For three decades I’ve been listening to complaints from speechwriters and other corporate writers who don’t believe they receive the deference they deserve, from their bosses or even from their peers.
“Everyone thinks they’re a writer,” the slumped-over speechwriter says.
I grow weary of my part in this play, as the Sympathetic Solemn Nodder.
No, goddamnit, we’re going to do something about this!
You know why you respect engineers and lawyers and doctors? Because you have to: They speak a language you don’t understand.
I mean, if an engineer just showed up at the big meeting and explained the plan for the bridge in layman’s terms, the county government would pay less for its installation, wouldn’t it? “I mean, he said it himself, it’s a simple matter of balancing the flat part on two big blocks in the middle!”
A lawyer doesn’t work for you for free, she works for you pro bono. And she doesn’t do that very frequently, does she? Hell no, because she makes sure you to know that not just any jamoke can file an “amicus brief,” request a “declaratory judgment” (and not a “deficiency judgment”). And if you think she will say “house” if she can say “domicile,” then you don’t know exculpatory evidence from inculpatory evidence.
Doctors are the worst—I mean, the best. When was the last time a doctor said, “We’re gonna take and get us a laser, see? And we’re gonna drive it up your cornhole and fry off anything that doesn’t look like a sphincter!” Yeah, I don’t think your insurance would cover that.
So why do corporate writers think it’s their holy obligation to avoid using technical jargon in communicating with people who wield power over their words? Just because you take pride in your crystal-clear prose—that doesn’t mean it pays to be perfectly understood in negotiations with your colleagues.
One time, I’d like to hear a speechwriter wrap up a client meeting, “All right folks, here’s how we’ll do it. We’ll open with a nice fat Howdahell KAS. We’ll follow Monroe’s Motivated Sequence with a Skutnik thrown in, and wrap this bad boy up with a modified Lehrman Landing. And let’s get this sumbitch delivered before the Kairos expires.”
And put on a hat and walk out the door.
Howdahell: A term for a little local knowledge casually sprinkled into a speech, usually near the beginning. A commencement speaker can bring the crowd to its feet simply by making reference to having had a beer at the local college watering hole. “Howdahell does Condoleeza Rice know about Suds on State?!”
Kairos: Often forgotten as an element as important as logos, pathos and ethos, kairos refers to the timeliness of an argument, or more broadly to the “moment” in which any communication occurs. The Gettysburg Address would not have gone over big at a supermarket opening in 1975.
KAS: That stands for Kavanagh Acknowledgment Sandwich, coined at last week’s Speechwriting School online by a participant named Jim Kavanagh, who agreed it can be good to break up the opening acknowledgments with some meaty material in between.
The Lehrman Landing: This is a term we’re trying to popularize ourselves—a renaming of the “Four Part Close,” a type of elaborate and effective speech conclusion that speechwriter Robert Lehrman has been teaching since he learned it himself, under the tutelage of Kurt Vonnegut at the University of Iowa in about 1967. Don’t you think Bob deserves to have it named after him?
Monroe’s Motivated Sequence is an all-purpose speech structure codified in the 1950s by a Purdue University engineer geek named Alan Monroe. Or, if you want to mesmerize a gullible marketing executive, you could say the structure is inspired by the breathy oratorical style of Marilyn Monroe.
Skutnik. On January 13, 1982, a low-level government worker named Lenny Skutnik saved a woman from drowning after a plane crashed in the icy Potomac River. President Reagan invited Skutnik to attend the State of the Union Address a couple weeks later, and called him out during the speech as the kind of American hero we need more of, these days. Such call-outs to ordinary citizens became a staple of State of the Union speeches that continues to this day. By the speechwriters who stage them, they are called “Skutniks.”