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Speechwriters to Africa: A Rhetorical Adventure

In my lucky life I have ridden shotgun to a rookie pilot on a small plane over the Grand Canyon, driven a brakeless International Harvester truck across the United States and ridden a motorcycle over the Andes mountains and into the Amazon rain forest. I've ridden trains across China and celebrated New Year's in Thailand. I've spoken at the European Commission and put on a conference in Sydney, Australia.

But I think of Africa as a final frontier—and so I was a bit startled a couple weeks ago when a three-year conversation about a speechwriting conference in Gaborone, Botswana hardened into a confirmed reality.

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And my less reckless fellow traveler Eric Schnure may have been a little more anxious than I—about lots of things. Diarrhea pills. Malaria pills. Mosquito repellent. He texted me at the airport to ask, "Did you bring a sweater?" 

Eric, a former White House speechwriter, the former speechwriter to the CEO of General Electric, an American University rhetoric professor and the co-author of the industry standard book, The Political Speechwriter's Companion, had been invited by Dr. Letshwiti Tutwane of the University of Botswana, to teach Botswanan government officials how to write more effective speeches. I was along to deliver the closing keynote speech and lend the imprimatur of the Professional Speechwriters Association to the first speechwriting conference ever held on the continent.

For Letshwiti, the conference had been a three-year adventure in political navigation, bureaucratic bushwhacking, financial improvisation and sheer force of will.

To what end? As he would repeat from the stage at the conference, Letshwiti believes that despite Botswana's small physical size, it ought to grow beyond the remarkable place it already is—a peaceful, stable democracy whose economy has grown on the back of mining and tourism—and into a great and powerful nation.

"What is the difference between Botswana and Singapore?" he asked. It was a rhetorical question whose answer, to Letswhiti's way of thinking, was rhetorical, too. 

When he attended the PSA Speechwriting School and World Conference in Washington three years ago, Letshwiti realized that Botswana's speechwriting practice was far from professionalized. Too, he was embarrassed by several instances of African leaders plagiarizing American speeches; he hoped this conference would spark a continent-wide movement toward more responsible and effective rhetoric. For love of his country and his continent, the professor was going to do his part. 

And now, on the Friday night before the Monday conference, he had 90 participants confirmed, and his two star speakers on the ground in Gaborone. "At last," Letshwiti kept repeating as we walked through the Sir Seretse Khama International Airport. "At last."

***

Eric and I, on the other hand, were beaten humorless by an airplane journey—D.C. to Accra, Ghana to Johannesburg, South Africa to Gaborone—best measured in endlessness.

Eric is one of my very closest friends in the speechwriting business. Though he lives in D.C. and I live in Chicago, we talk on the phone several times a week—about business, about ideas, about politics. He writes political humor for black-tie Washington dinners, and often tries out lines on me. Just as often, we talk about our kids. We both have teenagers, and we've known each other since all the stories we told each other about our kids were adorable. That's a long time.

Eric is on the faculty of the PSA's twice-annual Speechwriting School, and teaches other workshops for us. Usually at these events, I chime in with jokes, anecdotes and provocations.

"Eric and David are a dynamic duo," a participant said after one of our recent gigs. We got a kick out of that.

But we'd never been on a journey like this together. And as we rode through the coolbreezy African night to our hotel, Eric and I understood that this trip would test just how dynamic a duo we really are. And also: whether we had any business teaching rhetoric in this place.

***

We felt surprisingly good the first morning! In fact, I bounded downstairs in my tennis shoes, shorts, Havana shirt and Panama hat! I leapt into the line at the hotel's breakfast buffet and flipped open the lid on the baked beans! The container landed on the floor with a dining room-shattering metal clang. A pall descended. The staff scrambled to clean up the brown mess on the floor and the wall. And thus, through our first meaningful contribution to African life, the only white people we had so far seen in Gaborone became the only red people, too. 

With more caution, we visited the adjacent mall, which we later discovered is one of the main attractions in this capital city, which is as just as architecturally homely as its people are physically and fashionably gorgeous.

Letshwiti picked us up and drove us to the Maffatshwana Cultural Festival, put on by his own tribe. There, tribal chiefs made speeches we couldn't understand and dancers performed in a barren, sun-parched lot.

There was local chow for lunch, only some of which Eric and I were able to get down, with wooden smiles nailed to our faces. 

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We took a break from accelerated taste-acquisition back at the hotel where, over a beer, the three of us returned happily to our common ground: communication itself. We three—Washington insider, Midwestern American writer and Botswana academic—moved effortlessly and agreeably through the rhetorical virtues and shortcomings of Obama, Trump, Clinton, Botswana's president and other prominent government officials, Joe Biden, Ronald Reagan and Elizabeth Warren. Letshwiti recited a Mandela speech in a Mandela accent, just as I insist on doing a Bobby Kennedy speech in a Kennedy accent. To people who think a lot about communication, such conversation feels almost like a guilty pleasure—like talking sports, or gossiping. 

***

The jet lag snuck up on Eric and me like a hungry black mamba, and our second night was largely sleep free.

But today we had preparations to make—the conference agenda to finalize, our slides to finish, our presentations to rehearse, our African greetings to memorize. Dumela!

Except Eric and I were falling apart. Drinking coffee to get through every 30 minutes, dozing off every few hours anyway.

After a day of that, dinner was at a Brazilian steakhouse over in the mall. Trip Advisor told us it was the 7th best restaurant in this nation. It was pretty good, but we were both distracted by the fact that we'd each been bitten by a mosquito on the walk over.

"Not every mosquito bite gives you malaria, right?" Eric asked me.

"I don't think so, no."

***

This jet lag is the most fearsome I've ever suffered, and Eric and I slept terribly on the eve of the conference, too, arriving at the University of Botswana in the frenzied coffee and adrenaline stupor of a 1970s speed freak—not in ideal condition to set the tone for a meeting of 90 strangers in a foreign land and an unfamiliar culture.

People were still filing in when the emcee asked for a volunteer in the audience to open the conference with a song, and a prayer.

The dignitaries made their opening remarks. Dr. Letswhiti Tutwane, of the University of Botswana. The Permanent Secretary to the Minister of Public Affairs, Governance, and Public Administration, Mr. Thuso Romodimoosi. The CEO of FNB Botswana Bank, Mr. S. Bogatsu.

And The Murr, and The Schnure.

I gave a brief history of speechwriting starting with the Greeks and ending with my founding of the Professional Speechwriters Association six years ago. I read a quote from Isocrates. And then Eric taught most of the rest of the day—until the first tea break, then until lunch, then for most of the afternoon, until I led a panel on speechwriting ethics.

Eric and I have joked about how asinine it is when most teachers say, "I learn more from my students than they learn from me." Well then, you must not be much of a teacher, is our thought. 

But at this conference, we definitely learned a few things we didn't know, and saw a few things we've never seen. For example, Eric put the participants through a group exercise he's done two dozen times before, in order to show speechwriters and would-be speechwriters how much they already know about how to construct an argument. He has the audience break up into small groups, and gives each group a brown paper bag with a toy inside—in this case, a bright yellow stress ball with a smiley face. He gives the groups 15 minutes or so to come up with a sales pitch for why this toy is an essential possession in life. Then, he asks for volunteers to stand and share the pitches they've come up with. 

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There's usually one frustrated thespian who leaps forward to present the pitch she's come up with, and one poor people-pleaser who can't bring himself let the call for volunteers go unanswered. After that, teeth must be pulled. 

Here? Before the 15 minutes was up, a young man had approached Eric and asked permission to cue up a video to accompany his group's presentation. When Eric asked for volunteers, the auditorium instantly transformed from a conference venue into a theater, and these speechwriters and other government and banking bureaucrats became performance artists. The stage was jammed with people, using all manner of rhetorical, musical and physical means to get across the social, emotional and spiritual contribution of the stress ball, the human smile, the color yellow and the sun itself. One man, in this pre me-too society, got his hands on two of these stress balls, and made a naughty analogy to the importance of having cajones in life. It was a joyous free-for-all, and Eric stood against a wall, clearly gobsmacked at the ebullient imagination of these people. (This people?)

And the rhetorical adventure was real.

The cultural adventure, too.

At coffee breaks, over drinks and the conference dinner at an unlikely roadside spot called the Oasis Motel, Eric and I continued to look at each other wide-eyed at the openness of these people, willing and eager discuss everything from the national political situation to their personal aspirations. And if they didn't share it all, I'd like to know what they held back. In one 20-minute lunch conversation, one participant told us she stayed in her dull corporate job in Gaborone because the opportunity to take a more lucrative opportunity in Dubai raised worries that it wouldn't work out and she would have to turn to prostitution.

Boldly spoken and in many cases brilliantly dressed, these conference participants differed deeply from the conservatively clad American or European conference-goer who agonizes to achieve a business casual so conforming that it reaches the level of corporate camouflage. As I write this, days after the conference, I can still see some of those vivid dresses and wild suits.

Other aspects of the meeting were more familiar. Like speechwriters all over the world, Botswanan scribes struggle to write interesting and inventive speeches for cautious politicians speaking on highly conventional political occasions. But with a potentially close presidential election coming up in October, the speechwriters for the administration of the incumbent, Mokgweetsi Masisi, see as clearly as they ever have that more effective communication can make a decisive contribution.

Comprehensively and subtly knowledgeable about world events and the U.S. political landscape and confident in sharing their opinions with us, the conference participants were nevertheless also eager to have their pictures taken with the distinguished Americans. We must have smiled for two dozen, probably with a look of slight bewilderment about how these people actually saw us. They didn't seem overawed to meet us, but perhaps thought their friends would be impressed by their pictures with us. "Pretty much everyone at this conference is on Facebook," one participant told me.

And of course, Eric and I were Facebooking pictures of us with them, to impress our friends too.

***

As the conference drew to a close, Letshwiti's face had a familiar post-event look of relief and astonishment and maybe a tinge of melancholy.

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Soon we would all have to face the inevitable question that's often difficult to answer—but has a high burden, when you arrange an event this expensive and elaborate on a topic that's by some measures so esoteric: What did we do here?

We didn't come up with a new way to conserve rainwater in Botswana. We didn't find a humane solution to elephant overpopulation in the nation. And no one is yet calling Botswana the new Singapore.

We probably didn't even shake Botswanan oratory out of its relatively staid state.

I think Eric, Letshwiti and I introduced these speechwriters and other communicators some concepts they might not have known—a universally useful speech structure, some storytelling techniques and many rhetorical devices. We gave them a common rhetorical vocabulary and set of experiences and modern speech standards. But mostly, we introduced them to one another and welcomed them into the global speechwriting community, and thus made them less alone in their difficult work.

As I said in my closing keynote—before offering each of them a free six-month introductory membership to the Professional Speechwriters Association—"I think I probably did not teach you anything you didn't already know personally. But I came here in the hope that perhaps I could tell you something that perhaps you have not shared communally."

And that, I think we did.

***

On our last day, Eric and I bounced through the African bush on a safari in successful search of white rhinos—annoying many impalas, warthogs, giant kudu and giraffes along the way.

I hooked my shirt on seemingly every black hook thorn tree I encountered. We laughed like little kids. 

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And then that same afternoon, Eric would present a signed copy of The Political Speechwriter's Companion to the the Office of the President.

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During the daunting and uncertain years and months and weeks before we came to Botswana, Letshwiti had talked about this conference being only the first of many in Botswana and eventually elsewhere on this continent.

At the beginning of this week, that talk had seemed fanciful.

But now that we've all made connections that we hope to deepen, I think Eric and I will be surprised if the PSA doesn't return to this place—and these people.

And judging from the global speechwriting community's enthusiastic reaction to our trip to Africa, maybe we'll return with a larger delegation of scribes in tow.

And it gets cool at night, so yes—pack a sweater. —DM

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