Why Speeches Matter – a Canberra Writers Festival event

Why Speeches Matter

By Rosalind Moran

At one point during the Canberra Writers Festival event Why Speeches Matter: Lucinda Holdforth in conversation with Charlotte Wood’, Holdforth broke off from her conversation with Wood and addressed the audience. “I don’t know how many Canberra bureaucrats are here who are across the dark arts of speechwriting…?”

A confronting moment for yours truly. From the shadows of the press gallery in Old Parliament House’s Senate Chamber where the talk was taking place, I glanced around. There’s no knowing how many speechwriters were present in the audience, but I alone brought the number above zero.

Attending this event felt non-optional. Writing articles for New Territory is a delight, but speechwriting, as my day job, is what keeps the lights on, and the bills paid. Failing to show up at a Canberra Writers Festival event named ‘Why Speeches Matter’ would have seemed too cavalier – practically like inviting an existential crisis into one’s life through sheer irony.

The risk wasn’t worth it.

Happily, however, the event was an engaging one. Holdforth talked about her experiences as a high-flying speechwriter and took the audience through her writing process, offering some valuable insights relevant even for those outside of professional speechwriting. Indeed, as Holdforth pointed out, it falls to most of us to give a speech at one point or another during our lives; these moments can be invaluable opportunities to convey meaningful messages, so it makes sense for all of us to reflect on the art of speechwriting.

I enjoyed hearing Holdforth speak. The discussion between her and Wood around why leaders do and don’t shy away from speeches, for example, was illuminating. Holdforth made the great point that sometimes leaders eschew speeches to avoid acknowledging problems within their organisations, but that this can prove a missed opportunity: speaking about these problems can convey that the leader is authentic and informed. Holdforth’s points about the changing nature of speechwriting were also interesting. Giving speeches in the digital era bears a double-edged sword of risk and opportunity–with the amplified visibility offered by digital media, public speaking in the 21st century carries the possibility of great risk as well as great reward.

It was fun to attend a Canberra Writers Festival event held in Old Parliament House – and in the case of this event, the location was especially fitting due to its political history and lent a sense of elegance to the occasion. Nevertheless – perhaps with the political spirit in mind – I would have liked to have heard Holdforth speak more about the ethical issues and tricky debates surrounding speechwriting, particularly in the context of swaying the masses. For instance, to what degree is a speechwriter responsible for balancing the fully rounded truth of any given situation with her client’s desire for a positive message? Are there ever instances where a speechwriter ‘owns’ a speech more than the person delivering it? Does lending charismatic words to an uncharismatic speaker constitute deception? And in a world where charismatic oration can trump stolid intellectualism and well-developed policy, how much airtime should be given to speeches?

What I took away from the event was that speeches do indeed matter – and that the degree to which they can influence others makes them both great and terrible tools. Speeches are invaluable elements in our democracy for their ability to inspire action and create change; however, their impact can also abuse truth and moral justice when used to foster bigotry and close-mindedness. As Holdforth puts it, therefore, speechwriting is “a position of responsibility – words do matter.”

Yet the event ended on an uplifting note that tempered the serious points raised and helped remind the audience of the immense power and positivity that can come of a great speech. Discussion of “cracking” speeches ranging from Elizabeth I’s 1588 speech to the troops at Tilbury to Julia Gillard’s 2012 ‘misogyny speech’ proved a fun trip down oration’s memory lane, and a perfect way to wrap up discussion. Writing speeches means acknowledging the risks and challenges involved – but when one considers the possibilities and the rewards that can come of great speeches, it can be hard to feel anything less than empowered and inspired.

The Canberra Writers Festival ran from 21 to 25 August 2019.

One thought on “Why Speeches Matter – a Canberra Writers Festival event

  1. Thanks Rosalind for this write up of an event I would love to have attended. Last year I went to a Writers Festival event in the Old Parliament House venue on political cartoons. Also a perfect venue for the subject matter.

    I love the questions you ask. Your tease out beautifully how complex this superficially simple task (speechwriting for someone else) really is! I assume that no matter how responsible we might like to think a speechwriter is for “balancing the fully rounded truth”, in the end, the speech-giver him/herself says what s/he wants to say. If there’s too much of a mismatch between what the speechwriter thinks is right or ethical and what the speechgiver actually says, they must, really, part ways?

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