It was an odd and charming sight in the Mayflower Hotel ballroom, just before the opening session at the 2014 Ragan Speechwriters and Executive Communicators Conference last week in Washington.
A young speechwriter was being approached by other speechwriters, many of them old enough to be his mom or dad, who wanted a photo with him. The speechwriter was Jon Favreau, of course, President Obama's longtime chief scribe. He was there to keynote the conference. Before and during his presentation, he couldn't have been more intelligent, more witty or more gracious. And there was no denying: He was adorable. He is, as I introduced him, the Jennifer Lawrence of the speechwriting profession.
In his short speech and long Q&A, he was disarmingly candid:
• He admitted that neither he nor President Obama had a formal knowledge of rhetoric, and recalled how a reporter called after the Iowa primary and asked if they'd meant to write the victory speech in iambic pentameter. "What?" was Favreau's response.
• He said that after having written so many high-profile speeches that were seen and heard over every news outlet around the globe, "it is hard for me now to get too worked up over the corporate clients" who warn him that the speech is important because a few lines might appear in a local paper or a business publication.
• And he said there are two kinds of clients: "Those who have an inkling about what they want to say … and those who only know what they want the audience to think about them" after the speech is over. He mocked the speaker who wants to give a TED TALK "and I want people to think I'm a big thinker."
He's been working for the former type of client since 2004. If he stays in the speechwriting game, he'll be working mostly for the latter type of client from now on.
Because most corporate clients see speeches as image-building public ceremonies rather than truly persuasive or revelatory opportunities. And they will continue to see speeches this way—and see their speechwriters, by and large, as assistants rather than partners—until speechwriters find a way to make leaders believe they can communicate their way to their goals.
Or so I argue as forcefully as I know how at Vital Speeches Online, today. My Bootanical gardeners, have a read, and weigh in.
(And take your time. I'm off tomorrow to Florida for a week with my wife. A week's vacation for her. For me, a fevered solitary confiment to a hotel room, where I'm hoping to crank out an article-length iteration of this "Raised By Mad Men" thing I'm writing about my parents. Wish me guts.)