Ex Machina

Robin Wigglesworth highlights the effect of Artificial Intelligence on executive communications in an article in the Weekend FT (subscription required). A new form of “robo-surveillance” by trading algorithms is spurring executives to place a deeper focus on the spoken word.

Executives are coached to avoid saying certain phrases, such as “but” which could trigger stock sales by natural language processing (NLP) machines taught the intricacies of human speech. Using NLP, investment funds instantaneously scrape speeches, social media chatter and corporate earnings calls for clues.

Cat and mouse

The result is a cat and mouse game, where CEOs try to outwit the machines that can pick up a verbal clue that a human might not even realize is relevant.

A recent academic paper — How to Talk When a Machine Is Listening: Corporate Disclosure in the Age of AI — points out that companies are keen to show off their business in the best possible light.

…firms with high expected machine downloads manage textual sentiment and audio emotion in ways catered to machine and AI readers, such as by differentially avoiding words that are perceived as negative by computational algorithms as compared to those by human readers, and by exhibiting speech emotion favored by machine learning software processors.

The paper found that companies have tweaked the language of annual reports and how executives speak in public to avoid words that might trigger red flags for machines listening in.

These changes extend to the tone of voice executives use, in addition to the words they use. The paper notes:

Managers of firms with higher expected machine readership exhibit more positivity and excitement in their vocal tones, justifying the anecdotal evidence that managers increasingly seek professional coaching to improve their vocal performances along the quantifiable metrics.

Some companies’ investor relations departments are even running multiple draft versions of press releases and speeches through such algorithmic systems to see which scores the best.

In return, NLP powered algorithms are also continuously adjusted to reflect the increasing obfuscation of corporate executives, so it ends up being a never-ending game of fruitless linguistic acrobatics.

In this game, the machines have the upper hand. The algorithms can immediately adjust for a chief executive’s idiosyncratic styles.

A certain CEO might routinely use the word “challenging” and its absence would be more telling while one that never uses the word would be sending as powerful signal by doing so.

Body language

Machines are still unable to pick up non-verbal cues, such as a physical twitch ahead of an answer, but experts predict it’s only a matter of time before they can do this as well.

Where this will all end, and the impact it will have on speechwriters, presentation coaches, investor relations, and PR professionals is open to speculation.

Usually when machine and men collide, it’s the machines that have the upper hand.

Speechwriting in the Zoom era

Jeff Nussbaum and Kate Childs Graham, the 2020 Democratic convention speechwriters, have written a fascinating article in the Washington Post detailing how the ‘Zoom era’ has radically transformed political speechwriting.

While this probably won’t cause Bob Lehrman to tear up the guidance in his excellent book The Political Speechwriter’s Companion, it shows how the future of political rhetoric has been affected by the pandemic that required the prerecorded speakers at the convention to deliver speeches without a stage, an arena, or a live audience.

More is less

Nussbaum and Graham list the speechwriting techniques they used to script remarks for maximum impact, including:

  • Speaking at 150-170 words per minute vs. the 125 typical when speakers in front of a live audience pause for laughter or applause.
  • Cutting extraneous content to fit in tight 2 1/2 minute timeframes (the average length of a speech at this virtual convention).
  • Dropping the rhetorical techniques of “call-and-response” or “litany” (eg. ending each section with a phrase like “Yes, we can.”)
  • Delivering the headline message upfront, not burying the message in a lengthy speech.
  • Dealing with the loss of the lectern — as TED talks have. Absent that visual crutch bestowing authority on the speaker, the venue supplemented the message: Kasich at the crossroads; Jill Biden in the classroom she once taught in.
  • Invoking feelings via storytelling “As neuroscientist Antonio Damasio once put it, humans are feeling machines that think, not thinking machines that feel.” Hence the more memorable remarks were delivered by everyday people — the young man who stuttered, the lady whose father had believed Trump’s message on COVID-19 and died for his beliefs.

Michelle

Ironically, the one speech the professional writers did not script was the one many consider among the most powerful — delivered by Michelle Obama. The authors note:

She didn’t speak to 20 million television viewers: she spoke to one viewer in an intimate conversation that happened to take place 20 million times.

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.

IBM Project Debater – will AI eliminate speechwriters?

IQ2I caught a rebroadcast of an Intelligence Squared debate on NPR last night.

Intelligence Squared is a weekly forum for balanced and intelligent debate. Their goal is to restore critical thinking, facts, reason, and civility to American public discourse. (Hurray for them, although I can’t help thinking they’re pissing into the prevailing wind these days.)

The episode I tuned into was first broadcast February 11, 2019 and featured a unique debate between a world-class champion debater and an Artificial Intelligence (AI) system developed by IBM called Project Debater.

While the program was a fascinating glimpse into the rather arcane world of debating, it was the implications for speechwriters that had me wondering if we’re fast approaching the time when AI will replace the need for a human being to be involved in writing well constructed, persuasive speeches.

Project Debater

Project DebaterProject Debater faced off against Harish Natarajan, a grand finalist at the 2016 World Debating Championships and winner of the 2012 European Debating Championship. His opponent at the IBM Think conference in San Francisco was Project Debater — a two-metre-tall black box. She spoke in an American female voice through a blue, animated mouth. IBM claims that it’s the first AI system that can debate humans on complex topics.

2001 A Space OdysseyDespite the rather uncanny resemblance to the black obelisk that features in the opening scene of Kubrick’s 2001 A Space Odyssey, the system exhibits none of the menace of the HAL system in that dystopian view of AI.

How it works

Project Debater is designed to debate humans on complex topics using a combination of pioneering research developed by IBM, including: data-driven speechwriting and delivery, listening comprehension, and modeling human dilemmas.

It goes beyond the Watson system that famously beat a human on the TV Quiz show Jeopardy, which showed a machine could respond to open-ended questions.

Project Debater digests massive texts, constructs a well-structured speech on a given topic, delivers it with clarity and purpose, and rebuts its opponent. Eventually, IBM claim, Project Debater will help people reason by providing compelling, evidence-based arguments and limiting the influence of emotion, bias, or ambiguity.

Isn’t that part of your job description, speechwriters?

Speechwriting by numbers?

The IBM website does not mince words about the capabilities of their system:

Project Debater relies on three pioneering capabilities. The first is data-driven speech writing and delivery, or the ability to automatically generate a whole speech, reminiscent of an opinion article, and deliver it persuasively. The second is listening comprehension, which is the ability to understand a long spontaneous speech made by the human opponent in order to construct a meaningful rebuttal. The third is the system’s ability to model human dilemmas and form principled arguments made by humans in different debates based on a unique knowledge graph. By combining these core capabilities, it can conduct a meaningful debate with human debaters.

Of note:

  • Unlike speechwriters today, the AI system had no access to the internet.
  • The massive amount of stored data it deployed was logically organized and presented in a fraction of the time most writers would take.
  • Impressively, the system created an argument that clearly supported the side of the argument it was assigned.
  • The system synthesized input from the debate opponent — a win when a speaker needs to respond, as in political dialog.
  • Further, the AI system could easily frame both sides of a debate, helping speechwriters anticipate opposing points of view.

Overall, a sobering development.

Team player?

The question is, can speechwriters look to AI systems to be team players? Many would appreciate it if AI did the leg work assembling facts and blocking out the basic arguments. They could then give a final polish to the machines’ draft.

Or will an AI enabled speech writing entity get to the point where it will refuse to “open the pod bay door” and leave the human out in the cold? What job security can speechwriters expect in a world where AI systems can create persuasive, logical, and well-researched speeches in a fraction of the time a human could?

What say you?

A Conversation with Ian Griffin on Speechwriting, Social Media & Blogging

On Thursday, December 13 the Silicon Valley Speeechwriters Roundtable hosted Ian Griffin in a free conference call.

I’m usually the one doing the interviewing. However, Barbara Seymour Giordano suggested she turn the tables and interview me. Barbara had been my guest back in May.

Barbara and I discussed my career as a freelance speechwriter, corporate employee, and blogger. We reviewed how I got into speechwriting, my experience in Silicon Valley companies, my Professionally Speaking blog as well as my new Booch News venture, and more.

To hear the full discussion, click on the podcast icon below.

A Conversation with Jeff Davenport on Speechwriting, Screenwriting and Delivery Coaching

Jeff DavenportOn Thursday, August 30th the Silicon Valley Speechwriters Roundtable hosted Jeff Davenport in a free conference call.

Jeff serves as an executive speaker coach and senior content developer at Duarte, the well-known communication design and consulting firm based in Santa Clara, founded by Nancy Duarte.

Using his background as a screenwriter and professional public speaker, Jeff helps clients communicate powerfully and persuasively by infusing story, dynamism, and empathy into their presentations. Whether he’s coaching high-level executives or thought leaders taking the stage for conference keynotes or commencement addresses, Jeff brings a thoughtful, personal touch to his roles, tapping into speakers’ personal passions and helping them create lasting connections with their audiences.

Jeff is a 2017 Cicero Award winner in the Public Policy category for his speech ‘Someday is Today’ delivered by Carlos Rodriguez-Pastor at CADE in Lima, Peru.

The call covered a wide range of topics including:

  • How he went from a wallflower in high school to a premier public speaking coach.
  • The secrets of the “Duarte Method” that any and all speechwriters can employ (Hint: read Resonate and Illuminate).
  • The value of the DataStory training workshop available from Duarte that helps speechwriters structure a compelling argument based on analytical data.
  • The three books on screenwriting he recommends speechwriters read:
    1. Screenplay: The Foundations of Screenwriting, by Syd Field
    2. Save the Cat!, by Blake Snyder
    3. Into the Woods, by John Yorke
  • What you’ll learn by watching the directors cut of Toy Story 3 on Blu-Ray.

Jeff’s parting words:

I would encourage anybody to do more public speaking, especially if you are writing for other people. We all had PE teachers who we realized never once played a sport. They were terrible PE teachers. So get out there and know what it’s like to play. Take a public speaking class. It doesn’t matter what it’s about. Do some sort of public speaking, writing for yourself and delivering yourself so you can get more in the heads of your clients and what know their true struggles are.

Otherwise, I would add, you’re forever the virgin trying to write a sex manual, aren’t you?

To hear the full discussion click on the podcast icon below.

Don’t quote me on that …

Two letters from Wednesday’s edition of the Financial Times attribute a quote about the difficult of writing a short speech or letter rather than a much longer one to two different sources. Financial Times letters

Pascale’s quote is translated as “The present letter is a very long one, simply because I had no leisure to make it shorter.”

Woodrow Wilson’s quote is variously represented as

If I am to speak ten minutes, I need a week for preparation; if fifteen minutes, three days; if half an hour, two days; if an hour, I am ready now.

The debate over who to attribute the quote to has been analyzed in depth by the Quote Investigator — an invaluable resource — which finds evidence for a number of sources including Woodrow Wilson; Abraham Lincoln; Rufus Choate; Thomas B. Macaulay; William Howard Taft and Mark Twain.

No matter the degree of difficulty, the final word on the value of short speeches goes to British Prime Minister Winston Churchill:

A good speech should be like a woman’s skirt; long enough to cover the subject and short enough to create interest.

Mini Skirts

However, the Quote Investigator finds that Churchill was re-stating a saying that had been in circulation for over 20 years.

Announcing: A Conversation with Jeff Davenport

Jeff DavenportOn Thursday, August 30th the Silicon Valley Speechwriters Roundtable will host Jeff Davenport in a free conference call.

Jeff serves as an executive speaker coach and senior content developer at Duarte, the well-known communication design and consulting firm based in Santa Clara, founded by Nancy Duarte.

Using his background as a screenwriter and professional public speaker, Jeff helps clients communicate powerfully and persuasively by infusing story, dynamism, and empathy into their presentations. Whether he’s coaching high-level executives or thought leaders taking the stage for conference keynotes or commencement addresses, Jeff brings a thoughtful, personal touch to his roles, tapping into speakers’ personal passions and helping them create lasting connections with their audiences.

Jeff is a 2017 Cicero Award winner in the Public Policy category for his speech ‘Someday is Today’ delivered by Carlos Rodriguez-Pastor at CADE in Lima, Peru.

In this call we’ll discuss the background to the Cicero Award-winning speech and the “Duarte Method” Jeff employs with his clients. Jeff is also an accomplished screenwriter and a firm believer in the use of the story structure in speeches. Finally, we’ll touch on why he believes speechwriters must write with delivery in mind, and share his secret for pitching a completed speech to the client to ensure successful delivery from the podium.

Click here to RSVP for this free conference call.

Hey! Hey! LBJ! How many speechwriters did you kill today?

LBJThanks to David Murray for pointing to a piece from DelanceyPlace.com about President Lyndon Johnson’s relentless work schedule that exhausted most of those who worked for him in the West Wing. This from the book Organizing the Presidency by Stephen Hess

He worked a two-shift day, 7:00 A.M. to 2:00 P.M. and 4:00 P.M. to 9:00 P.M. Between 2:00 P.M. and 4:00 P.M. he took a walk, swam, ate lunch, napped, showered, and changed clothes. Then, returning to his office, he was known to say, “It’s like starting a new day.” Top assistants were expected to be available at all times, for both shifts.

This relentless determination to do more of everything for as long as he would be in office inevitably took its toll on those around him. For example, in 1964, an election year, when he made 424 speeches, almost everyone on the staff was pressed into service as a presidential scribe, and everyone joined the constant talent search for speechwriters. The length of the day, the intensity of the work, and Johnson’s reputation for verbally abusing those close to him also meant a ceaseless turnover of presidential assistants, which gave the executive mansion “the appearance of a well-slept rooming house.”

The challenge of working as a speechwriter in the Johnson White House are highlighted by Robert Schlesinger in his excellent book White House Ghosts. Writers had

…a struggle to find the right balance in Johnson’s rhetoric…His insecurities and moods, skills as an extemporaneous speaker and deficiencies with a text, and his inability to adapt to television had push-pull effects on the speechwriting process.

JumboThese difficulties were exacerbated by the President’s eccentricities, such as his habit of intimidating other men by showing off “Jumbo”– his masculine appendage, of which he was inordinately proud. Schlesinger reports that he interviewed speechwriter Douglas Carter by forcing him to join in a skinny dipping session in the White House pool.

The speechwriters serving Johnson lived life on the edge

The pressure was crushing. Waking in the middle of the night, Hardesty would realize that he had been editing a speech in his dreams.

and

A ceaseless week of drafting drove Goodwin to his physical and mental limit in the predawn hours of January 12, the day of delivery. At the end of a thrity-six hour jag, Goodwin could neither focus on his typewriter keys nor order his thoughts in complete sentences.

The root of these difficulties was a simple of case of Presidential envy

Kinter later said that Johnson was “Always angry” about the drafts he was getting. “He always felt they were inferior to Kennedy’s,” he said. “I’ve never known him to be satisfied with a speech, either before, after, or at any point.”

Alas, even Jumbo was no help.

A Conversation with Matt Kivel, Cicero Speechwriting Award Winner

Matt KivelOn Thursday, July 19th the Silicon Valley Speechwriters Roundtable hosted Matt Kivel in a free conference call.

Matt is the overall 2018 Cicero Speechwriting Award Winner for his speech The Power of a Story delivered by Gregory L. Fenves, President, the University of Texas at Austin. This is a searing personal story about the experiences of the President’s father as a Holocaust survivor.

Watch the speech being delivered by President Fenves:

Matt has been writing professionally since 2007. He started as a freelance music critic, and soon became an editor and writer for the entertainment industry bible/trade publication/newspaper Variety, where he interviewed prominent members of the entertainment industry including Warren Beatty, David Lynch, and George Stevens Jr. Later on, he took a job at The Aerospace Corporation and wrote speeches for the company’s President and CEO, Dr. Wanda Austin. He is now the speechwriter to Gregory Fenves, President of The University of Texas.

The call covered a wide range of topics including:

  • His hour-long conversation with Warren Beatty.
  • His career transition from rock n’ roll critic to speechwriter.
  • The process of developing a speech on an intensely personal topic.
  • The audience reaction when the speech was delivered.
  • His favorite Peggy Noonan quote.
  • The upcoming webinar with David Murray on how to win a Cicero Award.
  • And much more…

To hear the full discussion click on the podcast icon below.