On 24 February Max Atkinson (one of the UK's leading public speaking experts) shared his views on a thought from the latest conference of the UK Speechwriters' Guild:
For me, the most worrying buzzword of the day was 'authenticity'. Although several speakers had it high on their agendas, I doubt if I'm alone in remaining unclear about what exactly it's supposed to mean - other than different things to different people.
I was one of the conference speakers (and myself a speechwriter for hire) who used that fine gathering of speechwriters to question typical speechwriting.
I recalled the previous Speechwriters' Guild conference at which some people in the speechwriting business had read out their presentations with scarcely a deviation from the script. The results had been acceptable in a speechwriting-by-numbers sort of way, but the speakers had sacrificed human spontaneity for artificial fluency.
Imagine, I said, someone talking amusingly and effectively for five minutes. A transcript of those words would have odd-looking gaps, repetitions, inconsistencies. A speechwriter who had served up those words written in that eccentric form would have been sacked. Yet the emotional human engagement of the original words as spoken would have been a large part of what the speaker conveyed. In short, speechwriting could be a dehumanising exercise in inauthenticity.
I concluded that a good way to draft a speech was not to write it at all, but rather to dictate it using voice recognition software (as this piece itself has been dictated). Spoken text came with an indefinable directness and energy, difficult to deliver when tapping away at the keyboard.
One conference participant said that that talk of authenticity or spontaneity was no more than the difference between good or not so good speechwriting. I disagree. It's the difference between a good enough speech and an extraordinary or inspirational impact. The current focus in public presentation on narrow messaging leads us to the famous Ed Miliband parrot disaster.
There of course are good reasons to use a text when making a speech or presentation, above all to use precise words for the record. But where possible a speechwriter should write relatively few full passages of text, focusing instead on helping the speaker organise his/her thoughts in extended note form and encouraging the speaker to talk freely but in an organised way. Which can be where the real problem starts. See an acute comment over at Max's website, where poor Ed takes another hit:
Someone asked him how Ed Miliband might improve his speaking. [Phil] Collins answered that the problem was not that Miliband spoke poorly; it was that he has nothing to say. 'What Ed needs,' he said (I'm paraphrasing slightly), "is a philosopher."
What works for politicians who are often speaking convincingly 'for the record' doesn't work for most other people. It's all about picking the right tools for the job, and that job varies from speaker to speaker and occasion to occasion.
Two examples of experienced politicians losing their script, and being better off for it.
A few years back Deputy Prime Minister John Prescott came to Poland to hand over to a book of archives recalling distinguished Polish intelligence work in World War Two. Halfway through his speech he inadvertently knocked the sheets of rather dull speech on to the floor. Rather than scrabble to pick them up and find his place, Mr Prescott launched into an impromptu peroration about Poles' heroic role in the struggle against Nazism. It did not make much sense in linguistic terms. But it was heartfelt and spontaneous, and won a rousing ovation.
Second, I was told how blind former Home Secretary David Blunkett was using snazzy new Swedish software which printed out speeches in Braille. He started using his fingers to find the start of his text, but realised that the text had been printed in Swedish. So he just talked, and talked well. No-one in the audience knew what had happened.
Conclusion? Only that in our babbling democratic social media world the greatest sin is phoniness, and the greatest prize authenticity. Just as music is returning to live performances, good public speaking has to be a lot less about lecturing using someone else's words and a lot more about conversation, with its inconsistencies but also its improvised directness and engagement.
Last words from Russian speechwriter Alexei Kapterev who in responding to Max Atkinson puts it superbly:
... to have a conversation you have to have a feedback loop, to scan the audience, to see their facial expressions, catch them raising their hands for questions.
Can you get an immediate feedback from your audience while you are reading the script? You can, but the problem is that you are too busy reading. You are certainly much less effective in this regard...