A speech writer's take on important speeches, and the craft of writing for an audience.
Thursday, November 26, 2009
General McChrystal on Afghanistan
Title: General McChrystal’s Speech on Afghanistan Background: On Tuesday, President Obama will announce his decision on whether to accede to General Stanley McChrystal’s recommendation that an additional 40,000 troops be assigned to Afghanistan.
While General McChrystal made his request to the President through standard military channels, it was this speech that brought the issue to public attention. Speech By: General Stanley A. McChrystal, Commander, International Security Assistance Forces, NATO Date: October 1, 2009 Location: Arundel House - London, United Kingdom Occasion:Special Address - International Institute for Strategic Studies Length (words): 3826 Video Posted:International Institute for Strategic Studies Text Posted:Real Clear Politics
One of the finest traditions of this nation’s military is that active-duty service members do not get involved in political debate. Some observers claimed this speech was a violation of that principle.
This speech may indeed have put political pressure on the President, but it is not overtly political. It details the situation in Afghanistan as the General has found it, makes certain recommendations about how to improve the situation, and even explains why success is important. He is, after all the Commanding General in a theater of military operations against hostile forces. He should be able to make such explanations.
But, at no time does McChrystal demand more troops or other resources, or take issue with policy as set by the White House.
It is laid out with military precision, but that doesn’t mean the speech lacks the elements of a good speech - albeit one being delivered to a public policy organization.
Starting with a preamble, he immediately establishes a shared identification with the audience. He points out his deputy commander is a British Lieutenant General, then goes on to recognize “the enormous sacrifice that families here in the UK have made.” He is, after all, speaking in London.
He then tells his audience, “I will start by posing seven questions before attempting to answer them.” This is an effective way to structure a speech so the audience can follow it - tell the audience what to expect.
To illustrate the complexities of the society in which his troops must operate, he describe the complications which can arise from digging a well for the inhabitants of a village - something he correctly surmises the audience would assume to be an act of generosity for the village in question. This works on two levels - it’s a good way to review a complex situation, plus it gives the audience a clear mental image of what is being described.
It is a fairly long speech, as befits both the complexity and the seriousness of the topic. To help grab the attention of his audience, he employs such classic devices to hold audience attention as challenging generally accepted truths about the topic.
Ultimately, the true measure of success for a speech like this is how the President reacts to it. While General McChrystal’s speech did not publicly challenge the President, he is on the spot politically. Then again, that’s a President’s job. We’ll know if the speech was successful Tuesday night.
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.