Being First and Being Wrong

The race to be the first news media, blogger, or twitterer to report the news continued apace last Saturday as writers scrambled to report the death of Neil Armstrong, the first man to walk on the moon. Likewise, publishing stories without taking the time to check the facts, while trying to scoop others, remained a reality among some of those running the race.

What did NBC News really prove by being the first to report that Armstrong had died, especially when it reported exceptionally wrong information?

NBC News announced the story ahead of everyone else—but it did so with an incorrect headline on its website, reporting that Astronaut Neil Young had died. Neil Young, of course, is a famous rock singer, songwriter, and guitar player, who had a hit album/CD and single called “Harvest Moon,” in the early 1990s. But he never walked on the moon. And at 66, he’s still going strong on earth, touring this fall with his on-again, off-again band Crazy Horse.

It has always seemed to me that accuracy should be the most important goal of any nonfiction writer, whether he/she is covering the news or writing for any other public outlet. Perhaps being first meant something a few years ago when a writer or news outlet could gain hours or days on others trying to gather the news. Today, though, coming in first in this false race of rapid news reporting proves nothing when the best you can do is beat your competitors—many of whom probably are not actually participating in the race with you—by a few minutes, at best, and when what you report is wrong.

Being first should always take a backseat to being correct.

A Small Step and a Giant Leap

Photo: NASA

With last Saturday’s death of Neil Armstrong, the first man to walk on the moon, I began wondering who wrote the now-famous line Armstrong said on July 20, 1969, as he placed the first human foot on the moon’s surface: “That’s one small step for man, one giant leap for mankind.” I assumed the statement was not spontaneous, that it was, instead, written by a PR or communications person at NASA, perhaps months before the launch, to make sure the first moon-based words were memorable.

Everyone seems to agree that the words didn’t come to Armstrong just as he stepped off the lunar module. But it turns out that the answer to who wrote one of the world’s most famous statements is not so easily determined.

Armstrong maintained that he composed the phrase in his mind after the spacecraft landed on the moon and before he took the first moonwalk. But a now-retired British engineer, Gary Peach, who worked in a satellite tracking station in Australia during the flight, claims to have made it up before the launch. He says he did not want the first words to be about the moon’s dust. He is quoted by as saying, “I thought, being Americans, they might say: ‘Holy chicken s**t look at all that f***ing dust’. I felt that would not be a suitable thing to be quoted in history books until eternity.”

The history books do now, and will continue to, quote what Armstrong said—maybe. The exact phrase, however, is still being debated. Most people think he said, “That’s one small step for man, one giant leap for mankind.” That’s what it sounded like to the millions of people who watched the landing on TV, to the engineers and scientists at NASA, and to dozens of reporters there, many who were so concerned about getting the quote correct that they gathered later to discuss what they heard and to come up with a consensus so they would all report it the same way.

What both Armstrong and Peach claim to have composed is slightly different from the official statement. They have said their statements have an “a” before the word “man,” making it read as “That’s one small step for a man, one giant leap for mankind.”

That’s certainly what Armstrong meant to say, contends everybody involved. Whether or not he did will probably never be known. In later years, Armstrong said that he may have left the “a” out of the statement. But audio experts who have listened to the tape, even within the past few years, are not sure. The static blocks out the letter, but the tape could contain a microsecond of space between the preceding and succeeding words, indicating that the single-letter word was actually said, but not heard.

Most people also agree that there is a significant difference between the meaning of the two statements. The composed statement means that one man made the step that represents mankind’s giant leap. The quote, on the other hand, says that mankind took both the step and the leap, a phrase that does not compare the action of one man to that of all humanity.

People seem to know what Armstrong meant and have never questioned what he actually said. So it may seem to some as if it doesn’t matter what he uttered as he stepped off the ladder onto the surface of the moon. But those of us working in business communications know that the words we put in (and leave out) of our statements and documents determine the messages our audiences will actually construct from what we’ve written. If we want to be understood correctly, we need to write carefully.

A Tale for Ducks and an Apostrophe for Cucumbers

I saw these incorrect signs this summer while in Wisconsin, the first at a favorite petting farm we have visited for years and the second at the outstanding Dane County Farmers’ Market in Madison.

A Book Review: 10 Steps to Writing a Vital Speech

Fletcher Dean is a speechwriter—he gets paid for writing speeches for other people, a profession that dates back about 2,500 years to Protagoras, who is noted as being the first to charge a fee for writing a speech for another person.

Protagoras’ bold act provoked scandal among the Greeks, who thought speakers should write their own speeches, an idea that still exists among many modern Americans, except those such as presidents and business leaders who actually have to give those speeches, and the few who are lucky enough to get to write them. I’m among the lucky, having written hundreds of speeches in my career.

Today, few people write their own speeches. The task of drafting memorable and moving presentations, as well those that put audiences to sleep, typically falls on speechwriters—sometimes experienced writers, but often writers with little training for the chore at hand.

Fortunately, for those struggling to make their leaders sound human, intelligent and likable, Dean is more than a speechwriter. He’s also the author of a highly informative and useful book on speechwriting, 10 Steps to Writing a Vital Speech: The Definitive Guide to Professional Speechwriting. This is a book I recommend and one that will sit on my shelf along with three other books on speechwriting, as well as books of John F. Kennedy’s and Winston Churchill’s speeches, a book of the world’s greatest speeches and one on speech criticism.

In a short 113 pages, Dean, who over the years has written many speeches for leading business people and politicians, covers his 10 steps thoroughly and provides information that will guide both the novice and the experienced speechwriter in preparing successful speeches.

Step 10: Helping Your Speaker Succeed.

I’ll begin with Dean’s last step because for anyone thinking of becoming a speechwriter just because he/she likes to write, it offers a lot to think about. First, being a speechwriter—if done correctly—is not just being a writer, Dean points out. You have to be a researcher, gathering information not only about the topic, but also about the audience. You have to be a counselor, telling “the speaker what’s required to be successful.” You have to be a speaking coach, a script master, fashion consultant, and event manager. Most of these roles have little or nothing to do with putting words on paper—which is what most of us think someone with the word writer in his/her title would do—but each plays an important task in making the speech successful.

Dean’s point here is important.

But I must admit there are plenty of people who write speeches who have never had the opportunity to perform any of these tasks besides writing. They are told by their boss to write a speech for one of the business’s leaders, told what the subject is, and given a few points that must be covered. They write it, hand it off, and can only guess how it is received by either the speaker or the audience. This happens to most people at the beginning of their speechwriting careers, and often to outside writers called in to write a speech because no one inside the company can do it.  But it’s far from the ideal way of being a speechwriter. The ideal way is what Dean correctly describes in the other nine steps in his book.

Step 1: Know Thy Audience.

As Dean makes clear, speechwriting is not just doing a little topic research and then typing away until you’ve said what you want to say about it. First, you need to find out as much about the audience as possible, including age; gender; racial, ethnic, cultural, and educational backgrounds; beliefs and attitudes in general and about the specific subject and the speaker. The purpose of knowing the audience, as Dean says, is to make the people who hear the speech “feel like it was written and delivered just for them.”

Step 2: Aim First, Then Shoot—Targeting Your Words.

“When it comes to writing effective speeches, the message is paramount,” Dean says. “And yet, so few writers actually go through a formal process of identifying not only what the message is, but what they want the message to do.” He says that knowing the audience is key to targeting the message because speakers can generally achieve only five levels of communications possibilities with their audiences: inform, create understanding, reinforce values, change attitudes, or elicit action. And what they can achieve depends on the audience.

Step 3: What Are You Going to Say? Finding the Right Material.

“The object during this phase is not to collect the most material,” Dean says. “Instead, you should focus on gathering the most useful material in the most efficient manner.” He provides a few helpful suggestions for doing so.

Step 4: Tell Me a Story.

“People react only so much to data and logic,” Dean says. “What really influences them is when they get information that hits them where they think and where they feel. And you can only do that with stories.” He lists some of the types of stories that work in speeches, where to find stories, how to use them, and what is for me the key to this step: the benefits of storytelling in your speeches.

Step 5: To Show or Tell: When to Use PowerPoint.

Step 9: Now Picture This: The Right Way to Use PowerPoint.

Together, these two steps help you decide whether, when, and how to use a slide presentation during the speech. Many speeches—in fact, I’d say most of them—work best without a slide presentation, especially if you are writing for a senior leader. Seldom, for example, will you see President Obama or other politicians use PowerPoint.

Step 6: Sign, Sign, Everywhere a Sign: How to Lead Your Audience.

In another of the key steps for me, Dean talks about the need for structuring your speech. Between the speaker and the audience are often lots of distractions (he calls them “noise”). Among these distractions are talking and shuffling audience members, ringing and buzzing cell phones, cultural and demographic differences between the audience and the speaker. This noise makes it difficult for the listener to really understand the message. One of the most important ways to reduce the noise “is how you structure the speech,” Dean says. “Structure is immensely important because it gives your talk a framework that allows the audience to follow along.” He gives several examples of structure that should help most speechwriters.

Step 7: More Structure and (finally!) Words.

Dean discusses the familiar speech structure: opening, body and closing, as well as a seemingly more complicated, but highly effective, structure known as Monroe’s Motivations Sequence. And he talks about writing for the ear, as a speechwriter should do, rather than writing for the eye. He makes this point: “Simple words, simple phrases and simple sentences rule the day when writing for the ear.”

Step 8: Say It Simple, But Say it With Style.

Dean emphasizes in this step that no one really wants to hear a speech. “People want direction. They need motivation and inspiration. They often beg for information.” But, he says, they don’t want to sit and listen to the speech you’ve written. That’s why it’s your duty to make that speech as “warm, personal, clear and engaging” as possible. The key to doing this is editing, he says. He recommends that the writer go through a hard copy of the speech “to catch all the language and phrasing that gets in the way of the message,” to simplify the speech wherever possible, and to make the language exciting and fresh. He provides suggestions for doing this.

If you want to become a speechwriter or want to be a better speechwriter, you’ll benefit from reading Fletcher Dean’s 10 Steps to Writing a Vital Speech: The Definitive Guide to Professional Speechwriting. 

A Quote from Abraham Lincoln

When I get ready to talk to people, I spend two-thirds of the time thinking what they want to hear and one-third thinking about what I want to say.

This quote from Abraham Lincoln is noted in Fletcher Dean’s new book on speechwriting: 10 Steps to Writing a Vital Speech, which I will review in my post on Monday, August 20.

Whether or not Lincoln spent that much time thinking about his audience, one needs only look at the Gettysburg Address to see how much he understood the people who would hear his speech—a key component of the success of any speech, then as now.

The other speaker that day in November 1863 was Edward Everett, who gave the official “Gettysburg Address,” the name Lincoln’s speech inherited only after the event. Everett’s speech was about two-hours long, typical for the times.

Although, it’s almost impossible for us to believe today, reportedly, he kept the attention of his audience—mostly by recounting, step-by-step, the battle that had taken place on that site a few months earlier. Today, most audiences get fidgety in about 15 minutes, shuffling in their seats, reading email, texting, and checking the time.

Few of us remember anything Everett said at Gettysburg. Many have never even have heard of him.

Lincoln, on the other hand, spoke for only two or three minutes, never mentioning the battle. Garry Wills says in his book on the speech, Lincoln at Gettysburg: The Words That Remade America” that in 272 or so words, Lincoln “wove a spell that has not, yet, been broken—he called up a new nation out of the blood and trauma.”

Wills, who has described the Gettysburg Address as a masterpiece, notes that in it “Lincoln had proved to himself and others the virtues of economy in the use of words,” another good lesson to be learned by speechwriters and others who write.