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“People need to be reminded,” said Samuel Johnson, “more often than they need to be instructed.”
Commencement speakers struggle to come up with a speech, when "everything’s already been said." Keynote speakers wonder what they can tell people that "they don't already know."
But everything hasn’t been said by you, at this moment in history, to the audience gathered today.
And more importantly: Whatever the audience members think they know—they may not know all the other members share in that knowledge.
Take the audiences that gather to hear my “Speechwriting Jam Session.” I show speeches from the sublime to the ridiculous, most of which the speechwriters have probably already seen.
But they haven’t seen Phil Davison’s campaign speech for Stark County treasurer together. And they’ll laugh harder with fellow speechwriters than they do at home.
And they’ve probably seen clips of Robert F. Kennedy’s speech in Indianapolis, after the death of Martin Luther King. But when you show it to a roomful of speechwriters, you can show them the whole thing. And you’d check to see if they’re wiping away a tear, except that even though you’ve shown this to many speechwriting groups before, you’re blinking back a tear of your own. It's moving to see it together.
Speechwriters must encourage their speakers get over the impossibly egotistical idea that they are invited to commencement ceremonies or conferences to deliver new insights.
New insights are welcome, of course. New perspective, too.
But Baby Boomers don’t fill the lawns at James Taylor concerts to listen to hear the songwriter’s latest musical ruminations from his Martha’s Vineyard twilight. They come to hear "Fire and Rain" one more time again—together.
The essential purpose of a speech is not instructional, and it’s usually not even persuasive. It’s social and communal, more comforting than communicative.
People need to be imaginatively, personally and convincingly reminded of what they already know. And they need to be reassured that they live in a world where other people know it, too.
And if those goals seem too humble—I don't need to remind you that in speaking as in life, it is better too humble, than grandiose. —DM