As I watched President Obama’s moving eulogy at the funeral of Senator Clementa Pinckney in Charleston in late June – and his equally remarkable speech in Selma some months earlier – I once again began thinking about the challenges of finding the “voice” of our speakers when we don’t share their age, gender, race, or culture.
Can a 25-year-old write for a 60-year-old senior executive? Would a female scientist making a speech on the challenges of women in the sciences feel okay with a male speechwriter, who has never set foot in a research lab?
What about the difficult issues of race and culture: is there an automatic disconnect between a white speechwriter and a black client because their life experiences are so different? Can speechwriters cross the divides created by different languages and cultures?
Of course, I don’t have definitive answers for those questions. But I do wonder. I am a decidedly middle-aged white guy working in the top half of North America. Not married. No kids. Are there limits on the type of clients I can write for?
Let’s start with age, something I think about more as my decades on this earth accumulate. I used to think speechwriting was one of the few endeavours where having a few grey hairs bestowed an advantage: you’d had more life experiences, met more people, seen more places. And you probably shared common points of reference with the kinds of clients likely to seek out—and pay—for your services: CEOs of mid to large size corporations who were in the 50-70 age range
Yet there are enough hotshot young speechwriters out there to prove my assumptions wrong. Case in point would be Jon Favreau who, while still in his 20s, started writing speeches for President Obama. Very annoying.
Of course, what that says is that a talent for writing for the ear trumps the dubious advantage that maturity alone might bring to the speech writing process.
Well then, what about gender?
I once had a female client who was the president of a small, but growing software company. The speech was to be delivered at a conference of female business leaders. The topic was “the challenges for senior executive women in balancing family and work life”.
The fact that I was not female, or a senior executive, or have a family did not bother her one bit.
So my point? Of course there are differences in sensibility and life experience between men and women. But we can bridge that gap. A man should be able to conjure up the right imagery in his mind’s eye so as to write convincingly of the female experience.
And clearly, the opposite also holds true. Women can—and do—write as convincingly from the male perspective as men themselves.
So, my advice to those of you writing for the other gender is simple: just think a little, put yourself in their shoes, and ask lots of questions of your speaker. Trust me. If you get it wrong, they will let you know.
Finally, what happens when we write speeches for clients of different races or cultures than our own? That is a little trickier.
It is much more difficult to put yourself in the head and heart of those with whom you share no life experience at all.
As a white northern male, how could I possibly know the sensibilities of a southern black politician? I have shared none of their predominant life experience or culture. Intellectually I could move a speech in the right direction. But as I think back to President Obama’s speeches at Charleston and Selma – there is little likelihood that I could speak to the heart of those audiences the way he could.
Does that mean we can never write across race or culture? Not at all. But it will require you to dig deeper into the background, assumptions, experiences and sensibilities of the your client, all of which flow into and affect the cadences of your speaker’s voice—and how the audience will respond to certain words and phrases.
Writing across barriers, real or perceived, is like any worthwhile task: difficult and offering numerous opportunities for failure. But how awful to embrace the idea that we can only write in one kind of voice. Fiction writers and script writers, who spend their lives imagining and creating characters often very different from themselves, seem to handle the inherent challenges quite well. Isn’t that at the heart of creativity and imagination: to be able to see into – and in speechwriting – speak to and from the perspective of those very different lives.
Besides when you think about it, aren’t speeches just a form of short fiction meant for the stage? We just write monologues rather than dialogues.