The Long Arc of Speechwriting

Perhaps 24 centuries of speechwriting can offer a few lessons that can guide us through our current post-truth political environment.

The latest trends in political communication give the impression that the art of speeches is dead. Social media outreach beats the audience in a room. The question of “how long the speech” has been replaced by the well-known 140-character limit. Many 2016 election results support the idea that speeches do not reach their objective. They have failed; they are obsolete; they are dead. It is time for the art of speeches’ eulogy.

But a decent eulogy, please. Any such rich and long life deserves a moment to look back and see what we can learn.

We do not have to look back very far. From Europe to the United States, if there is one lesson 2016 has taught us, it is that truth and facts can be defeated. This lesson was confirmed by the Oxford Dictionary announcing that the international word of the year is “post-truth.” For our guild, founded on words (logos) and truth (ethos), this shakes the world upside down. But more than to speechwriters, it is a major concern to people, voters, citizens. Or at least it ought to be.

If words and truth are not the most important ways to make up one’s mind, what is it then?

Emotions. 2016 provided ample evidence that fear and frustration were stronger than facts and figures. If there is anything like a pathos-o-meter, fear and frustration perform very high, while the intellectual content of too many institutional speeches registers flat, and low.

The importance of emotions (pathos) in winning hearts and minds is certainly not new, but their impact in 2016 entails a few lessons.

First, why have some 2016 results come as a surprise … if not to reveal a disconnect between the speakers and their audience. If words are to move an audience, the process starts with listening, listening, listening. There is in many of our countries a growing, roaring frustration: how can it be addressed if not understood, understood if not heard, heard if not isolated from the noise?

Listen to the audience to reconnect is the first lesson.

Second, if emotions are so powerful (and we have seen they are), let’s not limit the use to primary, negative ones, but let’s explore the full spectrum. What about the trust our long and rich history gives us? What about joy for what our societies have achieved and actually works well—and makes the rest of the world envy us? What about pride—not only the pride we can already feel for our successes, but also the pride we will feel later, after the efforts, after the perseverance, once we have achieved what seemed out of reach? Remember Winston Churchill’s speeches during the second world war. Remember Jean Monnet’s on 9 May 1950, just five years and one day after the end of the hell of the second world war. Remember John F. Kennedy and the moon dream.

And while we focus on emotions, let’s be ruthless with them: Are they the right ones? Are they well targeted?

Consider two masterpieces of our discipline: Robert Kennedy’s speech on the day of Martin Luther King’s assassination, or Charles De Gaulle’s speech after the attack on Mers-el-Kebir. In both cases, audiences were justifiably enraged. But these speakers constructively turned this legitimate rage into something much more positive for their audience.

Make the most of emotions—of all emotions—is the second lesson.

Third, the very idea to help the audience first—it really starts here—be willing to listen, and then, willing to continue listening, making the speech a pleasure to hear, easy to follow and remember, and even better, leading the audience into understanding better what is happening, the issues at stake, the choices ahead, until they may change their minds, and want to convey the message themselves and become multipliers—this objective seems to have vanished in our noisy, short-term, time-pressured world.

Care deeply for your audience is the third lesson.

We speechwriters have an advantage: We have hindsight. Mind you: our discipline is some 24 centuries old. We have seen crises, dark times, and angers. We know they do not last forever.

Our long history shows that the greatest speeches were delivered in the most difficult times. And they helped change to take place.

Yes, the art of speeches still has a few lessons to offer, especially now. Perhaps it is not time for the eulogy, just yet.

Isabelle Gaudeul-Ehrhart is the European member of PSA Advisory Council and judge to the Cicero Awards; she leads the website This is written in her personal capacity.

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