Rhetorical renewal

Why the Cicero Speechwriting Awards judges return year after year. It's not just for you—it's for themselves, too.

This Friday we will officially unveil the winners of the 2022 Cicero Speechwriting Awards.

To give you a sense of why the judges and I take such pleasure in this annual springtime ritual, here’s a sampling of Judges’ Comments on the winner of this year’s Grand Award, edited to conceal the speech:

“The writer jumps right into the argument, no wasted throat-clearing time. The thesis comes quickly too—and with language that foreshadows the honesty and self-examination that follows. … Just the right amount of historical context sets up a nice pivot to a discussion of current conditions at the local level. The argument closes with a set of pragmatic proposals and promises—hollow language from many politicians, but ones this speech has made us want to believe just might come true.”


“There were lots of the things I look for—stories … his use of repetition, and other speech virtues. … Most important though was how the speech tackled serious—and sometimes controversial—issues …”


“This speech shows mastery of logos, pathos and ethos. In a crucial speech for the speaker, at a crucial time for the country, the speechwriter builds the ethos of the speaker with vivid stories and a wise choice of quotes and references, repetitions, rhetorical questions, alternating long sentences with shorter ones, and limits himself to one figure only, making it striking and memorable, with a final call for action to the audience and a closing note of optimism. This wealth of rhetorical devices inserted in a natural way makes this rather long speech a succession of short, digestible bites and serves its overarching message: how to keep our community, families and children safe. This speech exemplifies excellence in modern oral rhetoric. Congratulations!”

Do you know how many speeches I read as editor of Vital Speeches of the Day, that do not do any of the above? The vast majority of speeches delivered in the public, private and nonprofit sectors are milquetoast, essentially because the speaker and others in the organization the speaker leads prefer not to force a live audience to deal with noisome reality or strong feelings or dangerous ideas, in imaginative and evocative language. It’s risky, it’s unpleasant, it’s impolite.

That’s all right. Sometimes speeches are meant to soothe.

But to read a speech that really communicates—that tries for a new start, that attempts to wake people up to a new possibility, that works to galvanize the audience into participants in an ambitious cause—that’s a restorative process for me, and I know it’s the chief reason why our volunteer judges—Dana Rubin, Robert Lehrman, Pete Weissman, Fletcher Dean, Kell Jarner Rasmussen, Isabelle Gaudeul-Ehrhart—have returned perennially for more than a decade.

And the truth is, we read many worthy Cicero entries this year, as every year. To all speechwriters who wrote them—and who fought for them, against cautious speakers, suffocating organizational norms, even audience expectations—thank you for caring so much, fighting so hard and writing so well.

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