Rebecca was speaking at her daughter's graduation from an equine therapy treatment center. After Izzy turned semipro at snowboarding at a very young age, she had fallen in with a bad crowd and started getting in trouble with the police a lot. Coming to terms with the fact that Izzy had a Xanax addiction and was heading down a slippery slope—the kind that couldn't be navigated by a snowboard—Rebecca did what any parent would try to avoid at all costs: she "gooned" her daughter. This, I learned from Rebecca, means that at 4:00 a.m. one night, a guy from a rehab center came to the house and took Izzy away to a wilderness camp for ninety days. Amazingly, after the ninety days, Izzy acknowledged she was in a better emotional space and agreed to attend a ranch school where tending to horses provided a framework of accountability, compassion, and other such values that parents struggle to instill in their children. By the time Izzy reached her graduation ceremony, Rebecca was positively champing at the bit to get up onstage and tell her daughter how proud of her she was—and, as was the custom, dedicate a stone to each person she wanted to thank. (I researched the rental companies in the area; the seventy six miles was no joke.) Rebecca had come to the realization that when you're invested in your message and you see the crowd as allies, not enemies, there is much to relish about sharing that message.
The problem, as poor Izzy can vouch, is that buying Xanax is a lot easier. Just ask Izzy. From writing to delivery, the process of crafting a brilliant speech for most people promises only a grueling, often unsatisfying, frustrating, and unknowable gauntlet of questions:
'Where do I begin?'
'How do I put the thoughts together?'
'How do I make sure I say what they want? How do I make it funny?'
'Where do I stand? How do I stand? Should I stand?'
Then the panic becomes more specific . . .
'Oprah is speaking right before me.'
'Most of the audience are comedy writers and I'm an accountant.'
'I've had a genius idea, but it's hard to articulate quantum physics.'
'If I say the wrong thing, I could spark an international disaster.'
'Something incredible happened to me, but words don't do it justice.'
'I used to sleep with the groom.'
You may be one of the millions who have panic-scoured the internet. 'How to write a great speech,' you desperately typed into Google's search bar, only to come across hackneyed tips written by junior editors at lifestyle magazines. You might have gone toYouTube, where at the very best you might have found a video of a gentle-mannered Chris Anderson in a pair of crisply ironed chinos calmly outlining the TED method, which, despite the charming soundtrack of trills and sprightly dings, and some lovely graphics, only made you more intimidated by the idea that your one amazing "idea" maybe isn't amazing enough. Or maybe you'll have taken your problem to the bookstore, where you found emotionally devoid corporate manuals written by communications experts and fans of Woodrow Wilson.
The problem isn't that all the experts are crap. I don't have that much hubris. It's that there aren't that many actual experts, let alone any who, without knowing a thing about you, can provide the kind of specific advice you need. To this day I've never even met another speechwriter, either at a social gathering or a networking schmooze. It's sort of the occupational equivalent of being born a leap-year baby, on February 29 (as I was—and yet I know four other people with the same birthday). Filmmakers, bankers, swimming instructors, tree doctors, pageant queens, and hackers—from the most obvious to the most niche, I've encountered professionals from every facet of the workforce. I even came across an ex-Mossad locksmith once. I've met authors, copywriters, journalists, feature writers, scriptwriters. Every kind of writer you can imagine—I mean, I live in Brooklyn; everyone in my neighborhood is a writer. But none of them are speechwriters.
Unsurprisingly, when people find out how I make a living, the interrogation begins. The first thing they want to know is whose speeches I've written, hoping I'll spill the beans on a famous politician or celebrity. This makes sense if we're to believe Yuval Noah Harari's theory that 'Homo sapiens' conquered the world in large part because of their proclivity for gossip. They clearly didn't have NDAs and discretionary policies back then.
I can't blame them. It's entirely fair to presume that only the wealthy and influential have speechwriters. But this exclusivity is precisely why I started my company, The Oratory Laboratory.
I won't be coy: I'm not cheap. Thomas Edison said genius was 1 percent inspiration and 99 percent sweat. Well, so is speechwriting—there are no shortcuts—and we all know the adage about time and money. The Oratory Laboratory, however, was built on a more ideological and egalitarian belief (I am, after all, a Brit), that everyone deserves a speechwriter and almost as many people need one. It was a way to acknowledge that most people, regardless of class, race, political affiliation, wealth, age, sex, gender, blood group, or zip code, have at one time (or maybe even four) been invited or been given the opportunity to speak about something in a room full of people and that almost as many do a crummy job of it. It didn't seem fair to the speakers or their agonized audiences to ignore their plight.