administration at the HBCU to create a speechwriting class to give his classmates a new professional option (an idea we're supporting in every way we can, to diversify a blindingly white profession).
And an undergrad at the University of St. Andrews in Scotland—she's an American—is not content to be already running her own business on top of going to school abroad. She's writing a book on speeches and speechwriting.
She interviewed me last week. She spent most of the interview laughing at some candor she apparently hadn't been receiving from her previous interviews. She seemed especially pleased by my response to her proposition:
“The only reason to give a speech is to change the world.” Thoughts?
First of all, how grandiose have we all become? Every twit who writes a nasty tweet about Trump thinks he's "speaking truth to power," and no one can find a reason to get out of bed in the morning, short of "changing the world."
Setting aside the fact that at least half of these passionate pipsqueaks are changing the world for the worse if only by the banality of their language—yes, there are a lot of reasons to give a speech that would not be described as "changing the world."
Here's one: "Selling some used hubcaps on a street corner."
Here's another: "I run a carwash or a city or a corporation, and the people there want to know what I look like and what I sound like—and what they feel like, together when describe to them what I think we ought to do next."
Here's probably the most common: "I was invited by this group, and I'm honored. If they'd like to meet me, I'd like to meet them. And maybe they're right: Maybe I do have something to say that they need to hear!"
Well yes—but how are you changing the world?
E.B. White said, "I arise in the morning torn between a desire to improve the world and a desire to enjoy the world. This makes it hard to plan the day." E.B. White wrote hard about eliminating nuclear weapons and protecting the environment. He also wrote beautifully about his farm and his wife and his five o'clock martini, which he called "the elixir of quietude."
Speeches that changed the world? We could count them on six hands.
The rest? Grains of sand.
Now: Do speeches, in general, improve the world? Sure, speechwriters like to think so.
Do speeches help us enjoy the world? Day to day, speechwriters might be better off focusing on that.
That's essentially what I told the undergrad. Through her astonished laughter, she thanked me for my candor. She said everyone else she'd posed the question to had agreed, "Of course the only reason to give a speech is to change the world!"
I also told her that when I was an undergrad, I didn't even manage to do my laundry.
She confessed that she was looking at a pretty big pile of laundry as we spoke.
"The book is a great way to procrastinate," she said.
That's the spirit. —DM