Measure the impact of a speech?
February 04, 2015
You don't need to be the executive director of the Professional Speechwriters Association to be skeptical.
It seemed like an innocent enough suggestion by a government speechwriter, on Twitter: Why doesn't the Professional Speechwriters Association collect and publish research on the effect speeches can have on an audience?
Then why did blood rush hot into my face?
Because this is exactly the kind of expectation of the head of an association that turns heads of associations gray, and shrinks them until their blazer sleeves go down to their knuckles.
As head of the PSA, I suppose I am bound to nod solemnly, and assure this speechwriter—he is a dues-paying member after all, whose interests and needs I am sworn to serve, whose opinions I'm obligated to consider—that his suggestion is a good one and that we will be looking into publishing more studies quantifying the effects of speeches very soon.
So I tweeted back, "In short, because most such research is b.s., and speechwriters know it."
And my face cooled down, right away!
I also asked the speechwriter to cite a Huffington Post article he had cited that purportedly proved that the recent State of the Union Address boosted President Obama's favorability rating 15 percent. As expected, the study proved no such thing. It showed that people liked this SOTU better than last year's, and it increased SOTU watchers' confidence in the president's policies by 15 percent (less than last year, actually).
Oh, and "the opinions of State of the Union watchers don't represent the view of Americans as a whole. Democrats are far more likely than Republicans to watch Obama's speeches, as Republicans were more inclined to watch during the Bush administration. Most Americans don't watch even parts of the State of the Union Address, and it has proven unlikely to affect presidential approval ratings."
So this speechwriter wants me to find more shabby, flabby, phony "research" like that, and publish it noisily and frequently on the PSA website and spray it all over the Internet so that speechwriters can join all the other soft professions—HR, PR, marketing—that stream continuous lies about how it's a proven fact that if only you appreciate members of their associations, you'll get rich and famous and everyone will love you.
I've always appreciated speechwriters for knowing, more than members of other communication disciplines I've covered, that the main measure of a successful speech is simple: The boss liked it.
"I agree with you, most of the research is BS," the speechwriter acknowledged in a followup email. "But I still have hope that there might be something out there quantifying the impact we know speeches can have or maybe just qualifying how they work best. I think it would be a very valuable contribution from the PSA for us speechwriters to have when arguing for the relevance of good speechwriting, storytelling and preparation when in competition with sales, PR or press."
The speechwriter is relatively young, and European. So it's likely he never read his H.L. Mencken, who wrote about the American "Cult of Hope," which seems to have crossed the Atlantic in the century since Mencken named it:
"Unluckily, it is difficult for a certain type of mind to grasp the concept of insolubility," Mencken said. "Thousands of poor dolts keep on trying to square the circle; other thousands keep pegging away at perpetual motion. … These are the optimists and chronic hopers of the world … It is the settled habit of such credulous folk to give ear to whatever is comforting; it is their settled faith that whatever is desirable will come to pass."
I am not calling a member of the Professional Speechwriters Association a "poor dolt." But I'll be damned if anyone will call me or our membership conniving enough to seek and distribute the work of said dolts, optimists and chronic hopers to further our professional interests. (Which wouldn't have any effect if we tried to do it.)
Here at the PSA—for as long or as short as I'm in charge—we're gonna keep it real. If we run across some research on the effects speeches have on audiences that offers some real insight, our members and their clients will be the first to know. Otherwise, we're going to help speechwriters get ahead the way speechwriters have always gotten ahead: finding clients who want to communicate, and having the chops to give those clients the help they need.
Meanwhile, I'm no more hopeful of tripping over the study that quantifies the beneficial effects of speeches than I am fearful that Harvard will come out definitive proof that speeches do more harm than good. —DM