Speeches: We can’t live with ’em and we can’t live without ’em

You know I love my job as editor of Vital Speeches. Seriously: Try to imagine someone who would love it more. You can’t.

But I’d like speeches even more if so damned many of them weren’t of the ceremonial variety.

I like communication, and so many speeches are written not to communicate, but simply to fill in the time at a ritual that is itself the communication.

The fancy commencement ceremony is the congratulations for the students. The commencement speech is often superfluous.

The conference keynote. The big cheese has said it all by just showing up for the event. What he or she actually says matters little.

And then there’s the genre I contemplated this week, writing my annual wrap-up of “state of the town” addresses. Townspeople know what state their town is in, and if they were going to listen to anyone else’s opinion on the subject, the mayor—whose next career move depends on how people feel about the town—would probably be the very last person.

And yet, year after year, people show up to hear the spin-of-the-town address.

Which is the thing about ceremonial remarks, conference keynotes and political speeches: People complain that they’re boring. They whine that they’re dishonest. They say they’re too long.

But they show up for them, year after year—and it’s out of more than habit. It’s out of a desire to sit next to each other and hear a series of words—most of them familiar and thus comforting (as opposed to strange, and thus communicative)—and look at one another and wink: Yes, that’s right. The more things change, the more they say the same. We’re all okay, still.

The speech is a useful form of communication. But more commonly, it’s a human ritual. Which is also useful. It’s just not all that interesting to the editor of Vital Speeches of the Day.

My next post will discuss the vastly different skills involved in writing ceremonial and communicative speeches. —DM

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