Touch Me, I’m Rhetoric: Confessions of a Celery Eater

Rodger Evans


It was after I’d placed my belongings in a locker in the basement of the British Library, fumbled for a pound coin, and pocketed the key bearing the digits 666 that the idea barged into my psychic in-box.

By now I was in the Treasure Room squinting at an early copy of the Kur’an and fogging up the glass with my myopic curiosity. I wish I could say the thought hit me like the unfriendly fire in a Lichtenstein painting, but, for fear of having my poetic license revoked, I concede that it eased its way to the front of my lobe with less a WHAAM! and more the you-what of a slumbering Millwall fan.


God. Was. A. Speech. Writer.


The revelation was at once soft spoken and as clear as Gladys Knight and Lady Day. The in-lay card explained. Allah relayed the holy text to the Prophet via the Archangel Gabriel and those words were meant to be read aloud; in contrast, say, to the 10 commandments, a memorandum in bullet point form that might as well have been emailed as set in stone, and which had no call for the breath of God.


Now I know what you’re thinking but indulge me. I’m not claiming the speechwriter is God, so you can put the fatwa down. The majority of scribes, let me confide, are a nuisance. I wouldn’t trust these nudniks to accompany the chicken across the road or demonstrate the pull of gravity from atop a log, never mind to design fjords or stumble into the same solar system as beauty or sorrow. But at her or his best I contend these keyboard ticklers are capable of looking to the stars and finding new ways to celebrate heaven and all that’s below in the music of words for our fellow snipes to dance to in the gutter.


2009’s Up In The Air was an above-average rom-com in which George Clooney put in a more-than-decent performance as a ruthless corporate animal snared by his own credo. The speech though is a humdinger. The metaphor is irresistible. And the conclusion begs for a bigger boat. 


And if this seems the stuff of hyperbole, well, it is. As one of the great orators of the last century put it: “a tendency to…extravagance so wild that reason recoils is evident in most perorations”. Churchill understood the difficulty of mastering the art and by the time he got there he had been tilting at it for half a century. “But as the Chemist does not despair of ultimately bridging the chasm between the organic and the inorganic and of creating the living microcosm from its primordial elements, so the student of rhetoric may indulge the hope that Nature will finally yield to observation and perseverance, the key to the hearts of men.”


I suggest that the state of speechwriting today, in the political sphere at least, is beset by the inability to write from the heart or play it any way but safe, and the serial crimes against humanity perpetrated by a dismal band of Zen bores, peddlers of gobble-funk and platitudinous guff merchants. Yet hope is the thing with feathers and Robert McCrum has been a-twitching, suggesting in a recent Guardian column that a revival was afoot: “It can only be a matter of time before someone starts a speech-fest, dedicated to the art and practice of rhetoric…There are only so many genres in literature. It’s certainly time that the Speech got its moment.”


Two points occur. First, such a festival already exists in the form of the UK Speechwriters’ Guild, which organises gatherings with the very aim of elevating the understanding and appreciation of speechwriting and its practitioners. The second is that calling attention to the speechwriter carries much the same risk that comes of visiting the scrutiny of first light upon the pre-True Blood strain of vampire. Or, for those of a vegetarian bent, as Huxley said: “I’m afraid of losing my obscurity. Genuineness only thrives in the dark. Like celery.”


So what makes for a good speech? One can study the how-to books (Susan Jones and the otherwise noxious Peggy Noonan stand out) but you can’t go far wrong with the doughty servants of Ted “JFK” Sorensen’s retinue: clarity, charity, levity, brevity. Write like a human for the benefit of those of the same species and the results may surprise even you.


Samuel Beckett wrote Waiting for Godot in the late 1940s and you can hear echoes of Churchill and Hitler in all that qua-qua-qua-ing. The rumour that Lucky – dancer, thinker, rhetorician, hat wearer, slave – was the subject of Daft Punk’s recent peachy colour sunrise number one starts here. 


Via the Eloquent Woman blog, my favourite speech of present times is Christine Lagarde’s “More Pink Fish in the Top Half of the Bowl” 2010 oration at the Global Woman’s Forum. This is a funny, generous, self-deprecating, wise and motivational 11 minutes from a woman who knows how to deliver wow as a verb. Scandaleux. A speech so accomplished, it risks giving rhetoric a good name. And should the MD of the IMF ever find herself in need of a new speechwriter…


Not that I can speak her first language or boast understanding of the Dismal Science, but why allow mere detail to side-line the dreams of a non-pink fish?


Adrian Mitchell claimed: “Most people ignore most poetry because most poetry ignores most people”. The same can be said of speechwriting. We should be working hard to make it look easy, penning show-tunes not advertising jingles, asking whether electric sheep dream of insomniac androids, dancing to Gertrude Stein in our underwear, spreading the rumour of joy, lifting the pavement to find the beach, training grizzly bears to balance trays of meringues on their snouts (courtesy of poet Stewart Henderson’s Radio 4 speech on oratory and elemental lyricism), harking back to ELP (the prog rock trio of Ethos, Logos and Pathos, that is), and, just like those kids who made the Loch Ness Monster out of Lego bricks previously replicating the Scottish Parliament, turning municipal buildings into beautiful monsters. More than anything, though, we should be inflicting on the world only those speeches we ourselves would wish to hear.


Rhetoric, as Henderson says, is eloquence that effectively represents ideas and values. Not spin. You want a key to the hearts of men? No need – 666 or otherwise. Today’s speechwriters have a swipe card in their possession. If only they knew how to use it.


First Minister Donald Dewar’s speech for the 1999 opening of the Scottish Parliament invoked history, literature and song. He sought to instruct his own and future governments, whatever their fallings-out and failings, “to contribute to the commonweal” with passion and soul. Sense and worth, o’er a’ the earth.


@RodgerEvans dances about architecture in The Leither magazine, scribbles verse he sometimes performs at spoken word nights in Auld Reekie, and has been writing speeches for 10 years. Here he is being awarded the Demosthenes Pebble – sadly not in mineral form but a gift voucher in an envelope – by the great Fred Metcalf. Google him, kids. 

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