Book Review: Speechwriting In Theory and Practice

Speechwriting In Theory and Practice, by Jens E. Kjeldsen, Amos Kiewe, Marie Lund and Jette Barnholdt Hansen

Reviewed by Neil Hrab, Rhetoric Editor, Vital Speeches of the Day

A Book We’ve Long Awaited

Book CoverSpeechwriters have hoped for a long time to see a book like this appear in print. Speechwriting in Theory and Practice’s 13 chapters are grounded in a combination of academic perspectives on the evolution of rhetoric and persuasive speech, alongside a close study of how speechwriters and speakers collaborate, in the real world, to prepare remarks for delivery. In addition to the usual White House anecdotes, we are also treated to superb insights from the lived experience of European speechwriters.

Similar books have tried hard to strike the same balance, with well-intentioned, if somewhat uneven results. Clearly, the authors of this book have studied these earlier works, and charted a different course. Their joint introduction modestly proclaims on page 2 that “[o]urs is not a handbook [on speechwriting]. There are plenty of these.” Don’t take this declaration at face value, however – the book unites both theory and practice in such a way that any newcomers to the speechwriting field will find it of great practical value (particularly Chapters 6 to 13).

The great strength of Speechwriting is that it flips the typical approach for an academic study of speechwriting on its head. That more conventional structure might focus on topics such as how various rhetorical devices identified 2000+ years ago in ancient Greece and Rome continue to appear in 21st century speeches, or tout various still-relevant insights from Aristotle’s writings on rhetoric. (Aristotle makes periodic appearances throughout this book, more as a bystander, however, rather than as inescapable off-stage narrator.)

Speechwriting in Theory and Practice fully acknowledges this fascinating continuity in rhetorical practice over the centuries, but then takes the reasonable position that, since that continuity is already very clear—why not explore aspects of contemporary speechwriting that are less well known, at least outside of professional circles?

By opening its pages to consideration of contemporary speechwriting practice, the book raises questions pointing to promising areas for future research. These include: Why is corporate speechwriting so “astonishingly under-researched” compared to political speechwriting? (See Chapter 6) How does the need for a government speechwriter to get the approval of “higher levels in the system” shape the drafting of official speeches? (See Chapter 7.) Why, exactly, can PowerPoint be so deadly when it comes to trying to hold an audience’s attention? (See Chapter 10, especially the observation that the real problem posed by digital presentation tools like PowerPoint is that they invite “the speechwriter to present statements, not to reflect, make arguments, and tell stories.”) The discussion in of the potential ethical challenges faced by speechwriters in Chapter 11 is stimulating as well.

It’s no exaggeration to say that the authors of Speechwriting in Theory and Practice have blazed a new trail. With that path now open, let us hope others will follow in their steps, and open up this exciting new territory further.

This review first appeared in Vital Speeches of the Day and is reprinted here by express permission.

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