Public speaking has many formulas and sub-genres, but the speech is something particular, and very important in political and business communication; It is as old as mankind, and in fact the philippics (I love the name) have their origins in Demosthenes’ rants against King Philippus of Macedon in the 4th century BC;
The discourse is literature read and interpreted, and in that sense, it has something, a lot, I would say quite a lot, of theatricalisation; That is if it is to be effective; Those who do not interpret their speech well, because reading it is not enough, leave the audience cold, even if the author of the text is a genius of the word;
Originally, the speech was the work of the speaker, but things have changed and the writing has become professionalised, with the result that – for over a hundred years now – there has existed in Spanish a rather crude and racist expression – that of ‘negro’ – to describe what English speakers much more elegantly call ‘ghost writer’.
The fact that in Spanish it has such a despicable name has to do with the contempt we have here for those who work for someone else’s ego; However, in English the word is precious: ghostwriter; Someone who is perceived but not seen, because he or she puts words at the service of another, of ideas, of an argument;
The expression ‘giving a speech’ is also frowned upon in Spanish and is often synonymous with something boring and long, tedious, even false, that takes time away from our lives and/or puts us to sleep; This week, on the occasion of Feijóo’s investiture, we have had the opportunity to see some of his colleagues nodding their heads in their seats;
Those of us who have written speeches on occasion or on a recurring basis are not only privileged but also more than aware that the person who is going to read it can destroy the most brilliant of texts;
It is not always the fault of the speaker; But other times, it is; either because it destroys a brilliant text by reading it without soul, without intonation, without life: or because it has not counted on professionals of the spoken word to interpret it; Or both; Because it has to be interpreted and rehearsed; Like the theatre;
In fact, one of the best manuals on orality is the one written by the actor Pedro Mari Sánchez, a beast of the stage, and Ana Martín, a journalist; In “The Magic Word” there is much in the two’s project to improve the speaking skills of those who must address others in public who have no choice but to listen to them.
That public, possibly at an event, at an investiture, at a rally, is surely hijacked to a certain point: you can’t leave. To succeed, let’s make them feel ‘Stockholm syndrome’ and make our lecture short;
How to do it to succeed?
First recommendation: keep it short; Since always, but more so since the COVID pandemic, the length of speeches has shortened for many reasons; First, that attention spans have shrunk. Secondly, that even without a pandemic, there was an urgent need not to be so much of a nuisance; Time is money, it has always been said; Five minutes to express one or two strong ideas is more than enough; Why so few ideas? In order not to lose focus;
But one of the determining factors in this shortening of speeches has been virtual or online events and meetings, whose formats make any intervention that exceeds five minutes far more tedious. For this reason, and because hybrid formats (direct and streaming), are here to stay, it pays to cut to the chase.
Second recommendation: be passionate about it; Just a little bit of passion, just enough so that you don’t sound like a great lady of the song if you are presenting the results of the quarter, but still talk with a certain enthusiasm about what you want to convey; Some say that people without a soul can’t transmit anything; I agree that some people are soulless, but sometimes they are very good performers, and that is the key;
Third recommendation: if you are not the author of your own speech, make it your own; It is not advisable to present yourself at the key moment without having read several times what you are going to say; As much as you trust your ghostwriter, confirm that you feel confident in what you are going to tell and that you can convey it in form and substance;
In short, to interpret a speech is to give it all the force that the written words themselves do not give; it is to give value to witnessing the speech, as opposed to reading it; It is watching theatre as opposed to reading theatre;
Lorca and his half a loaf of bread and a book
One of my favourite speeches is the one that Federico García Lorca is said to have given at the inauguration of his village library; I cannot imagine Lorca as anything other than an actor, because I have never heard his voice, nor have I seen him at rallies or in theatres, nor have I heard him in recordings of the time; But I can imagine with a twinkle in his eye he would say: “If I were hungry and helpless in the street, I would not ask for a loaf of bread, I would ask for half a loaf and a book;
Another brilliant speaker was Pedro Zerolo; A few days ago I was talking to those who worked with him and wrote speeches for him, such as the one in which he replied to intransigent people that “I don’t fit in your model of society, but you fit in mine”; These and other brilliant phrases from those who worked for him were masterfully interpreted until they became Zerolo’s skin, words more his own than his own; Was Zerolo expressing something he did not feel? I don’t think so; Did he express it in better words than his own? Of course; What did he do to transmit them with passion? Perform them;
On one occasion he made all of us journalists covering the Madrid City Council plenary session cry in the press tribune, because he spoke of feminism, recalling how it was “our mothers, our sisters and our friends” who had supported homosexual people like him in coming out of the closet; He was a tremendous performer; None of this was written by him, but it raised an applause like few others I remember in that dark hall of the Casa de la Villa;
But do all the events, speakers and occasions give enough power to put so much force into the word? The short answer is no; Performing is also about knowing how not to overact; The speaker must be comfortable in the role, and the listener must believe what he or she is saying without the form dragging the substance to the bottom of the ocean of our attention;
And here I link to a fourth recommendation: the closer what you say is to what you think, the more convincing you can be; This may seem obvious, but it is not, for in politics as in business, the speaker sometimes represents a collegial position in which, if left to his or her own devices, he or she would perhaps speak in accordance with his or her own vote; This is where the theatre comes in again; An actor does not own himself, but puts his body at the service of a character, a story, a play, a director and an author;
I realise that writing for others is a real privilege; And getting paid for it is a luxury available to very few; This is why I believe that the profession of speechwriter,(no more ghosts) must be asserted without complexes.
Is there anything wrong with a professional ensuring that a leading figure in any field speaks well, expresses himself clearly and convinces his audience? Nothing; It’s just that in Spain we have a self respect that is well above the standards and therefore, sometimes, it may seem reprehensible that one does not write what one pronounces.
Professionals must be able to write for people who do not think like them as fluently as they would write for those who do; That’s what professionals do; Do you want to be a professional? Read on.
Reading and listening: writing takes a lot of time;
The first thing to write in order for someone else to speak properly in public is to read; Read a lot; Reading takes time; Time which, if you are a professional writer, should be included in your working hours; Read if you want to in your spare time, of course, of course: the more references you have, the better for you, for the recipients of your speeches and ultimately for the audience who will listen to it; But if you read specifically to write about a topic, read in your working hours because it IS work;
The second is to think; This also takes time; But it is not always properly paid for; And you can’t always stop your thinking and make it only work from nine to six; It’s a pointless fight: the best ideas will come in the shower, on your bike rides or when you make love; There is nothing you can do about it, but try to hold on to the idea that came to you if you have nothing handy to write it down;
The third thing: step aside; Yes, once you have read and learned and thought about it, move on; Those who read and think often have ideas of their own; However, to write a speech, you have to adapt to the speaker’s ideas, tone and language, as well as to his or her thinking; However, there are times when, without forcing the machine, and seeing that the speaker’s ideas are well aligned with yours, you can propose something of your own that is brilliant, that he likes so much that he makes it his own; It’s like a mutual gift: the speaker benefits from your idea as if it were his own, but in return he projects your ideas to an audience that you, poor paid writer, usually an anonymous character, will never have;
This chapter of stepping aside has a very important appendix which is listening; Listening to your speaker, the one you are writing for, is essential; Sometimes you will be lucky enough to have an open and talkative person, with the capacity to transmit what he or she thinks and feels, and who enjoys transmitting his or her ideas and proposals to you, writer, so that you, writer, can order them and prepare them for the more or less formal orality of a lectern, a rostrum or a meeting;
Sometimes luck is not on your side; Sometimes you don’t even have direct contact with the person you have to talk to, the person you have to write for, and it is a challenge to try to understand what is going on in the mind of a third party on a certain topic you have to talk about; What he thinks, how he thinks and how he can convey it; Writing for people you don’t know sometimes becomes a fool’s errand; It’s the only time you can regret being a ghostwriter;
I always say that, while in science two plus two equals four, in literature everything is open to opinion; There is not only one way of saying something, but a thousand ways, except in legal language where the aim is precisely the univocity of words to avoid ambiguities; If you write for someone you don’t know, who you don’t have the opportunity to listen to, whose ideas are barely sketched in a sketch… how do you get the register, the tone, the rhythm right? There is no other option than to use 120% of his previous interventions and to use his trade and intuition;
The voice and its infinite inflections can be your ally or your worst enemy; There are chanting people and people who speak with a tonal line identical to that of Buddhist mantras; There are those who speak very slowly, so slowly that they put the staff to sleep, and others who speak so fast that they run over, choke, suffocate and finally give up on being understood by the audience; There are those who always read, and there are those who prefer just two or three ideas sketched on a card; Knowing how to adapt is the only way to make a living as a speechwriter; We have written for all these profiles, even for those who do not read anything you have posted for them at all;
And here comes the sixth and last recommendation, perhaps the most important; Train your frustration tolerance; Temper your ego to that of the lowliest worker ant on the world’s last ant hill; Because if you don’t, when a speaker destroys your idea, your brilliant prose, your rallying flair or your formal and philosophical creativity, you will want to give it all up, to deny as Peter denied Christ three times that he had written anything that was said there;
It grows, and starts again every day; With every speech there is a new opportunity to do better, to leave an idea in the air that will go far and change things; It is very worthwhile;