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Book Excerpt: The Speeches We Keep in Our Heads

Peggy NoonanPeggy Noonan is a former television writer and presidential speechwriter who has gained reknown as an author, conservative political commentator, and contributing editor of The Wall Street Journal. The speeches she wrote for President Ronald Reagan were widely admired for their effectiveness and contributed to his reputation as "The Great Communicator." This excerpt is taken with permission from her 1998 book, Simply Speaking.


Your own style can be hard to find, your true sound difficult to locate. It takes time. And it's delicate. You're pursuing self-awareness while fighting off self-consciousness. You have to really look at what you've written, really hear what you say and realize, "Oh, that's how I sound." But you have to keep self-consciousness at bay, because self-consciousness makes you change your style. It often makes you imitate how other people sound. But you don't want to sound like other people. You want to sound like you, only a better, clearer you.

When you are writing a speech you can complicate the process and make things more difficult for yourself by thinking about the famous speeches you keep in your head.

There are many great speeches that we all know, or know parts of. Some are in our memories from school, such as Lincoln's second inaugural. Some are in our heads from the media, from the playing and replaying each year of Dr. King's speeches on Martin Luther King Day. Because I admired Bobby Kennedy and I had the retentive brain of a seventeen-year-old when he died, I think sometimes of Ted Kennedy's beautiful eulogy -- "Those of us who loved him, and who take him to his rest today..."

There are famous speeches from presidents and others, and we know them so well we know the words that precede and follow the famous phrases:

"Ask not what your country can do for you..."

"I have a dream..."

"Old soldiers never die..."

These are all wonderful, and have made their mark on history.

But they each and all came from moments of high state, of great political consequence, and were spoken by famous leaders. And while it is good to be inspired by these speeches, to know them and love them, it is not good to be daunted by them, to think, "This isn't as good as Kennedy's inaugural, I might as well throw in the towel." And it is not good to attempt to imitate them, for you will wind up sounding like the mayor of Springfield on The Simpsons: "Let the word go fawth in this time and place that the tawch has been passed to a new generation of, uh, snow plowers." The mayor of Springfield, in case you're not a Simpsons fan, is a buffoon.

Most of us are not great leaders speaking at great moments. Most of us are businessmen rolling out our next year's financial goals, or teachers at a state convention making the case for a new curriculum, or nurses at a union meeting explaining the impact of managed care on the hospitals in which we work. And we must have the sound appropriate to us.

Great political speeches tend to have a formality, a certain stentorian sound that is expressed in stately old formulations such as "My fellow citizens... " and "our children, and our children's children" and the exhortatory "Let us..."

"Let us go forth to lead the land we love," which is what JFK said at the end of his inaugural; "Let us bind the nation's wounds," which every president since Lincoln has said.

"Let us..." is a fine old formulation, but like the others it is best left to fine old presidents. Used by nonpresidents and nonleaders it sounds silly.

So hold the lettuce.

Your style should never be taller than you are.

Still, there are things we can learn from the speeches we keep in our heads.

There is often an unadorned quality to sections of great speeches, a directness and simplicity of expression. One reason is that great speeches are composed with concentration, with seriousness: The speaker is so committed to making his point, that being understood and capturing the truth he means to capture, that falseness and furbelows fall away. The result is a striking simplicity and clarity.

While you keep the words of presidents and kings stored in your memory bank, there are some other famous words I want you to put in, if they're not there already, because we can learn something from them.

Stop here and go out and rent The Godfather, Part II. In the middle of that movie, you will find a speech that is one of the most famous of our time, and that a lot of people keep parts of in their heads. (If I were making a compendium of great speeches of the latter half of the twentieth century I would include it.)

It is the speech spoken by the actor Lee Strasberg, who played the part of Hyman Roth, a character inspired by the old gangster Meyer Lansky.

Strasberg was for many years the leader of the Actors Studio, which famously promulgated certain theories of acting that came to be derided by some classicists and Shakespeareans. Whatever your views on the Method, I think Strasberg's work in this film singlehandedly redeemed the Studio from years of... well, Ben Gazzara's kitchen sink macho and Kim Stanley's tremulo lippolo in movies like The Actress .

I'm digressing. BUT it's not so bad to get people seeing pictures of Ben Gazzara in an undershirt and Kim Stanley in a car.

Here is Lee Strasberg's great speech, given as Hyman Roth stood, weak and furious, before cold-eyed Michael Corleone:

There was this kid I grew up with. He was younger than me, sort of looked up to me, you know. We did our first work together, worked our way out of the street. Things were good, we made the most of it. In Prohibition we ran molasses into Canada, made a fortune -- your father too.

As much as anyone I loved him and trusted him.

Later on he had an idea: to build a city out of a desert stopover for GIs on the way to the coast.

That kid's name was Moe Green. And the city he invented was Las Vegas.

This was a great man, a man of vision and guts. And there isn't even a plaque or a signpost or a statue of him in that town.

Someone put a bullet through his eye. No one knows who gave the order. When I heard it, I wasn't angry. I knew Moe, I knew he was headstrong, talking loud, saying stupid things. So when he turned up dead, I let it go.

And I said to myself, This is the business we've chosen. I didn't ask who gave the order. Because it had nothing to do with business.

You have two million in a bag in your room. I'm going in to take a nap. When I wake, if the money's on the table I'll know I have a partner. If it isn't I'll know I don't.

That man's name was Moe Green. And the city he invented was Las Vegas.

When Mario Puzo and Francis Ford Coppola wrote those words they thought they were writing dialogue, a theatrical speech of a major character. But... they were writing a great speech.

It is simple, unadorned, direct, declarative. There isn't anything in it that is "eloquent," and yet taken as a whole it is deeply eloquent: It tells you something big in an unforgettable way. There is in it no obvious, signaled rhythm, and yet if you read it aloud you will find in it the beautiful, unconscious rhythm of concentrated human speech. There are no phrases that seem to attempt to conjure up pictures, and yet when you hear it you imagine a Moe Green and see the dusty nothingness of early Las Vegas.

It is simplicity that gives the speech its power. Each word means something and each seems to inevitably follow the word that precedes it and summon the word that follows. And so a kind of propulsion is created: It moves forward, and with good speed.

One of the great things about this speech is that as you hear it you realize that for the first time you're hearing what Hyman Roth really thinks. The plain and unadorned quality of his words signals this. And we pick the signal up because we have gained a sense in our lives that true things are usually said straight and plain and direct.

Most of the important things you will ever say or hear in your life are composed of simple, good, sturdy words. "I love you." "It's over." "It's a boy." "We're going to win." "He's dead."

These are the words of big events. Because they are big you speak with utter and unconscious concentration as you communicate them. You unconsciously edit out the extraneous, the unneeded. (When soldiers take a bullet they don't say, "I have been shot," they say, "I'm hit."

Good hard simple words with good hard clear meanings are good things to use when you speak. They are like pickets in a fence, slim and unimpressive on their own but sturdy and effective when strung together.

(The only bad thing about the Hyman Roth speech is that young Hollywood producers often quote it, changing "This is the business..." to "This is the life we have chosen." It is their way of ironically noting that Hollywood is a tough place. But in this they seem to me like the young men and women of Wall Street and Capitol Hill who use the language of war -- holding positions, closing fronts, calling in air cover, making strategic retreats -- to talk about business deals and legislation. When I hear them I sometimes wince because they remind me of how I spoke when I was twenty-five, for I too appropriated the metaphors of others. What had I done to earn the right to the metaphors? Not much. That's why I used them. Pascal said doctors wear tall hats because they can't cure you. Kids starting out talking like veterans because they're not. The reason I'm on this small rant is: When you adopt the language of others it usually doesn't make you seem more like them but less. It highlights the differences. It's like wearing a sign that says, "I'm talking big because I'm small." So don't do it. Because you're not small. You're just young. Be patient, the metaphors of your life will come, and you will earn them.)

Another thought on the words you choose when you write. It is not good to flee a longer, more demanding or more unusual word when you write if it is the right word, the one you first thought of naturally as you formulated your thought. If you feel it is the right word, use it. Your don't have to dumb it down. But never strain for a long or demanding word if it does not present itself naturally. If a plain word presents itself first, take that.

An example of the power of plain words:

In late 1996 the writer Tom Wolfe made a speech in New York in which, according to a Talk of the Town piece in the New Yorker, he raised doubts about the spirit and assumptions of modern science. He quoted Nietzsche and questioned whether science would not ultimately destroy its own foundations. As Wolfe summed up his argument, reporter Jay Fieden wrote, "Wolfe's voice dropped to a stage whisper; 'Suddenly I had a picture in my mind of the whole fantastic modern edifice collapsing and man suddenly dropping -- stricken! -- into the primordial ooze. And he's there floundering around, and he's treading ooze and wondering what's going to become of himself. And suddenly something huge and smooth swims underneath him and boosts him up. He can't see it! He doesn't know what it is! But he's very much impressed. And he gives it a name: God.'"

This is the right stuff. You could never, in an audience, not listen to this, not hear it. Its driving-forward rhythm communicates the speaker's excitement. You can also see it in the swiftness of his imagery -- edifice collapsing, man dropping, force lifting. But for me the power of Wolfe's style is seen in two simple words: huge and smooth.

A less gifted writer, knowing he was about to introduce God, would have employed big, godlike words -- incredibly vast, colossal. But huge and smooth made me think as I read (and would have made me think as I heard) of a submarine, and then of a big hand -- God's big hand. Which I saw once he got to the word God.

Only a confident communicator, one who knows he can use the word he's thinking, the word that came naturally to him, can talk like that.

Let me make a last point about words and the power of simplicity. (I am asking you to let me out of respect, and also letting you know that if I'm boring it will be over soon.)

When I was a teenager I used words like "coruscatingly" and "obfuscate" and "ameliorate." They are good words and I still use them, but not as much. The reason is connected to what I said about young Hollywood producers and the Hyman Roth speech.

It's that when you are young and life is less packed with events, history, knowledge and experience, your vocabulary is often more elaborate, as if to make up for the lack. You want to show that you're alive to the bigness of adulthood and its thoughts.

As you grow older and life itself becomes more elaborate and complex, you find yourself using simpler words. And this is not only because your brain cells are dying. It is also, for some of us, because you have grown used to life, even comfortable with it, and understand that it comes down to essentials, that the big things count and the rest is commentary, and that way down deep in the heart of life's extraordinary complexity is... extraordinary simplicity.

I think that to achieve true adulthood is to understand the simplicity of things. We're locked in a funny arc, most of us, in terms of what we know. When you are goony and fourteen years old you think the most important thing in life is love. Then you mature, become more sober and thoughtful, and realize the most important thing in life is achieving, leaving your mark -- making breakthroughs in the field of science, or winning an Academy Award in recognition of a serious body of work, or creating security for yourself and your family through having a good house and sending your kids to good schools. And then you get old and realize... the most important thing in life is love. Giving love to others and receiving it from God. All the rest, the sober thoughtful things, are good and constructive... but love is the thing. The rest is just more or less what you were doing between fourteen and wisdom.

The language of love is simple, it is simplicity itself. The great novelist Edith Wharton noted this when she talked about romantic love. She said that no matter what the gift of the writer, whether genius or dunce, the language of love letters is always the same: "I love you, I love you, my darling, you are so wonderful...."

The language of love is simple because love is big. And big things are best said, are almost always said, in small words.

All right, let's cool off and get back to politics.

Here is another speech to keep in mind as you write, for it too is marked by lovely simplicity.

The best speech at the Democratic National Convention in 1996 was not Bill Clinton's or Al Gore's but that of the actor Christopher Reeve. Reeve's speech promised to be memorable, if only for the moving sight of a paralyzed man in a wheelchair gallantly addressing a throng from a stage. But it was a truly impressive speech because in it he said things that he believed to be true, and said them in a strikingly simple way.

Listen:

Over the last few years we've heard a lot about something called family values. And like many of you I've struggled to figure out what that means. But since my accident I've found a definition that seems to make sense. I think it means that we're all family, and that we all have values. And if that's true, if America really is a family, then we have to recognize that many of our family are hurting.

He was talking about how he was thinking about a great question, who we are and what we owe each other. And though "hurting" in this context is one of those horrid boomer clichés, Reeves could get away with it.

... One of the smartest things we can do about disability is invest in research that will protect us from disease and lead to cures. This country already has a long history of doing that.

He is asking for money but doing it graciously: We need more, but then giving is an American tradition.

During my rehabilitation I met a young man named Gregory Patterson. When he was innocently driving through Newark, New Jersey, a stray bullet from a gang shooting went through his car window right into his neck, and severed his spinal cord. Five years ago he might have died. Today because of research he's alive. But merely alive is not enough. We have a moral and economic responsibility to ease his suffering and prevent others from experiencing such pain. And to do that, we don't need to raise taxes. We just need to raise our expectations.

He is painting a picture; you're seeing it as he's saying it. He makes a point to call Patterson innocent because he wants you to know this wasn't some lowlife gangbanger but a person like you, and that it could happen to you.

At the end of this section he will say, and will say again, "This is not a partisan exhortation." Now, the canny Reeve is a very partisan fellow, the former head of the left-liberal Creative Coalition, but he knows that sometimes the best way to be effectively partisan is to be rhetorically nonpartisan.

...On the wall of my room when I was in rehab was a picture of the space shuttle blasting off, autographed by every astronaut now at NASA. On top of the picture it says, "We found nothing is impossible." That should be our motto. Not a Democratic motto, not a Republican motto, but an American motto. Because this is not something one party can do alone. It's something we as a nation must do together.

So many of our dreams at first seem impossible. Then they seem improbable. And then, when we summon the will, they soon become inevitable....

This was rousing.

The whole speech was rousing. Part of the reason: his language was so simple and plain, his sentences were like sentences in conversation, short and to the point. Because of the nature of his injury, Reeve cannot breathe without assistance. He has to pause and take in air from a tube; as he speaks he exhales. And so his sentences and phrases had to be short and sharp, no words could be wasted, he didn't have time for show-off stuff. Each word had its own weight and dropped like a smooth coin.

Keep this in mind as you write.

By the way, on "painting pictures:" I think it is natural to humans but particularly natural today, in a media-saturated environment, for people to be doing two or three things while they're listening. I watch TV and read newspapers at the same time. My son monitors The X-Files and draws illustrations for the fourth-grade sports newspapers at the same time. This may not be good, but I suspect it's true of a lot of us. So when you stand and speak it is good, if you can, and if it is appropriate to what you're saying, to give people the outlines of a picture that they can fill in with their imaginations as you speak. Like a fellow who was driving through Newark and was shot in the neck.

If you don't, they will probably come up with their own pictures and imaginings, which may not have anything to do with what you're trying to say.

Excerpt from Noonan, Peggy. Simply Speaking. New York: ReganBooks, 1998, pp. 46-57. Used with permission.



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