So here’s a nice question for the new decade that came my way today. Is THIS how I should present myself to my fellow speechwriters?

I’m Charles, I used to be in the Foreign Office a long time ago, but everything has moved on now. I’m really here to listen and learn from the 25-35 year olds who are actually doing it today, but sometimes I think dinosaurs have a contribution to make. I’m a Brexiteer which makes me a pariah in this group, but sometimes it’s good to hear from a splenetic old-timer who’s seen a few things in his time. So here goes…

Be humble. Endearing. Evoke some emotion. Accept openly that for most purposes you’re past it and irrelevantAbove all be VULNERABLE. Hide a deep fear of INCOMPETENCE. Eschew any paternalistic privileged idea that an old diPLODocus like me might know more than people starting out in this business. Avoid overwhelming folks with expertise. Don’t mention the B-word!

And so on.

This suggestion has merit. It shows just the right tone of non-threatening deference to all those younger speechwriters that they rightfully expect, nay demand. How else might their self-validation be accomplished without someone having the temerity to challenge their sheer awesomeness?

The interesting idea here is what is says about ambition. Do speechwriters and speakers separately and when working together aim to be magnificent and inspiring, or is that somehow annoyingly elitist and threatening? Is the right way to be inspiring these days to be ‘humble’ and project a tone of vulnerability?

Take Magnus Carlsen, who ended 2019 as World Champion in Classical (ie long-form) Chess, Rapid (ie fast-form) Chess and Blitz (ie horribly fast-form) Chess. Watch at 4.09 when he is asked how he keeps up his intensity:

“It also helps that I’m better than all the others … It’s the brutal truth. If you’re better than all the others you can afford to take more chances…”

What to make of that? Horrible arrogance? Or studied top-end professional analysis?

In any case, it’s impossible not to admire the iron discipline Magnus shows at the board. Here at 7.30 he blunders at the key moment against a far younger player, 15-year-old Abdusattorov Nodirbek, where each of them have only some 30 seconds(!) left on their respective clocks:

Watch his flash of sheer rage and frustration at his own mistake, yet with seconds left he gathers himself, refocuses, and goes on to secure a hard-fought draw. As he said afterwards:

From Kasparov I learned, in moments of stress, to allow myself quickly to explode and then calm down just as quickly, ie that quality which is absolutely inherent to him. It’s important in particularly stressful periods not to keep your emotions inside.

As for chess grandmasters, so for speechwriters and speakers.

What EXACTLY does it take to be absolutely the best in terms of technique and discipline? The chances of you being the best perhaps are small. Maybe negligible. But don’t you want to know the skills that the very best deploy to reach the summit and cling on there? And if you have some of those skills, do you need to be ‘humble’ about them?

Hence the question I pose anyone who wants me to help with a speech or presentation:

How good do you want to be?

It turns out that not everyone wants to face the responsibility and maybe loneliness of being The Best, and of taking the risks needed to get there. What if I mess up and everyone laughs?

And that’s fine. But if Everest is too much, maybe still aim to reach the top of all the lesser mountains where you feel confident?

Happy New Year.