Why Speechwriters Must Make an Effort to Understand
When I was 15 years old, a prominent Australian Judge stood between me and another student. In his hand, facing each of us, was a twenty-cent coin. He asked me, “What do you see?” I said heads. He asked the other student the exact same question. They said tales.
This took place at the State Championship for Schools Conflict Resolution and Mediation (SCRAM). Think of it as like a debating competition. Teams from different schools go head-to-head, except, rather than debating, the skills assessed are mediation skills. You help squabbling parties reconcile their differences to find a way forward and the best team at mediation wins.
This prominent judge, Sir Laurence Street, then asked, “Well who’s right and who’s wrong?” Before telling us, it was our job as a mediator to help both parties understand that there are two sides to every coin.
The whole encounter lasted a couple of minutes, yet the message was so powerful it has stayed with me ever since. That message is that you can think you are categorically correct but it’s merely because you are seeing something completely different to your opponent.
It is something I often re-visit, something that strongly guides me, as a speechwriter. Because I know, as a speechwriter, I can’t convince someone to see heads if I don’t first understand why they see tails.
It was along these lines that a wonderful colleague in the United States, David Murray, wrote his recent book An Effort to Understand: Hearing One Another (and Ourselves) in a Nation Cracked in Half.
Along with another colleague in Canberra, we recently hosted a talk with David to discuss his book and its important message. I think the audience walked away with many great insights, but, for me, what resonated most strongly is that now is not the time for communicators to stir the pot. As David says in his book, “The animals are already stirred up.”
He’s right. Have you checked your social media feeds lately? Social issues are causing so much debate and division. Battle lines are drawn. You are either on one side or the other. You are either looking at heads or you are looking at tails. This doesn’t leave much room for middle ground, for understanding.
There are two things making the situation even more divisive: social media algorithms and the human brain.
Social media algorithms are engineered to give you more of what you like. In other words, if you get your news from your social media accounts, even if that news is from well-known media outlets, you have a very narrow view of the world. Social media is not designed to help you see the bigger picture, understand world issues in context. Rather, social media is engineered to centre around you. It’s your little world, presented as the whole wide world.
Now overlay that with the human brain, which is also designed to reinforce your existing values and beliefs. The human brain is so efficient at it that it discredits any information that challenges what you already think. There’s other things at play, too: the brain’s Reward and Threat system and our brain’s response when our identity is attacked or when we are shamed.
It’s no wonder why we see such heated debates on social media, with both sides thinking they are categorically correct.
What does this mean for leaders and speechwriters?
I think we should refrain from joining heated debates, from throwing hand grenades and choosing a side.
We must be more understanding, more empathetic, more self-aware.
So, the next time you feel yourself getting riled up, the next time you want hit that keyboard and scream that the answer is heads, the next time you want to write that speech that tears shreds off the other side, stop. Pause. Take a breath. Make an effort to understand.
We’re all looking at the same coin, just from different sides. If you want people to see what you do, first understand why it is that they see it differently. It’s no good making unnecessary enemies in the process of trying to change opinions. Speechwriters must come from a place of understanding, not judgement.