While I was lurking at an event in London a couple of weeks ago, tasked with that least glamorous of speechwriter tasks — remotely clicking through Powerpoint slides — I had the good fortune to meet Professor Roger Kneebone, whose work I have since been reading.

Professor Kneebone, of Imperial College London, explores what clinicians can learn from other forms of performance. In his podcast, for example, he’s spoken with a silversmith, a composer, a botanical artist, as well as a wide range of medical professionals. This expansive project is readily available online: here’s a recent piece in Nature; and here are his Gresham lectures.

Although one might not immediately think of clinicians as performers, Professor Kneebone makes a compelling case to do so. The history of surgery is of public performance, and surgical education relies on demonstration. Operations are still “performed” in operating “theatres” with surgical “instruments.”

To approach clinicians as performers, and to compare their performances with those of other performers, Professor Kneebone suggests,“brings different kinships into view,” making it “easier to perceive what is really important.”

It strikes me that the staging of these cross-disciplinary conversations is as useful as their actual findings. Reflecting on what it is that you do — and how you would explain what you do to someone who does something else — encourages you to shake off the dust of familiarity. You reconsider how and why you do things as you do.

With all that in mind, I thought that I might try to place speechwriting within some of the comparisons drawn by Professor Kneebone.

EDIT 22nd July 2019: Not long after this blog was published, Professor Kneebone invited me to London’s Wellcome Trust to record an episode of his Countercurrent podcast with a speechwriter’s perspective. Our discussion about speechwriting and clinical medicine is now available.

Clinical Practice and Bespoke Tailoring

Bespoke tailoring, Professor Kneebone suggests, shares with clinical practice a reliance on collaboration, whether that’s tailor–customer or clinician–patient. In both cases, “expert knowledge is necessary but not sufficient” to guarantee success. The expert requires the personal input of their opposite number: the tailor to create a suit that properly complements its owner; the clinician to identify a course of action that aligns the patient’s symptoms and lifestyle with the clinician’s knowledge.

This reliance on collaboration is true for speechwriting too. A speech will only be a success if it bears the mark of the speaker and, in turn, the speaker believes in both what the speech says and how it says it. Just as tailors must “manage and resolve” tensions between their professional verdict and their customer’s personal preference, so must a speechwriter ensure that a speech balances what the speechwriter would like the speaker to say and what the speaker would like to say.

Professor Roger Kneebone speechwriter Countercurrent

Professor Kneebone and tailor Joshua Byrne (video)

Clinical Practice and Close-Up Magic

The clinical consultation and close-up magic (the kind performed by magicians moving between tables) are pulled together as two versions of “close-up live performance with a very small audience.”

Both the clinician in a consultation and the magician at a table undertake a performance that is “seemingly effortless and natural” but in fact “highly constructed [and] actively shaped by the performer. Beneath a semblance of normality, a lot is going on.” As they chat to their audience, the clinician and magician are both “reading” their interlocutor and making an analysis based on what may be very subtle clues.

Professor Kneebone’s description of this shared expertise as “the art that conceals art” and “an illusion of spontaneity through painstaking practice” really resonates with me — not so much in terms of the meeting between speechwriter and speaker when drafting a speech, but rather in terms of the degree to what the speechwriter must conceal their craft. This relates to the types of “invisibility” that I wrote about here.

That phrase “the art that conceals art” also points to what I consider to be the non plus ultra of speechwriting: the effect of sprezzatura; or, when something that has been carefully considered presents itself as casual and off-hand.

Clinical Practice and Fine Dining

In high-end restaurants, the maître d’ is also a performer. It is their responsibility to ensure that every diner receives the top-class experience that they have been anticipating. Of course the food must be excellent, but “what guests experience in the restaurant is what makes or breaks their evening.”

The maître d’ needs to control the diners’ perception of the evening just as a clinician, during a consultation, must control what the patient understands to be happening. And what the patient understands to be happening in a consultation can differ from what is actually happening if, for example, the patient’s anxiety clouds their impression of the encounter. Speechwriting’s corollary to this is the adage that audiences remember what they think was said, not necessarily what was actually said — or, they remember how they felt rather than what they heard.

It is also the maître d’s responsibility to “balance the needs and wishes of each individual with the demands of the system he works in.” Professor Kneebone points out that health care professionals experience something similar when they work within health services that, of necessity, are subject to material limitations.

This particular contingency doesn’t immediately map on to the experience of speechwriting, until you think a little more laterally about the corporate or institutional contexts in which much speechwriting takes place. In those contexts, the engagement is rarely limited to the speechwriter and the speaker. All sorts of other people, including comms and PR directors, policy advisors and event hosts, will all want a hand on the speechwriter’s pen. And it is not uncommon for the corporate or institutional messaging to be at odds with what the speaker wants to say. It is then the speechwriter’s challenge to negotiate between individual and system to find a solution that pleases both.

Speeches as “Performative Utterances”

One of the more frequent points of convergence that Professor Kneebone identifies between clinical practice and the other performative activities, namely the development of fine motor skills, is less relevant to speechwriting. Speechwriters only need worry about how to avoid RSI in their Powerpoint-clicking finger.

Most interesting, for me, is to consider the different levels at which speechwriting is performative. Like playwrights, speechwriters write a text to be read aloud by someone else. Unlike most playwrights, speechwriters write for a specific individual. So, the speech itself must perform its intended speaker. And if public speaking involves a degree of acting (which I think it must, even if one is acting out authenticity) then the speaker too is performing. Here, we have two levels of performativity already.

In addition, the actual delivery of the speech often constitutes a “speech act” as defined by the philosopher J. L. Austin in How To Do Things With Words (1955/1962). When a speaker says something like, “Today we honour those who came before us,” there is no action, no physical honouring, other than the delivery of that line. This type of speech act doesn’t just describe the world; it attempts to affect it in some way. This is what Austin calls a “performative utterance.”

Most of the instruction that I have received in speechwriting, largely from books, has focussed on how speeches should sound, how they should attract and maintain an audience’s attention, and how they should use various devices for particular effects.

How useful it would be to shift the frame from the textual performance to this idea of the speech act as a performative utterance. This would facilitate useful conversations between speechwriters and other professions predicated on specific types of performative utterance.* Maybe then we’d benefit from some of what Professor Kneebone calls “reciprocal illumination.”

J.L. Austin

*(The first that springs to mind is the “I sentence you…” delivered by the Judge. One day I’ll get round to a post on the language of the courtroom. I maintain that the best speechwriting lessons come from judges and stand-up comics! And maybe Scottish mountain climbers).

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