“The reason I called you all together” … is emotional, not intellectual

“Ladies and gentlemen, the reason I called you all together this evening …” —Thomas Murray, my dad, at the beginning of every family dinner

Okay, people, I’m sharpening my argument to a spear’s point.

Last week maybe I went too far out on a limb when I wrote here that, “A speech that doesn’t move people emotionally—the doing of which requires the courageous sharing of emotion on behalf of the speaker—should not be a speech.”

Maybe moving an audience emotionally is too much to ask of every speech.

But after my Speechwriters Jam Session Monday at the World Conference of the International Association of Business Communicators, a woman came up and told me her speaker is an intellectual who refuses to tell personal stories in order to connect with the audience. How to convince her?

I replied that convincing her to tell personal stories may be impossible, and also unnecessary. But as an intellectual, her speaker should be able to understand this: There are much more efficient and convenient ways to get across rational arguments and data, than dragging hundreds of people out of their lives and into one room to hear you read aloud what you might as well have sent them in a PDF.

She must understand that the only possible justification for inconveniencing so many people—and working the hell out of her speechwriter and herself—is to take advantage of the unique fact of a speech: The ability to look people straight in the eye and convince them physically of something about you that your printed word can’t get across. Supreme confidence, perhaps. Intensity. Sincerity. Charm. Humor. Warmth. Courage. Love.

You don’t have to spin personal yarns to get those attributes across. In fact, my conference questioner says her client conveys a sense of caring by interviewing audience members ahead of their speech and meaningfully working their comments into her talk.

Great! Whatever works!

But whatever you do—and this is now a claim I’m ready to defend—a speech must show the audience something about the speaker that they could never have learned from reading the text. And that thing, usually, is not intellectual, but rather, emotional. The speech itself can be intellectual—should be intellectual—but the speaker must justify all this by giving something emotional, which is the only way to make the audience glad they came. —DM

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