How to win a Cicero: Be interesting

On the eve of the call for entries for the 2014 Cicero Speechwriting Awards, Vital Speeches editor David Murray unearths a perfect exemplar—by his late father.

Robert Kennedy dreamed of things that never were and asked why not. I’ve always been better at studying things that used to be and asking, “What happened”?

As editor of Vital Speeches of the Day, I’m up to my cobwebs in the rhetoric of America’s past leaders. Looking back through our 79 years of archives, the language often seems stilted and the issues outdated, often to the point of being barely comprehensible. Occasionally, though, I see an old speech and wonder: Why don’t leaders talk like that anymore?

Business leaders, especially, spoke more provocatively in the days of yore than in these days, of bore.

Take my dad, for example.

My late father Thomas Murray was a well-known advertising executive during what’s now known as the Mad Men Era, but which was experienced at the time as simply a terribly confusing moment in business.

As creative director for General Motors’ agency of record, Campbell-Ewald—an agency that figures in the current season of Mad Men—Dad gave lots of speeches, most of them aimed at helping advertising colleagues come to grips with a society that was changing too fast and in strange ways.

“A copywriter friend told me he never knows what his fifty-year-old boss is going to wear,” Dad said in one speech in 1969. “On Wednesday he might be in a bright green suit with buckles on his boots, and on Thursday back into dark blue with a white button-down. The sideburns move down a little one week, up a little the next. The hair seems to be getting a little browner and longer one month, a little grayer and shorter the next.”

None of my dad’s speeches were published in Vital Speeches, though many were adapted as articles for Advertising Age. But if I got my hands on some of his speeches now—regardless of the name of the speaker—I’d publish them immediately and encourage their author to submit them for the Grand Prize in the Cicero Speechwriting Awards.

Though many of the speeches spoke directly to advertising execs, urging them to write more genuine, psychologically sound ads—instead of, “The Car of Tomorrow Today,” Dad favored a headline like “Drive It Like You Hate It”—I recently ran across a much broader speech, the likes of which could be delivered by any business leader today.

And should be.

Given to members of the Special Libraries Association at Detroit’s Cobo Hall on June 8, 1970 and titled “Not So Quiet Please,” the speech said companies were on the brink of “a management metamorphosis that will eventually change the way each of us feels about our jobs and our own self worth.”

Why? Because the establishment would have to acknowledge the existence of the antipathy of young people to big business, the way it had been practiced:

Louis Banks, managing editor of Fortune, recently summed up the reasons for the dissent and the discontent with Business by our young people this way:

We saw a powerful productive system; they sensed an all-demanding discipline, lavish in its gifts but as cold as Calvin to nonbelievers. We saw the successful multitude; they found the unsuccessful casualties—the humans left behind in that wrenching shift from farm to city; the impoverished, the illiterate, the migrant, the hungry, the blacks, all of whom we had screened out of our consciousness. We saw the successful competitors, and gloried in the fact that opportunity was never so widespread nor reward so swift; they saw the fathers who came home, dejected, disillusioned, distracted, and—in most cases—devoid of any spiritual resources. We saw the triumph of technology in jet flight, convenience foods, and the moon shot; they saw its degradation and defeat—sometimes firsthand—in a country called Vietnam. We saw gross national product; they saw the gross national byproduct—of mindless urbanization, environmental pollution, and the whole wasteland of public dereliction.”

After making the proper noises in defense of business people’s good intentions, and in objection to protestors’ blanket condemnations, Dad began to describe a new kind of corporate leader who could remake the corporation into a better place.

I suggest to you that the new top managers of business will be men who can close their eyes and see the corporations they manage not as huge smoke-belching industrial stockades as Sinclair Lewis’ Dodsworth saw them, but as tidy homes on a tree-lined street with the corporate names where the house numbers would normally be. Men who see all the responsibilities to the people with whom they live in the house and people who are their neighbors outside of the houses that any of us feel as human beings and parents and private citizens and neighbors in our own neighborhoods.

I suggest to you that the new manager will not be two men—a family man and a business man, one at a time, depending on what time of day it is or what the task is at hand. But he will be one man, accepting the same values, the same sensitivity in his relationships with people, the same set of morals and mores in the boardroom as in the backyard, the same feeling of conscience and concern for consequences at his desk at the office as when he decides on the doctrine by which to raise his children. …

The new managers are going to be people you and I will like very much. Not only because they will make our lives as communicators easier, but because they’ll make them so much more exciting, so much more of an important part of business even than it is today.

For the new management man will be, above all, a fantastic communicator, who will be not only in constant touch with his employees within the corporation, but also with his customers, his critics, his community. He will tell people what he is doing and why he is doing it. For one thing you can be sure of, the top manager will know that he must communicate his and his corporation’s relevance in the scheme of society, or that he and/or his corporation will go down the drain.

Dad died in January 2009, but not after seeing a few episodes of Mad Men. He despised the show. “You don’t make great ads by drinking and screwing all day!”

I think Dad really didn’t like the show because it portrayed his best professional years as the Bad Old Days, and he didn’t think it was fair.

Since Dad’s not around anymore to answer for his optimistic predictions about “the new manager,” it also seems unfair to belabor the point that his new manager sounded more like the old paternalistic bosses than it sounds like today’s CEO.

But though my father’s vision of the new management man didn’t quite come true—in many ways American management went in the opposite direction over the ensuing decades—you have to admire his willingness to articulate it clearly for others’ consideration.

Giving everyone something specific to talk about—that’s the purpose of a keynote speech at a conference, and an important function of speeches in general. One leader stands and describes the future, and the members of society who hear it look one another in the eye and say: Yes, I think that’s exactly right. Or, No, that doesn’t make any sense at all. Or—perhaps most productively—The speaker has a point. However …

It’s hard to disagree with many of the speeches I see these days, not because the speakers say naïve things, but because they don’t say anything at all.

Which reminds me of another speech that my dad used to give to advertising people all the time. It’s title: “The Importance of Being Interesting.”

Speakers and speechwriters: Be interesting. Audiences will listen to you. Vital Speeches will publish you. And your children will admire you even after you’re gone.

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