What do speeches and coffee have in common?

coffeeAsk a speechwriter what speeches have in common with coffee and you’ll likely hear that they consume lots of the latter while churning out the former.

Not me. And not just because my caffeine of choice is tea.

I think we make great speeches in much the same way we make a good cup of coffee:

  • Gather the right blend of raw materials
  • Grind them to suit your needs
  • Allow creativity (or hot water, which sometimes feels like the same thing) to connect the ingredients in new ways
  • Filter the results into the vessel of your choice
  • Inhale deeply & enjoy

Gather your speaker’s ideas and do additional research as needed — every speech is a blend. Break these down into smaller components; too many complex ideas and you’ll lose your audience. Filter the materials through what you understand of the speaker’s sensibilities and experience. And add creativity to bring all the disparate inputs together into a smooth, deeply satisfying brew.

Of course, you don’t just filter the ideas through your speaker’s experience. You filter them through your own as well — you can’t help it.

As a speechwriter, I have to capture the speaker’s diction and syntax, but ultimately the words come out of my brain, through my fingers pounding my keyboard. If speeches came with credits, the byline would be Speaker/Elaine’s-Understanding-of-Speaker/Speaker-Filtered-by-Elaine.

On second thought, maybe it’s good thing speeches don’t have bylines.

Your (Coffee) Filter, Yourself

After 25 years of putting words in executives’ mouths, I’m used to writing like someone else. But the writers in my advanced writing class are becoming used to writing like themselves. Too used to it sometimes. So I thought I’d shake things up a little. At the end of one of our classes, I said, “This week, write like each other.”

Now, that’s not an assignment I would give just any group. The writers in question have been working with me in various programs for nearly a year now; they’ve developed a level of familiarity and trust you don’t usually find in online workshops.

So I knew when I said, “Write like each other” and assigned the partners, they wouldn’t run off and write parodies. I wanted them to capture the essence of the other writer’s work and filter it through their own sensibilities. I wasn’t looking for them to replicate each other’s voices, but to look at the topic through their partner’s eyes and tell us about the view.

One of my writers wondered if she’d gotten the assignment wrong. She wrote that although she’d tried to think like her partner, “it still came out through my own filters.”

Yes! And it was beautiful, too. Not her voice, and not her partner’s voice, but a lovely blend that produced something completely different. In fact, it ranks among the best work this writer has done as she shakes off the legalese she’s been speaking and writing for decades.

But of course it all got filtered through her experience. That’s part of the process.

Start with the freshest ingredients you can find, run them through your own filters, and hope for a result that opens people’s eyes. (Foam garnish optional.)


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