I’ve organized lots of conferences over a couple of decades in my career, and I’ve attended lots more. Many more than I can remember—because most of them haven’t been terribly memorable.
But in the wake of the second annual World Conference of the Professional Speechwriters Association, the familiar combination of exhaustion, relief and bewilderment gives way to a somewhat astonishing understanding, that something significant and permanent took place at Georgetown University’s McDonough School of Business, Oct. 7-8.
What happened here?
As I told our Georgetown hosts, I don’t want to overstate it, but I don’t think I can: The feeling in that room, which increased over the two days, was of a large group of nomadic hunters and gatherers who just found a loving home to which they can always return, and friends to keep them company on their journey.
Why did this happen at this conference, this year? I’m still trying to figure that out.
A lot of things went our way, starting with Hurricane Joaquin obligingly heading out to sea, allowing the 120 participants from nine nations to get here, as the Georgetown Hoya reported. Thanks to Georgtown’s media relations work, C-SPAN covered our White House speechwriters panel, and my keynote conversation with Hillary Clinton’s longtime communication consigliere Lissa Muscatine made some news in the Washington Post.
But the moments that made the PSA’s first grown-up conference seem more like a newborn community were more intimate.
It was the different sound that emanated from the round tables during conversations between sessions. As emcee, I had a difficult time, even with a microphone in my hand, calling the meeting back to order to get the sessions started on time. I couldn’t tell if they couldn’t hear me over the near roar, or didn’t want to.
It was the explosion of varied ideas and unpredictable perspectives that came out during full-congress conversations on creating a code of ethics for speechwriters, on making an speechwriters’ accreditation program and on creating more opportunities for women in the speechwriting business.
I had a lump in my throat before a mentoring roundtable session, as I saw more than a dozen Georgetown undergrads interested in speechwriting standing, smiling nervously at the side of the room, waiting to be received into groups of veteran speechwriters—speechwriters all so eager for the chance to share what they have seen and learned on the long, strange paths they’ve traveled since they were undergrads themselves.
And over and over—during sessions, over meals, at the on-campus bar—I kept realizing that the idea that PSA organizers had had was having an effect we somehow hadn’t quite intended: It was creating a very small, very tight community of people who knew that theirs was a truly common lot, and trusted that they actually share a professional purpose. They’d spent all of history in the rain, and now had a roof over their heads, and new friends with whom build the rest of the house.
Never before have I put on or attended a conference about which I could say this: It was a week that no one who was here will ever forget. —DM