Improvising authenticity – has the written speech had its day?

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.

Authenticity?

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.

 

Comments

  1. Louisa says:

    Fascinating piece. As part of my job I recently read through the transcript of an off-the-cuff straight-to-camera piece given by a healthcare professional. Her aim was to persuade the audience to do something differently and to have confidence in doing that. Reading through the transcript, much of it made no sense grammatically, and it by no means read as if it came from the eloquent, articulate person I know. But that’s the point; when I saw the actual footage (and in fact whenever I see her in person) the power and passion of her communication lies in how she talks not what she says. The meaning is not in the detail of which word follows another, it’s in the overall delivery.

  2. thought provoking and well written as always Martin.
    My take on this is that where a professional speech writer has a genuine empathy with the subject matter and the speaker is authentic in believing what they are saying, that’s a very powerful combination, seemingly executed perfectly by President BO!
    No matter how authentic a speaker is, we have all experienced ‘brain farts’ from time to time, where the train of thought simply evacuates… At that point, ad-libbing can’t always add value.
    I agree with what Louisa says when there’s a camera in my face, but having a written speech in front of me, which accounts for my breathing tempo, my audience attention span and starts each paragraph with a few key words which remind me of what I’m about to say, generally works best for me.
    keep em coming 🙂

  3. I agree. In a business meeting when making a pitch, sharing a project update, selling the Board on a new idea, preparation is key. It does not have to be totally written out, but the key messages, key points, stories and examples come across much better when planned and rehearsed. Otherwise some of us would forget the key message to a client, go on too long and not have time to demo the fabulous product we want to show and generally not get to the message.

  4. A great post. Makes me wish I’d been there, must go to the next one. And I agree with your conclusions. Authenticity is a style as much as diffidence, unpreparedness, emotional opacity etc. Keep up the great work. Jim

  5. Gillian Caldicott says:

    I strongly believe that you cannot edit what you haven’t written.

    A great speech has been written in full and then practiced to the point where the individual words can be selected on the day but the the sense and purpose of the orginal written speech exists. These speeches are authentic and connect with an audience.

    Don’t confuse written speeches with people who read their speech verbatim. The former includes the latter but these people would be equally bad off-the-cuff due to lack of preparation.

  6. Dean Gargano says:

    I agree – you can’t deviate from something that isn’t there in the first place. You only have to watch Mock the Week or HIGNFY to know that the best ad-libs are the ones that have been scripted and then deviated from slightly to fit the current mood or circumstances.

  7. Your write-up makes me wish I had been there.

    I think there are three options, not just the two you name: 1) the grand occasion, 2) impromptu, and 3) something in the middle.

    Most of the clients I work with (high-tech executives, mostly in southern California) take the middle road. They are unwilling to read a speech. They spend a lot of time with me preparing their speeches.

    We develop a very detailed outline. We (I) write the introductions and the conclusions both of the speech as a whole and of each major section. We (I) write a few key sentences, using formal rhetorical devices (that don’t sound that way). Then we talk it through over and over again. And he or she rehearses it, using pages and pages of notes. During the event, the speaker relies on memory, an outline with some extended passages, and spontaneity.

    It would probably take them less time, actually, to let me write the speech and to read it, but they prefer working it through this way.

    When I speak, I follow much the same process. But I tend to write my speech out and more or less memorize it. (Blame my Catholic upbringing for my tendency to memorize.) Even after all the years (decades) I’ve been speaking, I still haven’t mastered the art of reading a speech without sounding stilted.

  8. This is some good information. Improvising makes the speech sound more natural, and easy to answer questions.

  9. Dorothea Stuart says:

    Every speech is a performance. Modern speaking styles are more informal than they used to be but I’m not sure that makes them less of a performance.
    To be authentic is a worthwhile aim for any speaker. We want to know we are hearing what a speaker believes or genuinely thinks is important to say. However, we do not bring our entire selves to the stage. Some of our characteristic will be visible, others will not.
    Having heard Steve Jobs’ official biographer speaking recently it is clear that Jobs was neither laid-back nor a joy to work with. Did customers want to see this Steve Jobs on stage? I don’t think so! They wanted the Steve Jobs who was relevant to the event and to the messages about the latest Apple products. My feeling is that this Steve was just as authentic.

  10. Very thoughtful post. For me so much is about being real. Having a real message. Exposing your real feelings, hopes and fears. I’ve seen this done in an impromptu fashion, but I’ve also seen it down completely scripted. The spontaneity of unscripted speaking has a certain vitality, but the depth of craftsmanship that can be achieved from a well constructed speech is also a thing of beauty. And honestly, I believe we can have both in one speech.

    A good, thoughtful post.

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