Former BBC correspondent turned speechwriter, Nick Hawton, gives his views on the changing nature of leadership communication.
In the deepest, darkest days of Covid, a new creature emerged into the light. Shrouded in pixels, gorging on the insecurity of the moment, the creature infected monitors the world over.
Promising connection and efficiency, it displaced the ‘here and now’ and drained empathy and spontaneity from the speechmaking ritual.
Lo, behold, the creature cometh, the mutant child of Father Speech and Mother Virtual….all hail the Speechual.
Speechwriters mourned the passing of the in-person delivery. Existential questions abounded.
But the predicted end of days has not transpired. The Speechual was (and is) not an enemy. It is our friend. It just needs to be understood.
Technos, Simplos, Reductos
As ancient lore proclaims, great speeches depend on three elements: the presenter’s credibility (ethos) the power of the argument (logos), and the audience’s emotional proclivities (pathos).
And these three pillars are built on something else: a bedrock of trust.
Trust is built on reliability, predictability and familiarity – and all tend to increase with time. Trust is built most quickly and, most assuredly, through physical presence: direct eye-contact, non-verbal cues, the development of empathy.
So the virtual environment offers unique challenges for the speechwriter (and speechmaker): how to build trust – and everything that flows from trust – in a disembodied, disconnected virtual world.
The answer is the Speechual.
Let us take logos, ethos and pathos for granted as our essential ingredients. But now we need to add to the mix, three modern supplementaries.
Shall we call them technos, simplos and reductos?
In short, when we mix the six ingredients together we have the creature that we may term the ‘Speechual’.
First and foremost comes the technos.
Do we know how to intimately use the platform with its share buttons, volume controls, break-out rooms and all manner of trap doors and trip wires?
Are the headphones and microphones suitably adjusted? Are your reading glasses reflecting the light and hiding the window to your soul and that most important builder of trust, your eyes?
Keep looking into the white pinhead of the camera for you are looking into the eyes of the audience by doing so.
Make all these things second nature and you will exude the calm, presence and confidence which enable great presentations.
And then we have the simplos.
In modern parlance we might call it the maxim of ‘keep it simple’. The speaker’s background must be devoid of whistling children, howling kettles, screaming pets. Keep it blank or, at least, keep it unassuming.
Keep your clothing screen-friendly avoiding the stripes and colours that can distract the audience. Keep them blank or, at least, unassuming.
And finally we must turn to the reductos.
Yes, by all means retain your rhythms, allusions, cleverness and messages. But turn them down a notch. Reduce the number of syllables, simplify the parentheses, choose the common rather than the fancy words.
Remember, clarity and understanding are your trump cards in the world of this metallic medium with all its vagaries. And, remember, the audience is not captive: its parts sit in splendid isolation in kitchens and bedrooms and hotel rooms and offices, all with a million distractions millimetres from the screen that contains your eyes.
Keep the cognitive load low.
You have no authority here Jackie Weaver
Our lives continues to be etched in uncertainty. But one thing that is here to remain is the world of virtual communication: virtual speeches, to a greater or lesser extent, are here to stay.
The challenge will be to avoid the struggles of Jackie Weaver and her like and look towards the Promised Land. And when the storm of confusion has passed and the waves of uncertainty have parted, a new equilibrium of communication and human connection will be found.
In the words of one reincarnated Roman senator: “If you wish to persuade me, you must think my thoughts, feel my feelings, speak my words, and understand my virtual platform”.
Long live the Speechual.
Nick Hawton will be speaking at the 20th Speechwriters’ & Business Communicators’ conference at Emmanuel College, Cambridge on 31 March & 1 April 2022. Tickets are available here.