Empty lecterns

The question isn't why are speakers accepting big speaking fees; it's why are event planners offering them. (Not for good reasons.)

As a nation, we’re divided. The Communication Nation, I mean. And we’re divided on an issue that seems like one that should unite us: whether or not celebrity speakers ought to insist on being paid what the market will bear.

I say they should. I say President Obama’s decision to accept $400,000 to speak at a Cantor Fitzgerald conference was his business, as is what he does with the money—and as is what he says to the group of assembled Wall Street execs.

The much, much more interesting question is: Why did Cantor Fitzgerald offer him that much money to speak at its conference? There were no more relevant speakers who might have been had for 1/40th of that?

Or, why did my own alma mater, Kent State University, offer $100,000 for a commencement speech by actor Octavia Spencer, who doesn’t seem to have any connection to the school whatsoever. “Octavia Spencer’s personal journey as one of seven children whose mother was a maid in Alabama, to attend and graduate from college will resonate with our graduates as they themselves accept the challenges and opportunities that await them following graduation.”

Uh huh.

Or, let’s make this even more personal: Why do I feel pressure to bring in big names to the World Conference of the Professional Speechwriters Association, despite good advice that I receive from PSA members who tell me that what they want is intellectual nourishment, stimulation and the ideas of fellow speechwriters, rhetoric thinkers and other outstanding, practitioners of our dark art—no matter how obscure.

Now, as I’ve said before and as I will continue to say every day until I’m proven right beginning on Oct. 16, the 2017 World Conference is the best speechwriting conference staged anywhere, ever.

This also happens to be a politically, rhetorically nutso year in which it seems especially relevant and potentially grounding to hear from White House speechwriters, and it definitely seems like the right year to hear from Tony Schwartz, author of Donald Trump’s Art of the Deal. And Michelle Obama’s rhetorical soul mate, Sarah Hurwitz, who is emerging for the first time this year after nine years in speechwriting seclusion? Any speechwriting event without her this year is just lame.

And these people are all writers after all—and only in our weird little world do we think of them as “celebrities.” I couldn’t be prouder of this lineup, and put myself to sleep at night counting the brilliant people on this agenda like lambs.

But if I’m sitting here this time next year bragging on having assembled the speechwriting equivalent of Rat Pack, Murderer’s Row and the Spice Girls for the 2018 World Conference (as we truly have done this year, along with a bunch of other ridiculously great teachers), please do call me on it.

Because most of the instincts that drive event planners to search for celebrities over lesser known but potentially more illuminating lights are not good ones. They include:

It’s easy. Finding someone smart enough to be truly, deeply compelling to an audience is a lot harder than finding someone who will flatter the audience by his or her presence alone.

 It’s splashy. David Petraeus spoke at our very first PSA World Conference. Now, Dave had actually been a speechwriter early in his Army career, so he had a lot to say. But his presence on the program sent a one-time, two-word message that needed to be sent at that moment: at the PSA, we were not effing around. Yes, Dave—I appreciated that.

It’s risk-free. If Stephen Colbert bombs the keynote, you can shrug and say, “Hey, I brought in Stephen Colbert, what more could I have done?” But if you invite some homiletics professor to deliver provocative and possibly irritating insights about how preaching is changing and how speeches need to change the same way—if she bombs, now I’m the horse’s ass. What could I have been thinking?

And it’s encouraged by the worst and most influential people in your organization. Not my organization, in this case, because in my organization, I’m the worst and most influential person. But other organizations are run by rich boards of directors and donors, and alums who use their positions as a status symbol to show off to their rich friends. Guess who’s speaking our gala this year? Caitlyn Jenner! And the rank-and-file members go along with it, because they’re flattered too.

But it’s dumb. It’s shallow. And in the long run, it’s less effective and less healthy for the institution.

Companies, universities, nonprofits will ultimately be strengthened in the long run by inviting people who speak to their constituents’ realities, identities and deep aspirations rather than their vanities. It is those speakers who can galvanize a community in lasting ways with their words and ideas and kindred spirits, rather than their shimmering presence.

All of which is just one more reason not to miss the 2017 World Conference of the Professional Speechwriters Association. Because as I’ve just said: There’ll never be another one quite like it. —DM

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