19 February 2014

Threads #nlpoli

Writing good speeches is more art than science but even without much experience, you can tell when a part of a speech doesn’t ring true.

There was a spot like that in Kathy Dunderdale’s resignation speech.

Hearing it made you wince.

It just didn’t sit right. 

Reading the passage doesn’t make it any better.  Here it is:

Ancient Hebrew Scriptures teach us that “there is a time for everything, and a season for every activity under the heavens.”

Most people in Newfoundland and Labrador know the passage of scripture Kathy Dunderdale was referring to.  Even for those who hadn’t been to church in a long time, a quick google search would have led them not to some mysterious “ancient Hebrew scripture” but to Ecclesiastes, one of the sacred religious texts  shared by both Christian and Jews.

The exact words Dunderdale’s speechwriter used might not be completely familiar to you.  They are not the ones you likely know.  That’s because they are taken from a more recent translation of the Bible.

The one most people in Newfoundland and Labrador likely remember is this:

To every thing there is a season, and a time to every purpose under the heaven:

“Broadly speaking,”  wrote former British Prime Minister Winston Churchill, “the short words are the best, and the old words best of all.”  How true that is, as Kathy’s speech writer proved.  Her speechwriter couldn’t have gone wrong using the King James rendering of the passage quoted above because the words are simple, old, familiar and – as a result – evocative.

There’s another reason the writer could have used the simpler, older words.  Even if Kathy’s audience was made up entirely of agnostics,  they would have recognised the words because of the popular song “Turn, turn, turn”:

To every thing there is a season, and a time to every purpose under the heaven:

A time to be born, and a time to die; a time to plant, a time to reap that which is planted;

A time to kill, and a time to heal; a time to break down, and a time to build up;

A time to weep, and a time to laugh; a time to mourn, and a time to dance;

A time to cast away stones, and a time to gather stones together; a time to embrace, and a time to refrain from embracing;

A time to get, and a time to lose; a time to keep, and a time to cast away;

A time to rend, and a time to sew; a time to keep silence, and a time to speak;

A time to love, and a time to hate; a time of war, and a time of peace.

The passage is appropriate to the occasion of a retirement, evident from the fact that Kathy’s speech writer carried on to make the simple connection that after a long political career, the time had now come for her to go.

The passage has wider value in Dunderdale’s speech, had the writer chosen to use it as the foundation for all the other things Kathy had to say.  Every speech needs a theme.  Every speech must have a core around which everything else revolves.  Every speech should have a structure that holds all the other points together.

The Ecclesiastes passage offered a fitting basis for Dunderdale’s speech.  Just think about it for a second:  a time to plant and a time to reap the rewards of your planting seems obviously fitting. All the hard decisions Dunderdale and her colleagues had made are now producing results in the form of economic prosperity. Even in that hastily written sentence, the words sound so much better than the laundry list of stuff that clogged up the front-end of Dunderdale’s speech. Look at the speech and then the Ecclesiastes verse and you could easily find more ways that the “ancient Hebrew scripture”  could have helped Kathy’s speechwriter.

While you are thinking about that, consider that the scripture also gives a tie to mothers, another element from Kathy’s speech.  There is a idea in the speech that suggests the connection between past and present.  It’s one that Kathy could have used to great effect in her final sections as she notes that as she inherited values and ideas from her grandmothers and her mother, so too has she hopefully given to future generations a firm foundation on which they may build.  The familiar words of scripture are a fine example, in themselves, of exactly that inheritance.

The scriptural passage is not some ancient idea from some unknown culture but one that is common to all of us. It bursts with emotion that would have connected Kathy to her audience on a fundamental level. That’s the essence of effective communication.

There’s anther jarring part of the speech in the same section:

I have discovered that this also applies to public service. Just as you know when it is time to step up, you also know when it is time to step back. The time for me is now.

Step up.

Step back.

Parallel construction or structure.  Things fit together neatly.

It’s also about repetition in order to gain emphasis.

The passage from Ecclesiastes is one of the most well-known versions of parallel construction using opposites.  Life.  Death.  Sow.  Reap.  Mourn.  Dance.

Up.

Back.

Now you see it right away.

The opposite of up is down.

The opposite of back is front.

A time to step front and a time to step back makes no sense in English.

But a time to step forward and a time to step back does work.

Even a time to step up and a time to step down works much better than what Dunderdale’s speechwriter used.  After all, stepping down from high office is a common way of describing exactly what Kathy was doing.

The short words are the best.

The old words are best of all.

The simplest of words can touch people more deeply because they are familiar.

Here endeth the lesson.

-srbp-

2 comments:

Peter said...

That Ecclesiastes passage is for The Byrds.

Edward Hollett said...

Well done, yourself.

Two things:

1. Dunderdale's speech was a decent one as it was and the end of it especially good.

The two bits I pointed out were spots that I think a rewrite would have taken it up to a level where it would have made people buzz.

2. Pete Seeger died around the same time, as you likely know. It was interesting to hear his original version of the song with a very different metre. As he said in a later interview, people know the Byrds' version so well he switched to singing it in public in place of his own original melody.