Why speeches?

Speechwriters would be happier if they wasted less energy trying to amaze their audiences and spent their skills trying to amuse them.

Faithful rhetoric correspondent Neil Hrab, upon whom I’ve bestowed the title “Rhetoric Editor” of Vital Speeches—or “rheditor,” for short—sent me something this week that said in three paragraphs something I’ve been trying to articulate for my whole career as a shepherd of professional speechwriters (and noted industry clothes horse).

It’s an excerpt from the preface to Labor and the Public Interest, a 1964 anthology of speeches delivered by W. Willard Wirtz, U.S. Secretary of Labor during the Kennedy and Johnson Administrations.

One of the rigors of public office is maintaining the constant flow of words it demands, and trying to sustain these utterances with at least a minimum diet of reasonable good sense. The land is covered with organizations given to the habit of weekly, monthly or annual meetings, all to be addressed by speakers summoned from as great a distance as the organizational treasury permits. While other advanced societies have wisely put the siesta after the noonday meal and reduced after-dinner eloquence to the sensible brevity of the toast, we continue here to nourish the illusion that extended oratory is an aid to digestion. It is part of the code that government officials are fair game for the predatory pursuits of program chairmen, whether their blandishment is a free meal or an honorary doctoral degree.

…[C]ommunication is both the most difficult and most critical part of making democracy work. Words are the necessary currency for exchanging the capital of ideas and ideals, and if speeches are a declining and corrupted art form there is nevertheless some purpose in trying to put what seems right and worthwhile in understandable shape—without making it any drearier than the circumstances demand. Even if an audience has relinquished voluntarily its freedom from speech it retains the right, I think, not to be bored. Indeed, as the world gets more complicated it may be less important for its speakers to appeal to their listeners’ sense of destiny than to their sense of humor—which is only knowing how to distinguish between what is important and what isn’t.

It may also compensate some who are tired of listening to note that even a poor speech has had some value, in its preparation, of putting to the tough test of contemplated exposure some thoughts that might otherwise have stayed in the speaker’s mind despite their fatal weakness. I have been appalled sometimes at the realization of having come within a final draft of expressing some idea I had grown fond of but which emerged, when it went onto paper, as naked nonsense.

The happiest speechwriters I have known are those who maintain a sense of all of the above: That speeches are too many and too long. That speeches are often much more symbolic ceremony than crucial communication. That amusing audiences is usually a more realistic and laudable goal than “changing hearts and minds.” That the good speechwriters do for their speakers may be indirect, unappreciated and even unnoticed. But that speechwriters do indeed do good, as long as they do their best.

Telling speechwriters to settle for amusing rather than to stive for amazing might be odd advice coming from thee editor of Vital Speeches of the Day. But remember, we only publish 10 speeches per month.

For a reason. —DM

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