Monday, January 31, 2005

Why I Don't Do Political Speeches

When people hear that I'm a writer who used to do a lot of speechwriting, they invariably ask if I write political speeches. The answer is no, for the simple reason that I'm an idealist,

I had no problem helping a CEO sound a bit better than he might have been on his own. In fact, that was the explicit assignment a couple of times — to soften one guy's brutal cost-cutter image and to keep an out-of-town raider from offending the locals. I've made the case for defense contracts and nuclear power, no problem. But I wouldn't write for a politico, even one I agreed with.

My rationalization: A CEO represents all the company's employees, customers and shareholders, not just himself. The words of a corporate leader are important, but they're only one thing people use to judge what an organization stands for. Besides, it's a lot of work to craft a good speech, even if you know what you want to say, and a CEO's time is too valuable to spend that way. Especially if they can hook up with people like me.

A political campaign, however, is largely waged with lanuage, and we as voters have little else to go on. We're buying the person who's wrapped in words. Their job is to connect with us, not run a multi-billion-dollar enterprise. Certainly, they're packaged and primped and primed, and if I don't do it, someone else will. I just choose not to contribute to that part of the process.

For a glimpse of what the process is like today, see Saving Social Security: A Guide to Social Security Reform. It's the Republican party's field manual for selling privatization... excuse me, personal retirement accounts, complete with talking points and sample speeches labeled: "This speech was developed by Presentation Testing. For more information about how this speech was developed, please contact Rich Thau at Presentation Testing, Inc. at 212-760-4358."

Not written, I noted. Developed.

I take back what I said about government by bumpersticker in the previous post. Though it starts with talking points,
this thing is more than 100 pages long. Allow me to abridge:

• This Nation must always strive to leave behind a better America for our children and grandchildren.

• The longer we wait to take action, the more difficult and expensive the changes will be.

• One of the tests of leadership is to confront problems before they become a crisis.

Hard to argue with that, but oh, how I wish they were talking about dependence on oil, loss of habitat, the current budget deficit or any number of other pre-crises. As for use of the language...

• “Personalization” not “privatization”: Personalization suggests increased personal ownership and control. Privatization connotes the total corporate takeover of Social Security; this is inaccurate and thoroughly turns off listeners, who are very concerned about corporate wrongdoing. Present company excepted, of course.

• Talk in simple language: Your audience doesn’t understand financial jargon. Phrases such as “cash flow deficits” and “actuarial imbalance” don’t normally crop up in conversation; avoid using them. Better to use terms like "bankrupt," bankruptcy", and "flat broke," I imagine.

• Keep the numbers small: Your audience doesn’t know how trillions and billions differ. They know these numbers are large, but not how large nor how many billions make a trillion. Boil numbers down to “your family’s share.” Also avoid percentages; your audience will try to calculate them in their head—no easy task while listening to a speech—and many will do it incorrectly. You talkin' to me? You talkin' me? I guess not, since down at the SA, I know how to put billions in the billions tray, and when someone comes in with a trillion they want to break, I give 'em a thousand of 'em, or else I bundle 'em up & do a drop in the night safe, right?

• Acknowledge risks: Many of your listeners will not have a lot of financial education or investment experience, but they know that markets have risk—and nothing is guaranteed. They believe investments can grow over time, but they also know they can lose their investments. They don’t trust someone who tells them differently.

• Say it the way they can hear it: Your audience will reject some turns of phrase because of the connotations and associations. The responses are not universal, but they are much less personal than you might imagine.

For example, to most Americans building wealth sounds unattainable—especially in the context of Social Security. But on the other hand, putting aside a nest egg sounds like common sense. Another example: Calling the trust fund meaningless will raise hackles. Taxpayers believe it is the source of the monthly checks paid out by Social Security. But, everyone agrees that it is an empty promise. I read the foregoing several times. For a document on simple communication, this distinction between "meaningless" and "empty promise" seems remarkably opaque.

• Appeal to their sense of legacy: Quote theologian Dietrich Bonhoeffoer [sic]: “The ultimate test of a moral society is the kind of world it leaves to its children.” Almost everyone embraces this notion. Brace yourself for a rash of Bonhoeffer quotes (or this quote from a "famous theologian") from deep thinkers who haven't cracked a theology book in their lives.

• Offer an alternate reality: Talk about how much more money they’d have for retirement if they themselves had been investing in a personal account all these years. Add that personal accounts would enable young, minimum-wage workers to enjoy dignity in retirement. But don't vote to raise the minimum wage, or support government healthcare programs that might help those workers without employer-provided benefits enjoy dignity right now. Talk about an alternate reality!

Let's close with a quote from a certain famous theologian who was hung in a Nazi concentration camp long before he became a shill for the Republican party:

"We have been silent witnesses of evil deeds: we have been drenched by many storms; we have learnt the arts of equivocation and pretence; experience has made us suspicious of others and kept us from being truthful and open; intolerable conflicts have worn us down and even made us cynical. Are we still of any use?"


Anonymous Anonymous said...

As long as they hire the best consultants, pick the right words first and send a consistent message, they will win. We need our thinkers to move ahead of them in planning and word working.

11:33 AM  

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