The improv guru, Keith Johnstone, died earlier this year. I’ve been reading his book Improvisation and the Theatre.

In the first chapter he explains how our interactions are driven by competition for status. Moment by moment in personal interactions, we’re adjusting our status.

This means as speechwriters, our job is usually to create scripts for our speakers to project ‘high status’.

I’ve been thinking about this because I’ve got to write a ‘net zero’ speech this week.

Like everyone else I look up what other leading lights are saying on the subject. Here’s a speech by ┬áChris Hayward, a leader in the City of London, talking at a recent conference.

What do I notice? He’s a good speaker.

I also notice that all these ‘net zero’ speeches mention the same things: the combination of local and global, the importance of innovation, the need to upskill people and the necessity for a just transition.

The same platitudes characterised speeches on globalisation for many years.

The speechwriter has done a good job. There are some elegant three-part lists. The speaker even quotes John Donne and Ernest Hemingway (though he spoils it a bit by getting the title of the book wrong.)

But I can’t help thinking Chris Hayward is speaking fluent ‘corporate’ to assert his status to his foreign delegates.

I’m not sure that he’s talking about any palpable reality.

If one person who didn’t speak ‘corporate’ was to get up and throw a bread roll at him, I would be tempted to join in.

I’m finding the American guru Stewart Brand is a good inspiration on this subject.

He wrote a book on sustainability called The Clock of the Long Now. I was very impressed by the opening paragraph:

Time and Responsibility. What a prime subject for vapid truisms and gaseous generalities adding up to the world for most boring sermon. To spare us both, let me tie this discussion to a specific device, specific responsibility mechanisms, and specific problems and cases. The main problems might be stated, How do we make long term thinking automatic and common instead of difficult and rare? How do we make the taking of long-term responsibility inevitable?

It seems to be you could replace the first three words with any big contemporary issue and then have strong opening paragraph for a speech. The only way these topics become engaging is when the content is specific. And whenever you find those specific examples, you discover that they are riddled with complexity, not the complacent certainty with which these boilerplate net zero sermons are delivered.


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