A speech writer's take on important speeches, and the craft of writing for an audience.
Wednesday, July 1, 2009
Turning The Lense On Myself
Background: Little of my own speech writing will be examined here. Client confidentiality is respected at all times.
But a sample of my own writing should be on display for all to see - and comment on. A dose of my own medicine - so to speak. This exception is allowed, because it was written by me, for me to deliver.
To become a black belt in Tae Kwon Do, a candidate must prepare a short speech, describing their journey to that point. This task is a challenge for every black belt candidate. Some say, it is the toughest single task in their four years of training. I approached it - from the unique perspective of a speech writer.
Speech By: Tom Shanahan Date: September 17, 2005 Location: Kinderhook Tae Kwon Do Occasion: Black Belt test Length (words): 910 Video Posted:YouTube
A special challenge here was to involve the audience in what is essentially a tale of personal achievement. The other challenge was to get them to pay attention. The essay is delivered as the last task of a demanding physical test which lasts between two and three hours. For the audience, it is the least exciting portion of an exercise which also features sparring, breaking half a dozen boards and a concrete brick, forms and self defense.
The technique I employed to involve the audience was to begin with a shared experience. That was September 11, the same incident which inspired me to study Tae Kwon Do. The attacks still burned fiercely in the consciousness of those in the audience.
To grab their attention, I began by stating something which would sound obviously wrong to the audience. I could feel heads whip in my direction as I started off - “On September 12th, 2001.” How could anyone not know the date is September 11! By the end of the second sentence, I had clarified that it was the day after the attacks to which I referred. But their attention belonged to me.
This is not the kind of occasion that is suitable for a lot of raucous laughter - it’s fairly solemn. But a little gentle humor at the speaker’s own expense is not unwarranted - “Since that awful day, I have given more than a gallon of blood - and that’s just counting what the Red Cross was able to collect.” Not only refers to an additional commitment in the wake of 9/11, but to the idea that pursuit of the martial arts will inevitably result in a certain amount of personal blood loss.
Finally, once full thanks have been made and due tributes rendered, the task of a “kicker,” a final, quick summation, presents itself. I took it as an opportunity to bring the talk full circle, back to the events of 9/11, and, to once more involve the audience in this day’s event: “Will have all of you - to thank for it.”
On September 12th, 2001, I stood on my front porch and watched, as a military helicopter raced desperately across a clear blue sky south towards New York City. And knew - that because of the attacks on our country the day before, it was likely to be the only aircraft I would see in the sky that day. War - had been brought to the shores of our nation.
While taking up arms was not an option, I looked for ways to serve my country. Since that awful day, I have given more than a gallon of blood - and that’s just counting what the Red Cross was able to collect. In the days following the attack, we read about a seeing-eye dog named Roselle, who skillfully guided her blind handler down through 78 floors of smoke and dust and fear, to the safety of the street. So when the Guide Dog Foundation called two weeks later to ask if we would raise another puppy for them, we agreed. “It’s like a patriotic duty for us,” Kate said, and I saw no reason to dispute her. And, because chance truly does favor the prepared mind, I decided to study Tae Kwon Do.
I stand here alone right now, but did not get here by myself.
Most important among the people who guided me to this spot is Kate, who regularly issued the threat - “If you need surgery one more time, you’re going to have to quit Tae Kwon Do!” She never meant it, and nursed me through surgery four times. Thank you for that.
There have been so many others:
Laura, Lisa, Liz and Annie. Female athletes, in a world that too often does not properly recognize women’s athletic accomplishments. Each had the additional impediment of having to overcome injuries - some serious. From them I learned that there are always excuses, but if you ignore the easy way out and keep going, you will reach your goal. I thank each of them for that.
We are taught here that a black belt is something you become, not something you earn. I would dispute that, but only slightly. From what I have seen, a black belt is something you become, and earn. I say this with the confidence which comes from having watched Trevor, Frankie, Dan, and Frank, as they became black belts. Thank you for that example.
A great many faces have passed through the doors of this Do-Jang during my time here. Most of those did not complete the journey to where I stand now. Some were limited by physical infirmities or the time constraints that confront us all in our daily lives. A few, simply did not belong here, and it was truly better for all concerned, when the day came they did not return. But most, simply succumbed to the most potent poison known to humankind - the bitter essence of self doubt. For those of you on the mat today in the lower ranks, my advice is simple - if you ever feel that bitter poison begin to invade, Mister Blair, Mister Gould, and Ms. DeSantis, are here to provide the antidote, as they have for me. Thank you for that.
Let me add a special note of thanks to Mr. Gould, who gave of his own time to run special brush up classes for the black belt candidates.
Shannon, Dana and Bennett - thanks for waiting, so I could have the honor of testing with you this day.
Finally, let me speak of our Sah-Buhm-Nim, Master Jacon and Master McCagg. Frankly, when I first walked through these doors, they seemed to look at me in a way that was eerily similar to the scene from that great baseball movie, The Natural, where the manager meets Roy Hobbs for the first time. Standing in the dugout, Pop Fisher looks at his new player and tells him - “Fella, you don’t start playing ball at your age. You retire!” But I chose instead to take the advice of a real life baseball legend, the great Satchel Paige, who once observed - “Age is simply a question of mind over matter. If you don’t mind, it doesn’t matter.”
When I first came to this academy I knew that with perseverance I would learn the martial arts. What I didn’t understand was how much fun it would be, and, on those days when my schedule, or surgeon, said I couldn’t be here, how much I would miss it. You two are responsible for the atmosphere at this academy, and should be applauded for creating a place where anyone, possessing nothing more than the mere determination to do so, can learn the skills being taught here. I thank you both for that.
In the end, it comes back to that dark September day when the sun shone so mockingly bright above clouds of black smoke which marked where the attacks had been struck. Our nation is still at war, and will likely be so for some time to come. Anything we, as individuals, do to become stronger and better prepared, makes our entire nation that much stronger and better prepared as well. While the odds are better that I will win tonight’s lottery than that I will sit beside some deranged shoe bomber on my next flight to Washington, if it ever does happen that way, it will be the sorriest day in that person’s misbegotten life. And that person will have all of you - to thank for it.
A veteran writer, researcher and lecturer, with more than 25 years experience in politics, political communications, and public relations. I’ve studied speech writing at NYU, and authored a number of published articles on the practice of lobbying as well as topics in American history.
My lecture on the War of 1812: 1812 – Uncle Sam’s First War, is now a lecture in the New York Speakers in the Humanities bicentennial commemoration series.