For some 30 years, my professional career centered on speechwriting, mostly of the corporate variety. I had taken a speech course in college – Contemporary American Speeches – but it was more because of my journalism curriculum than a desire to learn about speeches.
Like most corporate speechwriters at that time, I fell into it, accidentally. I was working on a big issue, someone needed a speech on the topic, and I was told to write a draft. I did, it was okay, the speaker liked it, it went over well – and like magic, I was suddenly being called the department’s newest speechwriter. This was all mildly unsettling; I knew next-to-nothing about writing speeches, so I got myself off to a speechwriter’s seminar to learn what I was already considered an expert at.
For the next few years, I went to more conferences, changed jobs, changed companies – and still managed to be considered mostly a speechwriter. Executives hear that you can write speeches, and they suddenly decide you’re their newest best friend forever. Of course, there are worse things than senior executives thinking you can do something valuable.
At some point, I decided I liked it, and liked it enough to want it to be the major part of my work. I read everything – Aristotle and Plato, Cicero and Seneca, great speeches of history, Shakespeare soliloquies, the Lincoln-Douglas debates, Churchill. I haunted used bookstores and used book fairs, looking for speech texts, speech collections, speaker biographies and speechwriter memoirs.
At some point, early on, I discovered poetry.
Actually, I rediscovered it. I had read it and studied it in high school and college. But I had never considered what its benefits for my work might be.
A friend gave me collections of T.S. Eliot, Dylan Thomas and Wallace Stevens. It was a shrewd move on his part; I soon wanted to know who had influenced three of the “great moderns” and whom they in turn had influenced. Over time, I found myself falling in love with the poetic word.
And then there were practical considerations, too, like how much reading poetry improved my speechwriting.
Reading poetry led me to consider using language differently, saying something conventional or common in a unconventional, uncommon way. Say something in an unconventional way, and people notice—and remember.
Reading poetry taught me the power of poetic techniques, like repetition and even rhyme. I wrote speeches that became something more than a presentation. People would hear these speeches and repeat key words and phrases.
Reading poetry taught me to think differently, to consider a problem or a conflict or an opposing viewpoint in an entirely different light. For years, my company had been saying X was the equivalent of the apocalypse. Well, what if we embraced X? What if we acknowledged X as a legitimate viewpoint? What would happen?
I can tell you one thing that happened. I wrote a speech for an executive in which he embraced X, and 1,500 chemical engineers rose to their feet, cheering. I wrote a speech for another executive in which X became the official corporate policy.
It changed an entire industry.
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