In April the news was on Twitter, on the websites of ministries, in the magazine Adformatie: three Dutch speeches win an American Cicero Award. That sounds impressive. Beautiful speeches too, so it is obvious that they are worth a price. But what did they win? What is a Cicero Award? Cicero Awards are invented by American entrepreneur David Murray and his organization Vital Speeches of the day. With this worldwide competition for speechwriters, Murray cleverly plays on our smouldering need for recognition. His motto is “An ovation of your own”, followed by “Get the recognition you deserve.” The prize is not for the speech, not for the speaker, but for the speech writer.
Money makes the world go round, especially in the United States, so participating costs between 150 and 250 dollars. But then there are 42 (!) Prizes to be awarded in 41 different categories, with one main prize, the Grand Award. All those 42 winners may call themselves a Cicero Award winner. And that’s exactly what most winners do. On their website, on their business card, in every email they send. You can also purchase the Recognition Package: for a mere $ 275 you get an extra certificate, a trophy and a license to use the Cicero Award logo.
Of course you are proud when you win. Of course you want everyone to know about it. Certainly freelance speechwriters can use some advertising. But who did you actually win from? Murray has so far never wanted to share how many entries there are each year and / or how many entries per category. So you might win from fifty others, but also from no one at all. And then you have to share the honour with forty more winners – every year. One of my colleagues said that next year she will also participate “because everyone has a Cicero Award” …
A few years ago David Murray gave the winner of the Grand Award the title: the best speechwriter in the world. That is quite a claim. Certainly because the Cicero Award does not go to the best speech in the world – and how would you judge that? – but to the best speech among an unknown number of entries. Speeches that are submitted by the writers, not by the public.
And then there is the other, the ethical question: can you publicly put your name under a speech that you have written for someone else? A speech that is often based on the personal stories of that speaker, his or her thoughts and ideas, written in his or her style?
In the Netherlands we often talk about ‘the magic of the speechwriting profession’. By that we mean that it is more beautiful – more magical – if the audience is convinced that the speakers themselves have written their own speech. That has everything to do with our very Dutch desire for authenticity. Being your own – stuttering and stammering – self. After all, being normal is crazy enough… That is why there was a secretary of state who – to the great astonishment of his speechwriter – claimed that he always got up at five o’clock in the morning to write his own speeches. That is why there was a prime minister who insisted that he wrote all his speeches himself and even had them bundled in a book, without even thanking his speechwriters in small print. That is why there was a former minister who gave a beautiful lecture on the art of speechwriting on television and forgot to mention that he had mastered the art of hiring a good speechwriter.
But does that magic still exist? Of course many people still react surprised and a little disappointed when I tell what I do for a living. No, they do not really write those speeches themselves …. And in the meantime we all know: JFK had Ted Sorensen, Reagan had Peggy Noonan, Obama had Stephen Krupin. And in the Netherlands, all cabinet ministers and CEOs have speechwriters, often more than one. Can we not stop being so secretive about it? Working with a speechwriter to ensure that you have a fascinating speech with respect for your audience is no more than professional. If our ministers and CEOs, politicians and administrators simply admit that they employ a speechwriter, and then tell each other who these wonderful people are. Just among themselves, during that power breakfast, that work lunch, that business dinner. Speechwriters can then stop filling their website with pricy Cicero Awards. Speechwriters who yearn for recognition and work can then stop filling the pockets of an American organization. And the magic will continue to exist.
I have worked as a speechwriter for more than twenty years, first at various ministries, now for almost thirteen years as an independent professional. I also trained hundreds of Dutch speechwriters. That makes me the last one to question the achievements of my Dutch colleagues: our country is bursting with excellent speechwriters. I have never won a Cicero Award myself. So I understand that people can see this piece as ill-concealed envy. Frankly, I never entered the competition. I think my customers would not appreciate it if I submitted a speech that I wrote for one of them.
But of course I understand the need for good advertising, and certainly the need for recognition. But there are other ways to achieve that.
For example, go to the meetings of our European Speechwriters Network where you can tell your colleagues proudly about that wonderful sentence, that beautiful anecdote, that moving story, that flowed out of your pen. Or you can participate in a speech battle, a writing contest where you submit your own speech under your own name. For fun, for the honour, for recognition. The Flemish-Dutch House for Culture and Debate De Buren organizes a speech battle every six months, alternately in Brussels and The Hague. A jury will select the best three that will then be read out by an actor. The public votes who wins. And that’s how it should be.
Because speechwriting is and will always be ‘the dark profession’: we stay in the background to write speeches for people on the foreground. Of course we can talk and write about our beautiful profession, about the rules and curiosities of rhetoric, but not about our speakers and ‘our’ speeches. I would like to honour that magical side of our profession. But it would be very nice if our speakers start to admit that they need our help, that they need us to do better what they do best. That is what being authentic is all about. That pat on the back, that recognition, that would be really magical. No Cicero Award can compete with that.
Speechwriter and trainer
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