Former Clinton speechwriter David Kusnet kicked the main conference off with a keynote that suggested we’re all about to lose our jobs.

Okay, not exactly. But if he’s right, we’ll be doing the job of speechwriting a lot differently in the future.

Saying we live in a “post-rhetorical era,” Kusnet suggested the days of ornate oratory are over, at least in America. He traced its decline from Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address (a concise, powerful speech that trumped Edward Everett’s two-hour-plus elegy, the expected norm in those days), through radio and FDR’s fireside chats, to television and Ronald Reagan’s highly conversational style.

With the ascendancy of the Internet, he said, “big rhetoric” is all but dead. And he set out four major changes that will shape whatever takes its place:

  1. The rise of new media, with its emphasis on the instantaneous, the individual and the informal;
  2. The collapse of common culture, where we all drew reference points from the same body of literature;
  3. The decline of dialogue and debate, replaced by people talking past each other; and
  4. The increasing demand for authenticity.

(Incidentally, each of these points, both good and bad, are very much part of the blogging world. Maybe I’ll expand on that later, and elsewhere.)

On the third point, Kusnet said public discourse has ceased to be about trying to persuade those who disagree with you; we simply raise our voices and express contempt for those we disagree with: “Instead of Lincoln and Douglas, we have Hannity and Colmes.”

And about authenticity, he argued that – with people now quite aware that there are speechwriters toiling away behind the scenes – speakers who express themselves in their own authentic voice, speaking from their own experience, will connect much more readily with audiences. And their listeners will not only forgive awkward constructions, they may even appreciate them.

With those changes underway, Kusnet proposed four ways that speechwriters will have to change.

First, we’ll have to write in the speaker’s natural voice, not someone else’s. (That may require us to act as journalists, digging away in the speaker’s background until we can find the material we need.)

Second, our speeches have to grab people’s attention early, getting quickly to the substance and bypassing the usual niceties. (I, for one, would be happy to never have to type the words “It’s great to be here in [insert name of town here]” again in my life.)

Third, we need to use “muscular English,” trading ornament for simplicity and formality for directness.

And fourth, our speakers have to say something the listener isn’t expecting to hear. Quoting a jazz critic, Kusnet called it “the sound of surprise.” A speech that consists of nothing but the purely predictable won’t cut it any more, and even purely ceremonial speeches must cast their content in surprising ways. Defy stereotypes, confound preconceptions, and you’ll have a very attentive audience indeed.

There aren’t many leaders on the public stage who are speaking that way – yet. Kunset cited Howard Dean as one, and said we haven’t seen anyone since. “But I expect that by 2008 we will.”

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