Issue 6 – May 23, 2006


  1. Opening words
  2. Feature article: Seven reasons not to give a speech
  3. Reports from Ragan
  4. Reading list
  5. This issue’s tip
  6. Subscribing, unsubscribing and passing along the news

1. Opening words

Between a flurry of conferences, leaving full-time employment and launching a new company, plus an avalanche of work, it’s been a busy 2006 at SpeechList central, and it doesn’t look like we’ll be slowing down any time soon.

This issue’s feature article is an adaptation of the talk I gave at the Ragan Speechwriter’s Conference earlier this year in Washington, DC: seven reasons to give a speech, and seven reasons not to. We looked at the first half in the very first issue of SpeechList; this issue, it’s time for the rebuttal. We’ll look at some of the red flags that can alert you to a disaster in the offing, and – I hope! – allow you to steer clear, or at least limit the damage.

Meanwhile, a piece of news: SpeechList is moving! Instead of being housed at my personal domain, your next issue will come via Social Signal – the new company I’ve launched with my wife, Alexandra Samuel. You can find out more about Social Signal at And the list’s new web home is You shouldn’t notice much difference, except for a few changes in the links for managing your subscription.

As always, we appreciate your comments. Send them to (and while we’ll have a new comment address in the next issue, that address will continue to work).

2. Feature article: Seven reasons not to give a speech

There are speeches where the audience goes wild with enthusiasm, your speaker knocks ’em dead, the media eats it up and everyone comes out ahead.

And then there are the other kind: the speaking invitations you regret accepting for years afterward, and the events your speaker shouldn’t have touched with a nine-foot boom mike.

So how do you tell the difference?

I’d love to tell you there’s some foolproof algorithm to tell you whether your client’s future holds a standing ovation or a pratfall. But there isn’t. Here’s what you can do.

Figure out – subjectively – two things.

One, cost versus benefit.

Consider the cost of accepting the invitation: your time, the speaker’s time, research time, travel costs, attention distracted from other things.

Balance that against the benefit: everything from prestige to goodwill to the ability to convey a message you need to deliver – all measured against the organization’s strategic communications goals.

Number two, risk versus opportunity.

What could go wrong, from embarrassment to hostility? And what do you get if everything goes right, from great media coverage to a big new sale?

Compare those two pictures. If you’re travelling a huge distance to deliver a speech that will take weeks to write on a topic your client barely cares about … to a crowd of thirty belligerent cranks at an event that the media wouldn’t cover if they all spontaneously combusted… this might not be the event for you.

Here are seven reasons why you may not want your client to head to the podium.

1. The event’s too low-profile

A leader’s time is valuable. Staff time is valuable. If you’re using it for an event that won’t get you the payoff you need, that’s a mistake. And the profile of the event reflects on your speaker, too; if you’re doing parking lot openings, that sends a signal to others who might invite you.

2. The event’s too high-profile

Sometimes you need to keep your head down, whether it’s because of legal difficulties, PR problems or an impending major announcement. If your organization is following a low-ball strategy, then a leader’s speech to a high-profile event may not be a great idea.

3. The wrong audience

Maybe these folks are hostile, maybe they’re aching to hear something you just can’t tell them, but there are some audiences you just don’t want to talk to.

That said, there are times when you can actually get a lot of credit for bearding the lion in its den. You’ll get grudging respect from your opponents, and props from the media for having the nerve to show up.

4. The wrong agenda

They have your speaker scheduled too late in the day to get coverage. Or right before a huge, contentious resolution debate that has them distracted. Or on a panel with someone you simply don’t want to be associated with. These can all be deal-breakers if the convenor isn’t willing to budge.

5. The wrong timing

I can’t tell you how many invitations I’ve seen for hour-long speeches, or 45-minute speeches with 15-minute Q-and-A sessions. Short of some very special circumstances – say, if you’re writing for Steve Jobs at the MacWorld keynote – don’t do that to your speaker. They’ll have a bored, restless audience and a long, meandering speech. If you can’t negotiate the time down, that’s a deal-breaker.

6. The wrong messenger

You don’t always have to send the CEO, senator, president or board coordinator. Sometimes an event is better suited to a staff analyst, a board member or a vice-president in charge of a specialized area.

7. A better opportunity

This is my favourite. Being able to tell a boss or client, “I don’t want you taking this gig, because there’s this much better one at the same time” — that’s golden.

Those are all solid reasons not to accept an invitation. But when it comes time for you to make your choice, let me make my pitch for erring on the side of yes. Speeches are a chance to connect with an audience, build a relationship, maybe move them to action – and there’s nothing like the opportunity to lead.

Your turn: Do you have a personal early warning system that tells you an invitation to speak could be inviting disaster? A story about how you or your speaker turned a catastrophe around? Let our readers know at!

3. Reports from Ragan

The Ragan Speechwriter’s Conference earlier this year in Washington, DC was a terrific opportunity: a great way to pick up new ideas, connect with like-minded people and share experiences. My blog has notes from three of the sessions:

The fiery muse of Tack Cornelius

Tack Cornelius, a 22-year veteran of the speechwriting game in the political and corporate arenas, gave us 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.

Read the full report

David Kusnet, authenticity, and the end of Big Speechwriting

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 all be doing the job of speechwriting much differently in the future.

Read the full report

Jeffrey Denny wants to save you from bad commencement speeches

I remember the speech at my university graduation only dimly. Something about barely being able to stay awake through it… and wishing the damn thing would end. That was nearly 20 years ago, and according to Fannie Mae speechwriter Jeffrey Denny – who took us on a ride through the worst and best of commencement speaking in 2005 – they haven’t improved a bit since.

Read the full report

4. Reading list

Kamran Nazeer’s Send in the Idiots is his memoir of the school for autistic children he attended – but it’s much more. Nazeer tracks down his former classmates, and finds many of them have achieved remarkable success.

One of the most interesting profiles is that of Craig, who was the speechwriter for a 2004 Democratic presidential hopeful. Nazeer offers a fascinating account of a typical (for Craig) speechwriting job interview, both from Craig’s point of view, filtered through the perceptions and processes that autism imposes, and the perspective of the potential employer, misunderstanding (and even fearing) Craig’s responses. It’s a look at how a talent for helping others connect with their audiences can coexist with a condition that creates a deep divide with the outside world.

If you haven’t seen it already, the New Yorker profile of President Bush’s former speechwriter, Michael Gerson, is a revelation. The intimacy between some presidents and their speechwriters is legendary (think John F. Kennedy and Ted Sorensen), but Gerson’s spiritual relationship with Bush is extraordinary. No matter how you feel about the Bush administration, this is a rare and valuable look at how personality, belief and politics intertwine in the Oval Office.

5. This issue’s tip. This issue’s tip.

You’ve just made a telling point, and you really want it to sink in. How do you do it?

Here’s a technique that Van Jones, the founder of the Ella Baker Center for Human Rights, used in a speech I heard him give recently.

You repeat the phrase. You repeat the phrase. Word for word.

Repetition works best with short, simple sentences: “Failure is a better teacher than success. (pause) Failure is a better teacher than success.” This is a technique best used sparingly and judiciously – but it can be very powerful.
Advertisers and PR professionals know that repetition is one of the keys to any message’s success. For you, it’s a signal to your audience that this is a phrase worth remembering – as well as a tool to help them do just that.

6. Subscribing, unsubscribing and passing along the news

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