I’m impressed by the new podcast from the Obama speechwriting team (who suddenly have time on their hands).
Pod Save America is a lively, irreverent and highly partisan discussion hosted by hosted by Jon Favreau, Jon Lovett, Dan Pfeiffer and Tommy Vietor. In the latest episode they are joined by second-term chief speechwriter Cody Keenan in a discussion that gives some great advice on what makes a speechwriters’ life pleasurable or painful, why edits to a draft are to be welcomed, and makes the unequivocal point on the importance of direct access to the principal, not mediated by comms staff.
There’s wonderful inside baseball tales on which sections of Obama’s speeches were written by who, and where the President made killer edits.
I love it that their Twitter account has over 30,000 followers but they only follow one person, can you guess who?
Check it out on iTunes or your favorite podcast syndication venue.
Since I make no secret of my age, I’m proud to say my life has been almost exactly coterminus with that of her majesty’s reign (with only my first four days on the planet spent when her father was on the throne, albeit on his death bed).
Coupland muses on the strangeness of the word Queen: ‘seemingly engineered by Scrabble technicians to allow players to shed excess vowels while at the same time affording them a well-deserved buzz while they deploy the Q-tile they’ve been hording…’. He recalls a time when the Queen waved at him, and him alone. On the relationship between punk rock (God Save the Queen) and the monarchy in British culture. On the differences between transvestites and drag queens.
But it is a wonderfully inspiring thought experiment that caught my eye, which is worth quoting in full:
I have this theory that there exists another universe which is just like ours except in that universe, different people became famous than did in this one. Jodie Foster is a Denny’s waitress in Bakersfield. George Clooney repairs engines at an Airbus facility but is off for a month because of a bad back. And so on. If you visited that universe, you could bump into Jodie and George and then . . . well, what would you do, really? Ask for their autograph? They’d call the cops. Ask them if they ever thought of acting? Stalker. There’s really nothing you could do except stare like a twit with a faint smile while you creep them out. If you ever want to make the world seem more interesting, just assume that everybody you see is a movie star in some other dimension.
Sometimes, I’ll see 90-year-old ladies and wonder if they’re actually the Queen in some other universe. What would I say to one of these women? “Hello. You look very regal today.” Clueless. “Like some tea, Ma’am?” Freak. The truth is that there’d be nothing much you or I could say, aside from platitudes and pleasantries — and then we’d sigh and realise that that’s pretty much what it would be like meeting the real Queen in our own universe. But one has to admit She’s done a magnificent job of maintaining an aura of mystery armed only with a signature hand wave and a roster of secret handbag codes used in conjunction with her security staff.
This would be an interesting executive communications technique.
Imagine, for a moment, a speech by a senior leader that asks the audience to assume everyone in the company is a top manager in some other dimension. Treating everyone in the organization with the deference afforded top management would undermine many cultural norms, perhaps for the better. It could, for instance, relieve CEOs of the dysfunctional behaviors Rod Thorn identifies (a lack of honest conversations, too much political game playing, silo thinking, lack of ownership and follow-through, and tolerating bad behaviors). It would certainly, if carried out literally, put meat on the bones of the rather tired assertion that front line employees are more important than the CEO (which is clearly why they earn 331 times less.)
It might lead to greater empathy for the burdens the powerful bear, and the challenges underlings face, and overcome limitations in left-brained thinking that Daniel Pink has identified.
It might also help to develop the speech as a vehicle for constructive fantasy (‘what if?’), which speechwriter Brian Jenner lists as one of the jobs of the speechwriter (‘to manipulate the steady going, because we’re in the business of reconstructing the world with ideas’).
It would certainly take people out of their comfort zone, and, as ethnomethodology teaches, help everyone in an organization understand what’s going on when people in meetings pander to the CEO’s sense of humor and are more willing to laugh along at his jokes than they are with people of lesser status.
Her Majesty’s a pretty nice girl,
But she doesn’t have a lot to say
Her Majesty’s a pretty nice girl
But she changes from day to day
I want to tell her that I love her a lot
But I gotta get a bellyful of wine
Her Majesty’s a pretty nice girl
Someday I’m going to make her mine, oh yeah,
Someday I’m going to make her mine.
– The Beatles
Throughout the 1980’s, the non-fiction lists were headed by the autobiographies of self-made men, by titans like Lee Iacocca, the phoenix of the automobile, by Donald Trump, the young, bouncy, blond tycoon whose aspirations to take over hotels, casinos, airlines, resorts, cities — why not the country? — appear to be boundless.
(Letter from America, 1946-2004, p. 339)
Cooke did not live to see the day.
Of the people, by the people
I wonder what that cultured Englishman, who was an outstanding observer of America throughout his career, would make of President Trump? No doubt he would have commented on Trump’s obvious eccentricities as a sui generis political phenomenon. He would also, I’m sure, have visited the red states to talk to some of the 63 million who voted for him. As the French philosopher said “In a democracy, the people get the government they deserve.” And the people have spoken, there’s a new sheriff in town.
What the millions wanted was a change. And change is what we’ve got. They expressed a forceful desire to ‘Make America Great Again’ (now a Twitter hashtag #MAGA). Trump reflects these desires. He mirrors them.
I can remember back around the millennium being in the audience at an avant garde theatrical performance where a series of photographs were projected onscreen, accompanied by loud music. Meanwhile, elegantly dressed young women walked around in the audience holding large mirrors that reflected us, watching the screen, back to ourselves. When a woman happened to stand both behind and in front, then , like in the barbers chair, an infinite series of images of the audience cascaded around us, simultaneously distracting from, and supplementing, the images on the screen we were reacting to. The light from the mirrors illuminated the audience, brighter than the screen was illuminated by the projector. We reacted to reflections of the reality we’d come to see. Watching ourselves watching. Like Narcissus at the pond, we were entranced by our own reflection.
Just so, Trump has taken the image voters have of themselves — channeling their anger and frustration with established politicians — and superimposed it onto the political process. He has ridden their waves of their frustration from the Rust Belt to the Beltway. And he has illuminated politics with the re-tweets of his 20 million Twitter followers.
He assumes the voice of ‘the people’, claiming to speak for them, as only a billionaire on his third marriage can.
He reflects the Americans who are about to get the President they deserve. His supporters are illuminated and emboldened by the reflected glory of his success.
As time goes by, following his Inauguration on Friday January 20, this light might fade, or, heaven forbid, it might shine brighter than a thousand suns.
A Distant Mirror
Some have compared the rise of Trump to other demagogues such as Hitler and Mussolini. Others see parallels in the transition of the Roman Republic to an Empire.
Historian Barbara Tuchman has written a compelling narrative of the 14th century that highlights how, in a time of chaos and pestilence, rulers found opportunities to accumulate wealth and power, enjoying an opulent life while ruthlessly exploiting the peasants. They had their 1% back then. Other periods of human history are distant mirrors to our own.
I was saddened to hear of the death (at 90) of Marxist art historian John Berger.
I vividly recall reading Ways of Seeing as an undergraduate and, later, his sociological writings A Fortunate Man and A Seventh Man about migrant workers in Europe, years before the current crisis hit. His essays in the collection Portraits covers 74 artists who worked from 30,000 BC (the Chauvet Cave Painters) to the 20th century.
I was impressed by his collaboration with the Swiss director Alain Tanner. Indeed, the 1976 film Jonah who will be 25 in the year 2000 is the only movie I’ve ever watched six times in all. It formulated a good part of my world view as a young man.
Even more influential was his 1972 prizewinning novel simply titled ‘G‘. I read it the year it came out, in my second year at University. It’s a novel of sexual adventure and political awakening, heady stuff for any undergraduate. The closing paragraph, describing the sunlight on the ocean waves is a beautiful, trippy way of seeing:
The sun is low in the sky and the sea is calm. Like a mirror as they say. Only it is not like a mirror. The waves which are scarcely waves, for they come and go in many different directions and their rising and falling is barely perceptible, are made up of innumerable tiny surfaces at variegating angles to one another–of these surfaces those which reflect the sunlight straight into one’s eyes, sparkle with a white light during the instant before their angle, relative to oneself and the sun, shifts and they merge again into the blackish blue of the rest of the sea. Each time the light lasts for no longer than a spark stays bright when shot out from a fire. But as the sea recedes towards the sun, the number of sparkling surfaces multiples until the sea indeed looks somewhat like a silver mirror. But unlike a mirror it is not still. Its granular surface is in continual agitation. The further away the ricocheting grains, of which the mass becomes silver and the visibly distinct minority a dark leaden colour, the greater is their apparent speed. Uninterruptedly receding towards the sun, the transmission of its reflections becoming ever faster, the sea neither requires nor recognizes any limit. The horizon is the straight bottom edge of a curtain arbitrarily and suddenly lowered upon a performance.
His BBC series Ways of Seeing on which the book was based is available in multiple parts on YouTube. Here’s the first episode
Berger was an uncompromising visionary who was a major influence on my life.
A recent This American Life podcast broadcast a piece I’d missed when it first went out a year ago. It’s the remarkable story of how Ricard Pierce, a prison inmate, transformed his terminal shyness by enrolling in Toastmasters (yes, they have chapters that meet behind bars).
He tells how he gave his ‘Icebreaker’ and ‘Get to the Point’ manual speeches in front of other inmates, and realized that his own self-evaluation was much harsher than how members of the audience perceived him.
After the speech, Rich was really hard on himself. In his self-evaluation, he wrote down three words– “Horrible, needs practice.” But his peers were more forgiving. “Excellent job,” they wrote. “Great progress, very good eye contact, very welcoming.” They called him “Winning and funny.” One inmate said they should have storytelling every Saturday night on the cell block with Mr. Pierce. Another told Rich he had nothing to fear. He was just as good as anyone else. Rich had been nervous, trembling even. And no one noticed.
I’ve seen this so many times. Speakers who are nervous, panic-stricken even, think everyone picked up on how they feel. This is usually not the case.
The best advice is to forget your own feelings, fake it till you make it, and listen to what other people tell you for a true appreciation of how you were seen. Formal evaluations are one of the hidden benefits of Toastmasters, as Rich discovered.
My son recently graduated with a degree in International Business and Marketing and is looking for an entry-level position in this area. I met today with a group of marketing professionals who shared the many reasons young people should consider a career in this field.
To hear what they told me, click on the podcast icon below.
Oh, and if you know of any entry-level marketing jobs in the San Francisco Bay Area let me know! Neil’s Dad will thank you…
Simon Lancaster is one of the world’s top speechwriters. He first became a speechwriter in the late 1990s, working for members of Tony Blair’s Cabinet. Today, he writes speeches for the CEOs of some of the biggest companies in the world, including Unilever, HSBC and Intercontinental Hotels. Simon is a visiting lecturer at Cambridge University and an Executive Fellow of Henley Business School. He regularly appears on BBC and Sky News and writes guest columns for The Guardian, The Daily Mail and Total Politics. He is the author of two best-selling books on communication: Speechwriting: The Expert Guide and Winning Minds: Secrets from the Language of Leadership. You can follow him on Twitter @bespokespeeches
How to Write and Deliver a Great Speech
Emmeline Pankhurst’s speeches led to women winning the vote. Winston Churchill’s speeches inspired a nation to stay strong at a time of war. Dr Martin Luther King’s speeches persuaded the American Government to grant everyone equal rights, regardless of the colour of their skin.
Speeches change the world. Throughout history, whoever has held the gift of eloquence has held power: from the Roman Emperors to the kings and queens to politicians.
In the past, we all used to learn public speaking at school. In Ancient Rome and Ancient Greece, rhetoric was a core part of the curriculum. In London, right up until the 19th Century, it was possible to gain a free education in rhetoric but not in maths, such was the importance that was placed on the topic. The thinking was clear: you could not have a fair society unless everyone had a fair opportunity to express themselves.
Today, teaching of rhetoric is restricted to a narrow elite. It is no coincidence that 19 of Britain’s last 50 Prime Ministers went to Eton. Eton has always invested in the teaching of rhetoric. Indeed they have just invested 18 million pounds in a new debating chamber.
Developing tomorrow’s leaders starts in today’s schools. The good news is that all the techniques in great public speaking from Ancient Rome and Ancient Greece remain just as relevant today. Aristotle taught us there are three essential ingredients to a good speech.
Aristotle said a good speech must have:
First, the speaker must demonstrate good character (ethos). A speech represents a chance to look into someone’s eyes and see the strength of their conviction. This means that when the person delivering the speech stay true to yourself. It doesn’t matter if they speak too quickly, wave their hands around a lot or um and ah. Great speakers can, and do, get away with all of this. The most important thing is that they believe what they are saying. That is something that just can’t be faked. A speaker must speak from the heart.
The second thing a great speaker does is speak about an issue everyone cares about (pathos). Too many speeches are boring. A speech should be as exciting as a film or a great television programme if it is to hold people’s attention. A great speaker will stir feelings within their audience that even their audience can not wholly explain: feelings of pride, passion or pain. They will tell stories, use emotive points of reference and explain why it is that something matters so much.
The third thing a great speaker must do is sound right (logos). The Ancient Romans used to talk about the rule of three. If you put your argument in threes, people are more likely to believe that it is true. There is something in the human brain that loves arguments that come in threes. ‘This, that and the other.’ ‘On your marks, get set, go!’ ‘Ready, aim, fire!’ Great speakers always use the rule of three – over and over and over again. They also combine it alliteration, rhymes and contrasts. It makes them sound more credible, compelling and convincing.
The world is in a state of flux at the moment. It is scandalous that at a time when such gargantuan issues are being debated – like climate change, security, religious freedoms – debate is being restricted to such a narrow minority.
Instead of teaching our children to sit down and shut up, we should be teaching them to stand up and speak out. Let’s put oracy right at the heart of the curriculum, for today’s children, for tomorrow’s world.
What shall we call this grand initiative? Well, here’s an idea. How about democracy?
Some great speeches to watch and discuss in the classroom:
TEDx talk – Speak like a leader by Simon Lancaster
This post originally appeared in First News Schools UK and is reproduced here with Simon Lancaster’s express permission.
Now in my 8th week of fasting from the daily news (for reasons I explained back in October) I’m nevertheless fascinated by the stories I hear people around me discussing (many of which seem to involve the surprise election of a New York property developer). It’s obvious that most of my family and friends are caught up in the drama that is played out 7×24 on multiple channels.
The one world-class news source he omits is the Financial Times which I would place firmly in the top ellipse on the ‘Mainstream: minimal partisan bias’ axis — or perhaps ever so slightly to the liberal side (at least when compared to the WSJ which in my opinion skews further to the right than this graphic shows).
Financial Times columnist Lucy Kellaway gave the closing keynote at the International Capital Markets Association (ICMA) conference in Dublin this last May. Her presentation starts by asking the audience ‘how many feel really passionate about what you do?’ and then reminds those who raise their hands that the dictionary definition of ‘passionate’ is either (a) intense feelings of sexual attraction, or (b) the suffering of Jesus Christ on the cross, and that it’s enough to really to like a job, not to feel passionate about it.
Lucy continues by highlighting many of the examples of corporate bullshit she satirizes in her weekly FT column.
The full 20 minute keynote is well worth a listen.