“People need to be reminded,” said Samuel Johnson, “more often than they need to be instructed.”
Commencement speakers struggle to come up with a speech, when "everything’s already been said." Keynote speakers wonder what they can tell people that "they don't already know."
But everything hasn’t been said by you, at this time and place, to the audience gathered together today.
And more importantly: Whatever the audience members think they know, they may not know all the other members share in that knowledge.
Take the speechwriters and other communicators who gather in conference rooms and hotel ballrooms and institutional auditoriums to hear my “Speechwriting Jam Session.” I show speeches from the sublime to the ridiculous, many of which the speechwriters have probably already seen. (And occasionally have definitely seen, because they've been to my show before.)
But they haven’t seen Phil Davison’s speech together. And they’ll laugh harder with fellow speechwriters than they would at home.
And they’ve probably seen clips of Robert F. Kennedy’s speech in Indianapolis the day Martin Luther King died. But when you show it to a roomful of speechwriters, you can show them the whole thing because they are mesmerized—in a group trance.And you’d check to see if they’re wiping away a tear, except that even though you’ve shown this to many speechwriting groups before, you’re blinking back a tear of your own.
There's something about sharing something meaningful that eliminates the need for novelty.
Speechwriters must encourage their speakers get over the impossibly egotistical idea that they are invited to commencement ceremonies or conferences to deliver new insights.
Baby Boomers don’t fill the lawns at James Taylor concerts to listen to hear the songwriter’s latest musical ruminations from his Martha’s Vineyard twilight. They went to hear "Fire and Rain" one more time again—together.
The essential purpose of a speech is not instructional, and it’s usually not even persuasive. It’s social and communal.
New insights? Bring 'em if you got 'em. But people need to be imaginatively, personally and convincingly reminded of what they already know. And they need to be reassured that other people know it, too.
And if those goals seem too humble—in speaking as in life, it is better to be too humble, than grandiose.
As I don't need to remind you.