If the pre-conference session is any indication, this is going to be a terrific conference.

Tack Cornelius, a 22-year veteran of the speechwriting game in the political and corporate arenas, just wrapped three advice-packed hours. He conveyed an abiding passion for great writing and compelling images; his wide-ranging presentation returned constantly to the power of a single vivid, evocative metaphor and the importance of feeding your creative muse.

Coming up with those metaphors isn’t just serendipity: Cornelius keeps an idea file of subject-by-subject news clippings, each relating a fact or story that might come in handy for bringing an abstract concept down to earth for his next audience. It might be the way UPS ships lobsters (as a way of explaining how supply chains work), or a myriad possible rhetorical uses of the iPod (which could illustrate anything from the global assembly line to the demand economy to the shift away from coal-and-steel economics).

I warmed to him instantly when he stressed the overriding importance of content and message – especially when he said that a message isn’t just something like “We’re customer-focused” or “We make great products.” (Or “We’re better than that other party.”) Sharpening messages is a skill he picked up as the editorial page editor for the Lexington Herald, where his job required him to write eight to 10 pithy, persuasive essays a week; being able to describe the message of each editorial in a single sentence was crucial.

Ultimately, he said, a speechwriter forces knowledgable, talented people to decide exactly how they want to talk about things – and in the process, clarifies and sharpens their understanding of the subject at hand.

I was also struck by Cornelius’ methods for feeding his muse (a “muse of fire”, as he quotes from Henry V). He keeps two books with him at all times – Hamlet and Edgar Lee Masters’ Spoon River Anthology – and reads as much for the sound and rhythm of the words and sentences as their meaning.

He has a head full of speechwriting stories, and far more to teach than anyone could learn in an afternoon. I’ll look forward to hearing more from him someday soon.