Last week’s World Conference of the Professional Speechwriters Association got reviews that mostly ranged from positive to astonished, a horn I began tooting even before the conference ended on Friday.
But I’m sure we’ll hear this week from a silent minority, with a dissenting view or two. And we’ll listen. As I did last Tuesday afternoon, when a participant emailed to say she found the opening session one-sided and insular.
Meant to be a panel discussion reckoning with a range of issues facing the speechwriting biz, the conversation turned, inexorably it seemed to me, toward issues of social justice and speechwriting in the age of Black Lives Matter. And then when we went to Q&A, the questions participants asked kept it on that subject.
Not all participants appreciated that focus, nor the views expressed during it. “I felt like I was in a lecture and not a conversation,” wrote one second-year participant. “It wasn’t a space where I felt I could be candid. I respect you and our organization but in no way could I talk freely. I would love to have a conversation. I truly felt like unless I was nodding my head in agreement I would be labeled.”
As a conference convener, you never want to hear that. And as I explained to her in my emailed reply, it’s not the first time I’ve heard such a criticism, either. Here’s a slightly edited version of that reply.
__________, Benjamine told me you were emailing me.
Definitely glad you talked to her, and that you wrote to me.
I am not unfamiliar with your feeling, or surprised by it. It’s just that I don’t know exactly what to do about it. …
To your point about this day specifically, a few thoughts:
First, today’s panel went in more of a social justice/BLM direction than I’d planned. Dan Gerstein’s session in particular was not expected to be on that subject, but it was what was on his mind and heart (obviously), so that’s what he talked about. And then Janet and Michael discussed the issues I’d asked them to discuss. So the panel was skewed in that direction, when clearly there are other issues to be discussed.
But since we’ve had about 40 years of speechwriting conferences with 99.8% white speechwriters not talking about this issue, going a little overboard in this direction in the Year of George Floyd didn’t seem like the world’s greatest tragedy …
I have no idea how many people felt as you did, but I am sure you weren’t alone.
As for being candid: What was it that you would have said had you been candid? I must say, I do get irritated when conference participants come to me—and they more frequently come to me from the political left, incidentally—complaining about what was said at a conference.
It is a conference. That means, professional adults come together to exchange ideas with one another about the veracity and relevance of the topics being discussed. A conference organizer is responsible for starting that conversation, but not for managing it immaculately and balancing it perfectly all the way through.
So whether or not you would have felt labeled or judged, it was your responsibility to raise whatever objections you had to what was being said or to the tenor of the conversation. And unlike at an in-person conference, at this one you could have done so from the privacy of your home—and anonymously as well.
So without putting someone on the panel to argue against Janet’s/Michael’s/Dan’s views (which are the views I assume you were objecting to, but please correct me if I’m wrong), I’m not sure how I could have balanced the conversation out, in lieu of participants like you registering their own objections. I did read every question, after all, including the one that implied I was taking advantage of Black writers by asking their perspective without paying them for it.
I guess I’m asking: How could we have made this space feel safer, so that you would indeed feel be candid? Because candid is always what I want this community to be. And so I’m really asking.
I will likely publish a version of this exchange one of these days, of course without your name attached—because I think it’s important, not just as a debrief of this conference, but as a guide to participants (and organizers) of future conferences, which will all take place, after all, not in a social vaccum, but in the middle of a roiling society itself.
So please, give me your thoughts, _________. That’s what we are doing here.
I received an entirely reasonable acknowledgment that suggested a dialogue continue and an in-person conversation be scheduled. And so it shall be done. And I look forward to it.
After all, the thrust of the social justice conversation in the first place was that there are many truths. And as long as I am talking to someone who I believe is trying to articulate theirs, hear others’ and listen to mine—I’ll keep listening, keep making an effort—to understand.
Meanwhile, one last word for people who get mad at a conference speaker and glare at the conference convener: My favorite plaudit from last week was this one: “It has been engaging, inspiring, exciting, and intermittently infuriating—which is exactly what I want and expect from a convening of this kind.”
And exactly what I try to deliver.