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.