They tried to warn me.
At the meeting hall, in the restaurants and in the bars of Bournemouth, a sunny resort town on the south coast of England where the annual conference of the U.K. Speechwriters’ Guild convened last week, attendees told me over and over again that the message of my closing keynote address might not go over well on this side of the pond.
Many of these 67 speechwriters from Britain, Scotland, Ireland, France, Holland and Denmark told me their speakers wouldn’t go for the kind of intimate, personal, emotional authenticity that I was going to celebrate in the latest edition of my “speechwriting jam session.”
How did the speechwriters themselves feel about the American rhetorical style? Some despised it; others pined for it.
A native mistrust of emotion, a native disgust for narcissism
Americans are big on splashy speeches for two reasons, theorized the former diplomat, sometime speechwriter and fulltime peanut gallery pundit Charles Crawford. “You’re used to communicating with immigrants who don’t speak very good English. And … you’ve got to have a show! In America, everybody wants a show!”
Whereas in the United Kingdom, and even more so in Europe, what everybody wants—well, what everybody expects—is an objective recitation of the facts, the policy, the idea. “Yes, people like to be entertained,” said veteran U.K. political and corporate speechwriter Stuart Mole. “But there is nothing as exciting as ideas.”
There’s also a mistrust for obvious rhetorical devices and a low tolerance for personal anecdotes. Francois Mitterand opening a speech with heartwarming tale about his childhood? Ridiculous, said a French speechwriter I spoke with. Elucidating a policy by telling the story of a typical person whom that policy affects? Transparently manipulative, said a British scribe. Humor? A Dutch speechwriter said that in Holland, speakers are discouraged from jokes with the stock advice, “Act normal and that is funny enough.”
So yes, as I stepped up to deliver my conference-closing talk on the importance of intimacy and emotional candor in speechwriting, you might say I had my knickers in a twist.
What sort of stuff do British and European speechwriters like?
The U.K. Speechwriters’ Guild conference is now in its third year, and thanks to the skills and persistence of founder and organizer Brian Jenner, it’s threatening to become an institution.
What sort of people attend it?
Max Atkinson is the beloved de facto dean of the U.K. speechwriting community. The author of the definitive book on speechwriting here, Lend Me Your Ears: All You Need to Know About Making Speeches and Presentations, Atkinson struck a simultaneously grandfatherly, erudite and humorous figure as he rambled and shambled through his keynote session on how to use PowerPoint to communicate.
“Why am I doing a session on PowerPoint?” he asked rhetorically. “Well needless to say, I have three reasons.”
One reason is to turn speeches back into speeches. “Often I’m asked if I’ve been to a particular presentation and I say no, I’ve been to a list.”
Another big laugh.
There was more laughter at this conference—and a lot less serious discussion on broad topics like leadership communication strategy and thought leadership—than we’re used to at speechwriting gatherings in the U.S.
Perhaps the most popular speaker at this event was Fred Metcalf, author of the Penguin Dictionary of Modern Humorous Quotations, and humor writer to former British Prime Minister John Major, Senator John Kerry and TV impresario David Frost. “You can say you saw the man who put the jokes into the man who put the Frost into Frost/Nixon,” said Metcalf near the outset of his presentation, which consisted almost entirely of a series of quips and jokes. (“I saw my grandmother yesterday, probably for the last time. She’s not sick or anything, I just find her incredibly boring.” And: “A man I know won a free trip to China. He’s out there now, trying to win a trip back.”)
Not once did Metcalf look up from his script, which contained only the thinnest practical advice for speechwriters. And the crowd was spellbound.
And who was in that crowd?
There was Neil Dorward, a Scottish ex-priest who writes and delivers non-religious funeral orations, mostly at crematoriums. His book on the subject is The Guide to a Dead Brilliant Funeral Speech (“Because you only get one chance to make a last impression.”) He’s hoping to translate his experience in handling more than 2,000 of these projects into a career as a professional public speaker.
There was Ryan Heath, the ebullient young speechwriter to European Union president José Manuel Barosso; he was here having a breather from the pressure-packed and bureaucratically exasperating process of preparing Barosso’s crucial upcoming State of the Union address.
And there was the corker Crawford, who sat in the back row, live-tweeting the sessions. Just before he went on for his own session, on writing speeches in English for delivery by “foreigners,” as he kept putting it, Crawford told me he didn’t understand why the morning’s speakers had been so unpolished.
I told him it was because they are speechwriters, not public speakers, and that they shouldn’t be expected to be any more polished than any bloke off the street. (I was starting to feel my British linguistic oats.)
And I further told him candidly that the only confidence I had in my own talk stemmed from the fact that I’d rehearsed it eight or 10 times, all the way through.
He smilingly professed to be utterly mystified that anyone would need to rehearse a talk. And then he proceeded to give what I had to grudgingly admit was a pretty decent, pretty smoothly delivered talk, which even the foreigners seemed to appreciate.
Redcoats, meet the bleeding heart
So blimey, I felt a bit like a cat on hot bricks by the time I got up to share my series of speeches by comparatively dewy-eyed Americans, designed to show the power of authenticity. This crowd seemed too witty too appreciate such earnestness, too cerebral to groove on such emotion.
“How many of you have heard of Fred Rogers, and Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood?” I asked, before playing my usually show-stopping video of Rogers’ 1969 Senate testimony.
Not a hand went up. Uh oh.
But at the end of the show, plenty of hands were shaking mine, and in the bar afterwards, slapping my back. Not that everyone—or anyone—was convinced that they could pull off these classic American speech techniques in these more reserved cultures in the U.K.
“But still, I was moved by those speeches,” said Guild founder Jenner.
Despite the smarmy, glib, narcissism of the speeches I shared, lots of these speechwriters confessed to having been emotionally affected by my clips.
“I’ll tell you what,” a Dutch woman speechwriter told me in a conspiratorial whisper. “Your method would work with all the women in any audience.”
So that’s the story on storytelling in speechwriting: It works on Americans, and on women all over the world.