The Ragan Communications Conference in Washington DC

Posted on 18 February 2013

Three days in February 2008 changed my life.

I travelled to Washington to attended my first Ragan Communications Speechwriters & Executive Communicators Conference at the Mayflower Renaissance Hotel in Washington DC.

It was like visiting another planet and finding aliens there, who were just like me. There were over two hundred professional speechwriters gathered in one hotel. I had been invited to speak on ‘Writing Humour’ on the first morning. To my great relief, it went well, and my text was later published in an American publication, Vital Speeches of the Day.

During one of the breaks I went for stroll to look at the White House. I stared at the South Portico to see if I could spot George W Bush inside.

The American delegates asked me how things worked in the UK. I didn’t have a clue. I’d never met any other speechwriters in the UK.

In the bar, Hal Gordon, a former speechwriter for the President Reagan Administration, gave me a lecture on how the British political system worked. I’d never heard such an insightful American perspective. There was some truth it it, but it was a very romantic picture.

Later Hal gave a very inspiring talk about using stories in speeches. His tip was, save something good for the end. The end of your speech needs to get them applauding. He explained why Jesus used parables, and how we identify with different characters. One heckler suggested that Jesus used parables because he didn’t have statistics.

I got an insight into American corporate culture from Linda Rutherford from Southwest Airlines. Doing sales is not something Americans apologise for. She explained how Southwest Airlines had an internal speakers bureau, which arranged for company employees to go out and speak to schools and other organisations.

Drew Westen, the author of The Political Brain, gave an analysis of how to use emotions in speeches with reference to Presidential elections. The Americans are very comfortable talking about feelings. Something the British avoid, especially when talking about politics. We were invited to investigate our feelings towards a party’s principles, our feelings towards candidates, our feelings towards candidates’ personal attributes, our feelings towards candidate’s policies. Lastly we were asked to evaluate the facts about the candidate’s policies.

Westen ended by quoting Ella Fitzgerald, “It don’t mean a thing, if it ain’t got that swing.” You’ve got to connect with the feelings of the voters. Tony Blair was the master of that.

Mark Ragan, the CEO of Lawrence Ragan Communcations, was a very charismatic host of the conference. He looked a bit like Michael Douglas.

In the best tradition of British entrepreneurs, I took the Ragan idea and worked out how to adapt it. In 2009, we had our first conference, which turned out to be similar, but British. Many of the characters I met in Washington have become friends since, and a few have travelled to Britain to speak at our conferences.

Speechwriting work is often a lonely pastime: fellowship springs up very quickly among its practitioners at conferences. Every speechwriter needs to make one pilgrimage to Washington. You can still get a place at the 2013 conference. Click here for details.

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