February 02, 2016
Don't burden yourself—or flatter yourself—by thinking your words will make or break the speaker's "voice."
Those of us who like Americana or alt-country music—country music with rock sensibilities—can be obsessive and last year, boy, were we. All through 2015, the golden boy of Americana, Ryan Adams, teased out the delivery of his new album, except it wasn’t quite a new album. It was going to be a song-for-song remake of one of the biggest records of the decade, Taylor Swift’s pop confection 1989. And Adams wasn’t going to do it ironically. He would sincerely reinterpret Swift’s songs by playing and arranging and singing them as he would his own.
This seemed an odd plan, recasting the dance-pop of Ms. Swift as the grungy guitar-in-the-garage roar of Mr. Adams. Her well polished pop gems—huge hits such as “Shake It Off” and “Bad Blood”—were hard to imagine as anything but summertime soundtracks and club workouts.
Yet when Ryan Adams’ 1989 was released in September 2015, it was clear he had produced something intriguing, very good, and completely his own.
If you somehow hadn’t heard of 1989 by Taylor Swift by the time you heard the Adams version, you would assume this new recording was, as usual, written by Mr. Adams. It sounds like a typical Ryan Adams record. But it wasn't even Mr. Adams' songs. It was written by Taylor Swift—nearly word for word, melody for melody, and chord for chord.
The feelings you get when you hear one of these albums versus the other are absolutely different. How can these recordings be so dissonant in effect when their foundations are the same?
The answer tells us something basic about art that speechwriters ought to remember about their craft. Presentation is, as the old line goes, all about the singer, not the song.
I tell speechwriters to stop writing for the speaker’s “voice.” Get the facts right. Get the organization down. Fuss over the structure. Know the topic. Learn the priorities of the audience and write to them. But don’t spend a second trying to find the so-called voice of the speaker, because personality and style—the fundamental aspects of voice—come out in delivery far more than in words.
Every speaker is unique, and he cannot hide his true nature—the singer, not the song. Give the same speech to two different people and you’ll hear two different speeches, even though the words are the same.
(I did stand-up comedy years ago. When we were starting out and my friends and I would see a comic who was better than we were, we'd say something like, "He could headline even with my act." We were being only a little hyperbolic. The material matters, but great delivery can elevate anything.)
Thus when the cheerleader’s Saturday night of “Shake It Off” is channeled through Ryan Adams, it comes out as the brooding, creepy obsession of a full-grown man. The pop queen’s naïve romantic poses in “Blank Space” emerge as a lonely last hope when Adams turns his delivery down to a whisper and pulls the simple melody through fingerpicked, arpeggiated chords.
As the writer, your best move is to get the content right and to find an effective structure. That’s a matter of intellect, not of following around your client for days making notes about how she uses prepositions. You’re not going to turn a buttoned-down CEO into a bouncing motivational speaker by capturing his “voice” in words. Don't imagine that the qualities of performance arise from filigree on the page. Coaches and writers have very different jobs.