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The Lost Tools of Writing and Al Gore’s Speechwriter

If you are hired to write speeches by the Vice President of these United States, you can write speeches. You can imagine, therefore, why my attention was aroused when I discovered an interview of Daniel Pink (speechwriter to Al Gore) by Tim Ferriss (author of The Four Hour Work Week).

Of course, I wanted to see if he was right (i.e. agreed with everything in The Lost Tools of Writing) and had anything to add. I’ll let you decide by following this link.

One of the things The Lost Tools of Writing tries to teach students is the need for an orderly presentation that repeats the main point frequently. At first, it drives some students, especially the more “creative” (which often is a euphemism for “disorderly of mind and practice”) ones, crazy to have to write like that.

The reason we require the repetition is because LTW prepares students for public speaking just as much as it prepares them for writing. When you speak in public, you need to repeat yourself frequently for two reasons: one, the audience does not know what you are talking about and two, they have no visual clues as to where they are in the speech.

So in LTW Level I, students are required to repeat the thesis five times in all: once in the thesis statement itself, once for each of the three main points (the first reason students must repeat themselves is that… The second reason students must repeat themselves is that… The third reason students must repeat themselves is that…) and once in the conclusion (Students must repeat themselves because…)

Of course, in reading, you don’t need all those repetitions.

But in listening you do, if for no other reason than that you want some indication of when the speech will end. Listening requires pacing every bit as much as running does. The audience needs the speaker to provide this pacing or it won’t know how to listen. Regrettably, these little things provide many of us with our petty-power-opps, on a level with not letting a car pass you on the highway.

Remember, when the speaker forgets what it is like to sit in the seat, his audience will stew in the pew.

Speaking can be an amazingly egotistical act. If there is one overarching key to success, I would argue that it is humility and its correlary: respect. Humility respects the audience, remembers the subject, recalls the purpose, and reinvigorates the souls of speaker and audience. In fact, when we enter the domain of humility we have placed ourselves into the sphere of usefulness in the hands of God.

So we need to respect the audience enough to let them know what page we’re on (metaphorically).

Dan Pink would, I think, be pleased. He indicates that

It’s not about you. That’s doubly true for speeches. It’s not about you. It’s about the audience. Think of it from their perspective. Again, at the risk of being too critical of all those who stride the stage or command the podium, too many speechmakers – either through nervousness or ego – seem to forget that what really matters is the audience’s experience, not their own.

Later, he reminds us that a speech is not a right, but a privilige.

When you deliver a speech, you’ve got 10 or 100 or 10,000 people who have decided that the most important thing they can be doing at that moment isn’t taking care of something at the office or being with their families – but sitting there listening to you. That’s an extraordinary — and humbling — gift.

So that’s why in LTW we try to get the student’s attention off himself and onto, first, the craft of writing and speechmaking, second, the message, and third, the audience.

I hope it is clear that when I say “First,” I mean chronologically, not first in importance. The craft of writing derives its value from the value of the audience and the meaning of the message.

Self-absorption undercuts attention to both.

Lest I seem to have created confusion, let me clarify what I’m trying to say here, which is, first, that humility is the foundation of success in writing or speechmaking and consequently that repetition provides one concrete instance of the writer/speaker humbling himself before his audience, message, and craft. Therefore, when we teach The Lost Tools of Writing or give speeches, we should not be afraid of repetition.

I don’t think I would be presumptuous to presume that Daniel Pink agrees. He also adds two more elements. Tim Ferriss asks him:

“What are the necessary ingredients of a good speech?”

Pink replies:

I’ve said many times that the three essential ingredients in any good speech are brevity, levity, and repetition. (That bears repeating: brevity, levity, and repetition.)

On that note, I’d better let you go.

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