Speaking of fascism: ‘Bigmouth’ exposes the use and misuse of rhetoric

BigmouthThe Chicago Tribune has reviewed the play ‘Bigmouth’ (created by the Antwerp, Belgium-based SKaGeN) currently on stage in Chicago. It’s a one-man tour de force by Belgian actor Valentijn Dhaenens who delivers extracts of political speeches from the time of the Greeks to the 21st century. Dhaenens speaks in English, German, Greek, Flemish, French, Italian and the unique patois of Ann Coulter.

He appears onstage behind a table configured with nine microphones, reciting a script composed of the words of the Grand Inquisitor, Nicola Sacco, Socrates, Joseph Goebbels, Gen. George S. Patton, Pericles, Baudouin of Belgium, Patrice Lumumba, Robert F. Kennedy, Martin Luther King Jr., Malcolm X, Muhammad Ali, John F. Kennedy, Ronald Reagan, George H.W. Bush, Bill Clinton, Louis Farrakhan, Osama bin Laden, Frank Vanhecke, George W. Bush and, finally, Coulter.

The Tribune observes that

There is no greater tool in the promotion of hate, disarray, retribution, racism, disunity and fascism than lofty rhetoric. Most of the speakers, of course, did not promote such things, but some did… What makes this show so daring is how Dhaenens works to show you the similarity of rhetoric devices across ideologies or, to put that another way, how history teaches us that it is near impossible to separate good and evil people merely by listening to the words they choose to deliver. Why? Because, as Dhaenens shows us by pairing, say, Goebbels with Patton, the fascists long ago learned the soft-pedal tricks of rhetorical power.

The performance reveals how the tricks of rhetoric have remained unchanged since the dawn of language. They can be deployed both for good and bad purposes.

If you’d like to sample the show check out this interview with Dhaenens:

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.

Cannon fodder

FT ExtractI’m continually amazed by the hidden gems buried in the pink pages of the Financial Times. Today’s edition has a fascinating article on the manner in which auto companies protect their fleets of new vehicles parked in the open at distribution centers in places at risk of hailstones.

It seems VW and Nissan have installed cannons which fire shockwaves into the air that can actually prevent the formation of damaging hail stones that might rain down on the new vehicles.

Unfortunately, the weather-altering technology has deprived local farmers of much-needed rain, causing droughts. The farmers are suing.

In the spirit of compromise (perhaps learned as a result of the unfortunate emissions scandal) VW are silencing the cannons and installing protective “anti-hail nets” above the cars.

Business Insider notes that the use of cannons to influence the weather goes back to the time of the Romans

Herodotus and Caesar made note of the fact that barbarian tribes tried to shoot arrows at oncoming storms. In parts of Europe, guns were used to shoot at storms, until Holy Roman Empress Maria Theresa prohibited the practice in 1750 — apparently, it was a source of complaints by neighbors of the storm shooters, who were upset about the way the weather changed as a result.

If the technology is so effective, one wonders why Flanders was so darned wet when the guns of August split the air during the First World War.

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.

Book Review: Bad Blood — Secrets and Lies in a Silicon Valley Startup by John Carreyrou

For anyone with even a passing interest in executive communications in Silicon Valley, Bad Blood is a must read.

Bad Blood CoverWall Street Journal investigative reporter John Carreyrou delivers a step-by-step history of Theranos, a Silicon Valley startup headed by the young, charismatic founder and Stanford drop-out Elizabeth Holmes. He has written a masterful, suspenseful tale of allegedly illegal acts that range from intrigue and deception to outright lying and fraud.

Elizabeth Holmes, who imitated Steve Jobs in both dress, abrasive management style, secrecy that verged on paranoia and, most tellingly, presentation skills that created a “reality distortion field” among her audiences, was able to raise hundreds of millions in venture funding and the support of an incredible cast of characters including Henry Kissinger, George Schultz, Rupert Murdoch, James “Mad Dog” Mattis, Larry Ellison, Mark Andreesen, Chelsea Clinton and the head of Stanford’s chemical engineering department Channing Robertson.

What seems almost unbelievable, in hindsight, is that every one of these eminent leaders supported Holmes even as doubts were being raised about the technology by a number of ex-employees and regulatory agencies. Most poignantly, Secretary of State George Schultz chose to believe Holmes over the pleas of his own grandson who had worked at the company and had serious concerns.

Fortune_CoverTheranos was founded on technology that promised vital health information could be gleaned from a small drop of blood using handheld devices supposedly equal in accuracy to the those depending on the much larger quantities of blood drawn by companies like Quest Diagnostics and Laboratory Corporation of America. This was, apparently, never the case. The company was adept at hiding its failings from those who doubted their claims.

Theranos ran under a strict code of secrecy. Management created smoke screens and diversions. Investors kept pouring in money, turning Elizabeth Holmes into a temporary billionaire. Companies like Walgreens and Safeway struck deals with Theranos. The press lionized the charismatic Holmes.

Bad Blood ReviewDespite the aggressive tactics of the best lawyers money could buy, including the super-scary David Boies, Carreyrou’s investigative work shone light on the deception. The final third of the book is his story and the revelations that started with the October 15, 2015 front page story in the Journal.

For those working in Silicon Valley this is a cautionary tale. Take note of what your moral compass is telling you.

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.

Adult Entertainment

I’ve noted before that the Financial Times — the British equivalent of the Wall Street Journal — isn’t reticent about treating readers as adults and using four-letter words when appropriate.

The latest example from today’s edition is in a wonderful review of the Womad festival where they mention French singer Camille did a cover of the Dead Kennedy’s song “Too Drunk to Fuck”, and, yes, the title was printed in the British financial newspaper in full, not F*** as most newspapers would, leaving us to guess: Too Drunk to Feel? to Flow? to Fake?

Perhaps, as someone once told me, it’s because with a British accent even “Fuck” sounds profound.

FT Womad Review

Click picture to enlarge..

Anyway, here’s Camilla, clearly not too drunk to sing.

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.

Speechwriters speak out in Cambridge

The European Speechwriter Network held their 16th annual conference at King’s College, Cambridge on 12 & 13 April. This 13 minute video features three top speechwriters: Stephen Krupin (speechwriter to Barack Obama), Jessica Cunniffe (speechwriter to David Cameron) and Lindsay Hayes (speechwriter to Sarah Palin). They describe the aptitudes and skills they needed to work at the highest levels. The video includes clips from the conference and is worth viewing in its entirety, if only for the splendid scenes of Cambridge!