Starting the conversation

Six years ago I attended a remarkable event in Washington – a gathering of 200 speechwriters from America’s corporate, political, academic and military establishments (and a handful of us from further afield).

In Australia most speechwriters toil away isolated and unrecognised in corporate affairs and PR departments. Only a few political exponents of the craft gain a profile. (Think Don Watson, Graham Freudenberg and Bob Ellis.)

In the US it’s different. There speechwriting is afforded the same status . . . well, nearly the same . . . as fiction or play-writing. That’s why the conference I attended attracted a stellar line up.

There was pharmaceutical company Eli Lilly’s senior writer Rob Friedman who urged us to find our material – anecdotes, analogies, images, figures of speech – from weekly news magazines. They’re fresh, bright and current, he said, and quoted as an example a description of North Korea clinging ‘to its isolation like a drunk to a lamppost, a pathetic but determined gesture by a man who’s told the world to go to hell.’ Get the picture?

There was Bill Lane, chief speechwriter for former GE legend Jack Welch, who made it clear that great communicators don’t become that way by chance. Lane recalled working on one CEO letter with Welch that went to 100 drafts. On another occasion Welch spent eight hours working on an eight-minute speech. Why? Because he was outraged by speakers – including his own management team – who disrespected their audiences by being dull. Hear! Hear!

John Kador, author of 50 High-Impact Speeches & Remarks: Proven Words You Can Adapt for AnyOccasion, used Bill Clinton’s apology to the nation on the Monica Lewinsky matter to frame his address on what not to do when crafting an effective speech of apology (more of that in another blog).

And ConocoPhillips speechwriter Hal Gordon who once worked for General Colin Powell cited examples of how poetry can help speakers rise to demanding occasions. Poetry, he said, added beauty to speeches. Adding beauty to public discourse was half the job of a speechwriter. The other half was to add meaning.

As stimulating as the proceedings inside the conference rooms – at the historic Mayflower Renaissance which Harry Truman once labelled Washington DC’s ‘second best address’ – were the events outside. One in particular I recall: an exhibition at the Library of Congress which displayed the original manuscripts of Winston Churchill’s famous speeches and proved just why they were so great. Churchill was his own harshest editor.

I returned back to the office with my head spinning. What to do with all the ideas? One thing was certain. I wanted to share with my corporate colleagues and clients that writing in the business world need not – should not – be dull.

After months of work and discussions with my fellow writers at our publishing company Businesswriters & Design, we came up with a course: Better Business Writing and a journal The Business Writer. Subtitled rather grandly, A forum for views on writing and communication, the journal started life as a paying proposition, but these days is sent free to anyone who visits our website (www.businesswriters.com.au) and subscribes. Seldom a day goes by without a new subscriber.

But the problem with a journal – even one that tries to be a forum – is that it’s a one-way street. Us talking to you rather than with you.

So this blog hopes to do what I wanted to do all those years back. Start a conversation about language’s beauty, power and potential – even, and especially, in the world of business. And how to make it work with great design.

Can’t wait to hear your views.

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Derryn Heilbuth has worked as a newspaper, magazine and television journalist. Before founding Businesswriters & Design, Derryn was Publications Editor at Westpac Banking Corporation. She has an Honours degree in English, a Masters degree in journalism, has written a book on small business, taught at university and TAFE and now conducts seminars on better business writing and strategic writing. In addition to her broad corporate communications and publishing experience, Derryn has developed a particular expertise in sustainability communications.

Posted in Sustainability communications
11 comments on “Starting the conversation
  1. Great subject. Great idea. Most businessmen are terribly boring and what is worse, they do not know they are boring. So, if someone can mould their thoughts into an attractive idea using words as agents of awe, maybe there would be fewer news shots of people sleeping around boardroom tables and in conference halls.

    • Spoken like a true journo Marilyn! For those of us journalists who move into this world the problem is not that businessmen – and women – are boring, but the way they choose to express their ideas is. The main culprit is jargon, which many find too seductive to resist. As Don Watson pointed out in his book Death Sentence: The Decay of Public Language, it not only strips language of its beauty and freshness, but also of its meaning.

  2. Ulrike says:

    So true. Would be nice to lift the language game and add some flair and enjoyment to writing and reading the various business reports in addition to focussing on the material issues in business.

    • Agree Ulrike. Reports suffer from the two points raised in response to Steven and Marilyn’s comments: the approval process and jargon. Sustainability reporting is a relatively new phenomenon but the jargon that has already built around it would fill volumes.

  3. sonia fingleton says:

    Words feed the soul, touch the heart and excite the brain. Words well chosen like a good food and wine are fulfilling, pleasurable, exciting the senses.

    Bland thoughts, bland words grow bland people.

    In all ways we are what we eat (consume) and equally what we serve.

    Everyone verbally and with the written word should be encouraged to give their best and feed their listeners and readers well.

    • Like the food analogy Sonia. Another I’ve always liked is the military analogy used by Coleridge when he said: “Language is the armoury of the human mind; and at once contains the trophies of its past, and the weapons of its future conquests.”

  4. Morgan says:

    Studying German with a range of young people from across Europe I noticed two groups within the class.

    One group practiced making Germans and each other understand what they meant in German…Ich moechte ein Beer, Bitte.

    The other group practises getting the rules of the language just right. I won’t reveal which group I was in, but I’m sure you know which group finished the course with a skill that was most useful and appreciated by the Germans they spoke to.

  5. Great idea. I agree most business writing is boring and legal business writing is even more boring. We all have a lot to learn and you have made a great start.

    • Many years ago I tutored first year students in English literature. The law students were among my favourites because they had a feel for, and generally loved, language. In our business writing courses the lawyers remain my favourites, for the same reason. Lawyers in the business world, I think, suffer the same fate as business communicators – the dreaded approval process! Nothing strips language of its spontaneity as effectively.

  6. Tiger2 says:

    You’re talking about its highest form, speechwriting at its best, doing its job of inspiring, stimulating, persuading, engaging, informing, moving and entertaining its audiences.

    But let’s talk about what we commonly experience, with numb backsides and number brains. And think about who is to blame.

    I would like to see speechwriting required in the skill set of everyone drawing a paycheck in corporate communications, journalism, public relations and so on. The ranks of those qualifying today would be thin indeed.

    Not because they will necessarily be writing speeches, but because speechwriting demands competence in research, writing, analysis and assembling ideas and information in an order that makes sense.

    That’s the basic benchmark and you witness its collapse today where it’s most commonly required – at conferences, AGMs, openings, commemorative and presentation events, key information sessions and special announcements.

    Those whose job it should be to write speeches don’t, won’t (and, significantly, can’t) do it any more and they couldn’t care less.

    The eager emphasis today is on “presentation skills”. Not content, never content, and only fleeting attention to structure if at all.

    What emerges in front of audiences is by default. Poorly explained, poorly structured, choked with jargon, instantly forgettable, usually jumbled into Death by PowerPoint.

    A scandalous waste of human energy, time and resources on both sides of the podium.

    Let’s pick up a whistle and blow it on those who are to blame, starting with the “communications studies” industry. (And my list will not include the senior management and business speakers, poor mugs, who are the ones being duped and deprived by their “communications professionals”).

    • Great post. I do wonder about some of the people choosing to go into communications. . . especially those who quite happily admit to not wanting – or being able – to write. Like an accountant saying he or she doesn’t have a head for figures! I would love to engage communication academics in the debate. I emailed a list of them alerting them to the discussion, but as you can see none have posted comments. Though I did receive a note of encouragement about entering the blogosphere from someone who taught me when I completed a masters in journalism. Thanks Penny!

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