Last week’s UK Speechwriters’ Guild London conference was a triumph for its founder Brian Jenner and a delight for its participants. Brian’s recipe for success is based on keeping things simple. He chooses a broad mix of contributors – often from very different backgrounds and with very different points of view – and just lets them get on with it. The result, last week, was a conference that was both entertaining and thought-provoking.
One presentation in particular rattled the speechwriters’ cage and littered the conference floor with feathers. It was given by Russian ‘presentation guru’ Alexei Kapterev who raised the provocative – but important – question of whether the written speech has had its day.
The day after the conference, Max Atkinson blogged his thoughts on Alexei’s presentation, and the following day Alexei wrote a blog in response to Max’s post. I encourage you to visit both posts because they are well worth reading, and what follows is my take on some of the issues raised.
At the heart of Alexei’s argument is the idea of ‘authenticity’. He argues that, in the digital age, the gap between the informality of the spoken word and the formality of the written word is narrowing with each passing day. And he makes an interesting observation when he writes that the blog style of writing is closer to the style of everyday speech than it is to the more formal writing style of the article or essay.
So far so good, but the next step in his argument proves more contentious, because he moves from the influence of everyday speech on writing to its influence on public speaking. He asserts that when we speak in public we always sound ‘a bit odd’. But, do we?
There is, I think, a broad spectrum of situations in which we find ourselves speaking in public. At one end of the spectrum is the grand occasion – a political speech, a funeral eulogy, a Commencement speech, etc, – which we prepare for in advance; and at the other end of the spectrum is the impromptu circumstance – a colleague’s leaving do, a meeting, a dinner party, etc, – where we unexpectedly find ourselves speaking in front of a group. Alexei makes it clear that his preference is for presentations at the impromptu end of the spectrum, and his reasons are as follows:
- They don’t involve a script, which means there is nothing to distract the speaker from connecting with their audience
- Being impromptu they are, by definition, more conversational in tone than a written speech
- They are more authentic because the speaker’s body language, facial expressions, tone and pitch of voice match the words more than they might with a written speech (I detect a whiff of the Mehrabian myth here – i.e. the myth that words only account for 7 percent of the meaning of a spoken message)
- Compared to impromptu speaking, speeches are too safe and dull.
Alexei’s concept of authenticity starts to take shape when he tells us that we see ‘the real (Steve) Jobs when his clicker breaks down or when his demo doesn’t work the way it should.’ This crack between preparation and performance is far more authentic, in Alexei’s view, than, for example, Jobs’ much-lauded Stanford Commencement speech, which he delivered from a lectern, and read from a script. In fact, Alexei goes on to say that though Job’s speech was brilliant, it ‘could have been much, MUCH better.’ (Now that’s quite a claim!)
Is improvisation the answer?
For Alexei, improvisation lies at the very heart of authenticity. Which is why, as far as he’s concerned, Jobs is at his most authentic when his equipment breaks down.
But let’s imagine, for a moment, that Jobs had abandoned the idea of writing a Commencement speech and instead had simply turned up and started riffing on the podium, as he walked up and down. How do you think that would have gone down with his audience? Do you think they would have responded even more positively because of its heightened ‘authenticity’? I suggest not.
I think that Jobs’ academic audience would have been shocked and even insulted. Just as it would be absurd to turn up for a chat with a friend with a script, it would have been wrong for Jobs to have improvised on such a grand and formal occasion.
Jobs established his authenticity – or ethos, as Aristotle might have put it – by taking great care over what he said, and making it as personal and appropriate to the occasion as he could. The informal, yet artful construction of Jobs’ speech serves to remind us that ‘authentic’ is a style like any other – but with a difference: in order to work, the authentic style has adapt itself to the circumstances in which it is being used.
Nowadays, on the grand stage, the authentic style requires an Obama approach, whereas at a speechwriters’ conference, a more informal, less-polished, Alexei Kapterev approach will do very nicely! But the important point to bear in mind is that both styles involve a great deal of forethought and practice if they are to succeed.
Preparing to be authentic
A couple of years I ago, I saw the chief executive of the NHS Sir David Nicholson give a riveting talk without notes (and apparently off-the-cuff) to a conference of health professionals. As he finished, someone behind me turned to a colleague and commented on its brilliance. His colleague agreed, but added that he’d seen Sir David give the same outstanding speech, word-for-word, the month before at another conference.
Now did this revelation somehow tarnish Sir David’s authenticity in my eyes? Not at all, if anything he went up in my estimation because I felt honoured that he’d taken such pains to give his audience such an engaging and lively experience – we ‘give’ speeches, a speech is a speaker’s gift to an audience.
The other day, I heard a well-known comedian talk about the huge amount of time it takes to work up a modest twenty minutes’ worth of material. Comedians work hard to look as though they’re making it up on the hoof, and they also have to build up a great deal of experience and confidence before they can throw in the odd genuine improvisatory remark as they perform their act.
Authentic is a style
The bottom line is this: authentic is a style. If you believe that it contains essential truths about the speaker, you probably also believe that Sir Richard Branson is a hippy who keeps getting bullied by the nasty people at British Airways; and that Steve Jobs was a joy to work with because he was so laid-back and easy-going. (I note too that Alexei helps people in corporations present in a more authentic style – all I can say to him and them is, be careful what you wish for!)
Everything in the realm of public speaking is artifice – the art that conceals art. And without artifice we’d be exposed to many more boring presentations and speeches than we are already. The written speech has existed since antiquity (see Classical Rhetoric by George A. Kennedy, chapter 6) and I believe there’s still life in the old dog yet – after all, against the odds, well-written speeches succeeded in opening the doors of the White House to its first black incumbent.
Reading from a script is not the problem – speeches can be either read well, or badly. Speakers can either be rehearsed and coached well, or badly, Politicians like Tony Blair and David Cameron are masters at looking down at a script at just the right moment and looking up again at their audience at just the right moment too.
Great speeches depend on great writing – body language, tone of voice, though a welcome support, won’t take you very far by themselves. Let’s not forget that despite his speech impediment, Churchill’s brilliantly written wartime speeches inspired the nation despite being heard as radio broadcasts – so much for the myth that words only account for 7 percent of a spoken message.
And finally, speeches don’t have a monopoly on rambling, embarrassing and dull – improvised presentations can be rambling, embarrassing and dull too. But I still contend that a well-written speech full of interesting ideas, language and imagery can still be one of the most exciting and inspiring experiences an audience can have. And if you harbour any doubts, take another look at Obama’s outstanding victory speech.