Category Archives: Speechwriting

The one where my wife gives WWU’s commencement speech and PEOPLE CRY

Here’s the thing: 20 years ago, my wife and I put on black robes and listened to speeches before getting our pigskins from Western Washington University–and exactly a week later, got married.

This summer, we went back so she could put on special black robes and a spiffy hat (seriously, check it out) to give the commencement speech at graduation. NOT TOO SHABBY.

For writerly types, the text of it is below.

I’m obviously biased, but she did a great job of avoiding the usual pitfalls for a commencement speech.

Interesting Thing No. 1: She spoke to the entire audience

Most graduation speeches ignore two thirds of the people there, the ones in the stands who aren’t getting a degree.

Parents, grandparents and loved ones all suffered and sacrificed to make this day possible. They helped pay those insanely high tuition bills, co-signed the loans, sent the care packages and emergency funds when Top Ramen supplies were dangerously low. And this day is almost like a wedding. It’s something every parent dreams about for their kids, so hey, don’t ignore those folks. Talk to them.

Maybe this is why the First Rule of Rhetoric is, “Know your audience.”

Interesting Thing No. 2: It was different

Half of graduation speeches are often full of hopeful phrases and words about how hard students worked, that it’s an honor and privilege to earn this degree and these fine graduates should use their brains and skills to give back and change the world. All good sentiments, just none of it is new or unexpected.

The other half of graduation speeches are often an opportunity for somebody to give a 15 minute speech about their personal story and pet issue, and yes, that issue may be incredibly important and topical. These speeches, though, are often highly political and tend to feel like a lecture, with the speaker telling the audience what to do, and they also tend to age badly. A hot issue this month could be forgotten five years from now.

This speech wasn’t a lecture about a specific issue. It was about the audience, and tried to give them something to chew on for years. Because nobody really has all the answers.

Interesting Thing No. 3: She took the time to connect

It’s quite easy to fall into the trap of speaking at the same rate, volume and emotion, especially when it’s a keynote speech. There’s so much text to get through, so they grip both sides of the podium, stand up straight and focus on reading the words without screwing up.

Maybe they look to the left, right and center in a pattern, since that’s common advice.

Yet when you churn though the text like that, there’s no connection to the audience.

Vini took the time to make that bond, making real eye contact, pausing, slowing down, speeding up, going quieter and louder. Not in a pre-programmed way. Adjusting with the audience, in real time, by making that connection.

You can tell in the first five seconds of a speech if it’s any good, by listening and watching the audience. People stop fiddling with their phones or having side conversations. They lock onto the speaker. And it gets completely quiet, even in a room full of hundreds, or thousands, of people. So when that happened, I was happy to be there for it.

Commencement speech by Vini Elizabeth Samuel

Western Washington University, Summer 2014

As written

 

Good morning … Do you remember the first day of school?

Not here at Western. The very first.

Your mom probably dressed you up that morning.
Your dad might have bought your first lunch box,
THOMAS THE TRAIN or DORA THE EXPLORER.
If you were lucky, BATMAN or WONDER WOMAN.
That first day of kindergarten was probably scary.

Parents tend to cry when they watch their child walk to the classroom for the first time.
Will you do okay? Will you get good grades?
Will you make friends, do well on tests, not eat the glue–or get into fist-fights on the playground?

Later, it’s a different question:
Will you graduate, move out of the house and get into a good college?

See, the thing is your entire life has built up to receive this piece of paper they’re about to hand you.
From the first day of kindergarten
to the last day of high school to this very moment,
you’ve done exactly what every mom and dad dreams about.
We dream about our sons and daughters being good students.

We dream about them getting into a great university like Western
and stay up at night worrying about how to pay for it.
Whether our kids will major in something silly,
or drop out after three years after piling up a mountain of student loans.

We dream about this day–parents and students alike.
It’s the end of the journey that society
–not just in America, but around the world–defines as success.

This is a great achievement you have accomplished.
It should be celebrated, and you should be congratulated.

Most of the kids you went to kindergarten with that first day aren’t standing where you are.
About half of all students who start college don’t finish their degree.
But here’s the thing: up to this moment, you’ve been following a road, difficult,
and something most people can’t accomplish, but well-known.
And here at the end of this road you get this college degree.

So what now?

It’s a cliche for a commencement speaker to say
that you all have incredible potential, to follow your dreams,  or change the world.
Those phrases sound okay on the surface. Yet they don’t really TELL you anything.

I want to be real, and say what somebody should have told me when I sat where you’re sitting back in 1994.
The quick, easy answers aren’t any help.
I don’t have a magic bullet.
I do know some wrong answers and dead ends.

Nobody wants to move back home to their parents’ basement.
Nobody wants to keep working at their college job, waiting tables or pouring lattes or delivering pizzas.
But the answer to what’s next is more than a mansion on a hill.

On my first day of kindergarten, my dream was clear: become a lawyer.
I stole my father’s black socks, cut holes in them and made my Barbie doll into a judge.
Ken was the defendant.
He got convicted and sentenced to prison quite a lot.

A week after graduating from Western,
I married my college sweetheart.
I went to law school, passed the bar exam and now have my own law firm.
We own our home, two cars, a dog, cat and are raising a 12-year-old son
who says Western is the best university ever.
If there’s a checklist, I can mark those big things off.

A good career–a job with health benefits, and retirement–those are perfectly good goals.
But they are not a true PURPOSE.
Saving up and buying a home is also a great goal, especially if you want kids of your own and a back yard for Fluffy.
A career, a home, family–those can be cornerstones of your life.
Yet they aren’t clear destinations or real answers to “what’s next”

For your entire academic life, there’s been clear lines in the road, quarter after quarter, quiz after quiz, test after test.
From here on out, there is no finish line. And there never will be.

Up until today, the world was required to pay attention to you.
Teachers and professor had to read and grade what you wrote, no matter how brilliant or awful it was.
Out in the world, you’re one of six billion people fighting for attention and resources.
Nobody is required to read whatever your write.
Nobody has to tell you how to improve.
Quality and talent don’t automatically win the day anymore.
Exhibit A: Snooki.
Exhibit B: the Kardashians.

Out in the world, there’s no structure, no safety net, no system.

Money and career will consume you for a while, which is natural.

Where will you live? How will you pay rent? Will you get a Joe Job or a real job,
and when will you ever pay off Sallie Mae?

Eventually, though, all those things you own may wind up owning you.
You have to pay for them, protect them and maintain them, forever and ever.
Right now everything you own can probably fit in the back of mom’s Subaru,
and it seems pitiful, but it’s actually good place to know.
It is an opportunity to anchor you.

In ten years, you’ll need to rent a storage unit for all the boxes in your garage
that you haven’t touched in five years and you’ll start to worry
about TV producers from HOARDERS knocking on your door.

So what’s next?

This is what I’ve learned: after college, all those destinations you’ve obsessed about don’t really matter.
What’s next is the wrong question.

The journey – and how you do it – is the fun and interesting part.
It is the best part.

Your greatest joys won’t come from amazing achievements, winning awards or having a great career.
They’ll come from relationships and memories.
From watching your own son on that first day of kindergarten.
From sitting in those stands as your daughter walks onto this stage, shakes the hand of the university president and gets her degree.

So don’t put off all the fun things until after you retire.
See less of the office and more of the world.
Treasure people instead of deadlines.

Ayn Rand got it backwards: the most selfish thing you can do is to be unselfish.
To serve others – your kids and grandparents, your community, your country.

I hope you get the opportunity to see the world,
and to show some of the best parts to your kids and grandkids.
I hope you never stop being curious, reading books, drinking coffee
and asking deep questions about the meaning of life.

And I hope in 20 years, you stand where I am standing.

When the day comes and you reach the summit of whatever mountain you’ve chosen to climb,
and you get to rest, I hope that you have taken not the road less traveled, but a road no one has traveled before.

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It is an honor, and a privilege, to celebrate this moment with you. Congratulations and Godspeed.

A few good posts: 

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This is Guy Bergstrom the writer, not the Guy Bergstrom in Stockholm or the guy in Minnesota who sells real estate or whatever. Separate guys. Kthxbai.

Guy Bergstrom. Photo by Suhyoon Cho.

Reformed journalist. Scribbler of speeches and whatnot. Wrote a thriller that won some award (PNWA 2013). Represented by Jill Marr of the Sandra Dijkstra Literary Agency.

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Filed under 4 Writing Secrets Wednesday, Speechwriting

Why creativity gets squashed like a bug

Oh, everybody says they want something new and creative. But as this article from Slate shows, even places that are supposed by be hotbeds of artistic and creative genius, like magazines and ad agencies, are often machines built to squash the life out anybody who dares think outside the box.

Now, that's creative. I salute you, random dad.

Now, that’s creative. I salute you, random dad.

You see this in so many places.

Newspapers, which I adore, all did the same thing in reaction to the Series of Tubes: “Hey, let’s not let this train pass us by. How about we innovate by doing what every other newspaper is doing. We’ll put all our stories on this Interwebs for free, then money will pour through the windows from all the banner ads.”

They didn’t question the fact that other papers doing this were bleeding more money than Kim Kardashian on a 12-hour shopping spree.

All these newspapers and magazines did the same thing everybody else was doing. But expected different results.

People who thought outside the box, who said (a) make people subscribe to the paper to read it online or (b) don’t put it online at all, because then people won’t subscribe and advertisers won’t advertise and America will lay off 15,000 journalists, well those people got ridiculed as crazy. They weren’t hailed as creative prophets, avoiding doom. They were seen as nuts and the people in charge ignored them.

PETA and the creator of Dilbert, Scott Adams take a different approach. Instead of doing the safe thing, and what everybody else is doing, the guerrillas at PETA and this random nerdy looking man who worked at banks figured out you can’t plan on hitting a grand slam on your only at bat. You can’t even count on hitting a single, or getting the baseball over the plate.

On paper, getting the gall over the plate looks easy.

On paper, getting the gall over the plate looks easy.

Successful creative types are idea hamsters who try dozens, or hundreds, of different things. Because you can’t predict what will be a world-smashing success, and you certainly won’t somehow break through while doing the same thing that 185,892 other people and businesses are doing.

Scott Adams didn’t have a master plan to become a syndicated cartoonist. In his books, he writes about having dozens of long-shot ideas, and that for somebody who couldn’t draw when he started out, being a cartoonist wasn’t exactly a sure thing. He kept swinging for grand slams and kept missing until Dilbert took off.

PETA doesn’t have the bazillion-dollar advertising and marketing budget of corporations like Coke and Ford, or even non-profits trying to cure cancer and such. PETA gets all their publicity from free ink and airtime. Do they guilt magazines, newspapers and blogs into covering their cause? No. They try dozens and dozens of wild, creative long-shot ideas, most of which fail spectacularly. Why? Because the one idea that takes off can get them free press around the world.

I wrote a series of posts about PETA and publicity stunts for about.com, back when The New York Times owned that blog. (Related: I can say that, as a journalist, I cashed checks every month from the NYT, then got fired, though technically all of the contributing writers got axed, so it’s not as romantic as going on strike and getting replaced by the staff of the Lower Kentucky Valley Register, then walking into the editors office and handing in your resignation via a punch to the nose, which every journalist does dream about at one time. I had fun, and they were kind to me, and I learned many things by writing them down.)

Here’s one of those posts showing how PETA makes it happen.

Social media is the other big area where you FEEL like you’re being creative and different, when actually, you’re doing the same thing, oh, about 1 billion other people hooked up to the Series of Tubes are trying to do. Except you’re expecting a radically different result. While that may be magical thinking, it is conventional, safe and boring–not creative.

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This is Guy Bergstrom the writer, not the Guy Bergstrom in Stockholm or the guy in Minnesota who sells real estate or whatever. Separate guys. Kthxbai.

Guy Bergstrom. Photo by Suhyoon Cho.

Reformed journalist. Scribbler of speeches and whatnot. Wrote a thriller that won some award (PNWA 2013). Represented by Jill Marr of the Sandra Dijkstra Literary Agency.

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Filed under Fiction, Romances; also, novels with Fabio covers, Speechwriting, Thrillers and mysteries

Mixed Writing Arts is to writing as MMA is to fighting

Since the dawn of time, writers have spent their lives toiling in their own secret tribes and guilds, each clan claiming to have mastered the One True Art.

  • Copywriters swore their kung fu was far more powerful than that sissy screenwriting nonsense, because if you can’t sell tickets to a movie, the movie doesn’t get made.
  • Working journalists cranking out two stories a day scoffed at poets spending all week on five hippie lines about trees and clouds, while poets saw the mass-production lines of the Priests of the Inverted Pyramid as lacking any sort of soul or art.
  • Romance authors gathered in huge, organized conferences while mystery novelists gathered in small secret groups to put a dent in the global bourbon supply while trading secrets and lies.
  • Speechwriters clutched their tomes with 2,000-plus years of wisdom from Plato, Aristotle, Burke and countless other giants, who were inventing rhetoric and drama and comedy long before Syd Field arrived in Hollywood and Blake Snyder started saving cats.

To me, with a foot in all of these worlds, it felt false.

I got started in journalism and speech, my sister is a screenwriter and I have a great literary agent (Jill Marr!) after writing a novel that won some award.

It hit me, again and again, that I got better as a writer not when focusing like crazy on one thing, but by being exposed to other aspects that often would never have entered my mind as an option. Like hanging out with romance authors and editors, who have made me 100-times stronger as a writer. NOBODY COULD HAVE PREDICTED THAT.

Hear me now and believe me later in the week: There is no one supreme writing art.
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Filed under 4 Writing Secrets Wednesday, 6 Friendly Friday, Fiction, Romances; also, novels with Fabio covers, Speechwriting, Thrillers and mysteries

Watch this rare and beautiful graduation speech – DO IT NOW

Most graduation / commencement speeches put the B in Boring and fall into three categories: (1) standard “go change the world!” blah-blah you’ve heard 20 times before, (2) people trying to be very Deep, and Meaningful, but are mostly Confusing as they push their personal pet thing and (3) speakers trying to be funny when they have no experience or business being funny, ever, if their life depended upon it.

This man avoids all of those pitfalls.

It doesn’t hurt that he’s actually funny, and that he used to write speeches for some woman named Hillary and some dude named Barack.

For the actual words, or as many as exist on the Series of Tubes, here’s a link to the main body of text from the speech in The Atlantic.

Also: We need a similar magazine on the West Coast full of such smart things about literature and politics and life. I say we call it The Pacific.

Also-also: Hat tip to my speechwriter buddy Jen Waldref (on the Twitter: @olywordsmith) for sending this my way. Jen, you rock.

Also-cubed: If you know of an epically bad graduation speech, I’d love to see the text or YouTube clip.

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This is Guy Bergstrom the writer, not the Guy Bergstrom in Stockholm or the guy in Minnesota who sells real estate or whatever. Separate guys. Kthxbai.

Guy Bergstrom. Photo by Suhyoon Cho.

Reformed journalist. Scribbler of speeches and whatnot. Wrote a thriller that won some award (PNWA 2013). Represented by Jill Marr of the Sandra Dijkstra Literary Agency.

3 Comments

Filed under 7 Media Strategy Saturday, Speechwriting

Top 10 Myths of Journalism School

Oh, if I could go back in time, and whisper in the ear of my younger self during journalism school.

Not that I was busy screwing it up. Editor-in-chief of my college newspaper, graduated No. 1 in my class, won a bunch of awards, blah-blah-blah. (Related: Who is this Guy?)

But the traditional things that most journalism students think they SHOULD be doing — well, often those are seven separate kinds of wrong.

And there are other things Serious Journalism Majors scoff at, things that you actually should not only embrace, but hug tightly to your bosom.

So here we go with the Top 10 Myths of Journalism School.

Myth No. 10: Hard news is the only true love of a Serious Journalism Major

Sure, unfiltered Marlboros and Jim Beam come close. But nothing beats a scoop about an amazing scandal. You laugh at people trying to make the words flow for their feature story on dumpster divers, a story packed with all these photos, which are for nancypants who don’t have the stones to write more words.

Here’s the truth: hard news is all about news gathering and using the inverted pyramid, which is a horrible structure for any sort of writing and needs to be taken behind the barn and shot.

Hard news is worthy, and does the public a great service. Yet if all you do is hard news, you won’t truly learn journalism — or how to write.

Related posts:

Myth No. 9: Journalism school will teach you how to write

Once you get that pigskin from j-school, and land your first journalism  gig — at The Willapa Valley Shopper or The New York Times — you’ll go home after 12 hours of banging on the keyboard to stay up past midnight, banging on the keyboard some more while smoking Gallouise Blondes and drinking cheap whiskey sours as you write (a) the next Great American Novel, (b) a Broadway play involving a debutant who falls in love with a struggling young reporter or (c) a Hollywood screenplay about a vast government conspiracy unraveled by an intrepid young intern at CBS.

This will be a lot of fun, and you’ll remember this as being the Best Thing Ever until you’ve been doing it for seven months and turning every draft of your extra-curricular writerly fun into three-point attempts. Also, you will miss this thing we call “sleep” and these other things we call “money in the checking account” and “a social life that does not involve typing on a keyboard chatting with a person who may, or may not, actually exist.”

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Filed under 4 Writing Secrets Wednesday, Journalism, publicity and scandals, Old Media, which is still Big and Strong, Speechwriting, The Twitter, the Book of Face and the Series of Tubes

Writers: Cross-training is essential

Just like “playing professional football” isn’t one solitary skill, but a set of separate skills, you don’t study and practice “writing.”

There are dozens of separate skills involved.

  • Structure and storytelling, which is done best by the screenwriting peoples of Hollywood
  • Hooks and headlines (which you learn from ink-stained journalists and smooth-talking copywriters)
  • Taglines (Hollywood) and pitches (publicity peoples)
  • Speeches, opeds and persuasive writing (the rarely seen speechwriter, often riding fleet unicorns while fleeing from trolls)
  • Small-bore editing (grammar, copy editing and all that)
  • Dialogue (playwrights and novelists)
  • Big-bore editing (destroying a piece with your wicked red pen, then stitching it back together: better, faster, stronger)
  • Design and layout (book designers, cover artists, photographers, web designers)
  • The use and abuse of photos and imagery (photographers, journalists, photo-journalists
  • Publicity, sales and marketing

It’s a lot like the 53-whatever guys who play on a football team. Want to learn how to kick a field goal? Don’t ask the quarterback – bribe the kickers after teasing them about how clean their unis always are.

Need to become a better tackler? Talk to the linebackers. Want to run faster? Work out with the wide receivers and cornerbacks.

Because if you don’t cross-train, you’ll wind up looking silly. Like this.

Same thing with MMA fighters. They’re so well-rounded now, mixing striking with wrestling and ju-jitsu. Nobody who fights for money would think of spending all their time on one skill while ignoring the others, because they would get crushed into powder … and no longer pay the bills as a professional fighter. Delivering pizzas, maybe. Fighting, no. Unlike the bad old days of boxing, there isn’t a market for tomato cans that up-and-coming fighters match up with to pump up their record.

As a writer, I’ve learned the most from cross-training. Journalism and speechwriting are completely different, just like writing screenplays happens on a different planet from writing novels.

You can’t learn the other things while you play around in your favorite sandbox — but the skills you learn from hanging out in other writerly sandboxes has gargantuan payoffs.

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This is Guy Bergstrom the writer, not the Guy Bergstrom in Stockholm or the guy in Minnesota who sells real estate or whatever. Separate guys. Kthxbai.

Guy Bergstrom. Photo by Suhyoon Cho.

Reformed journalist. Scribbler of speeches and whatnot. Wrote a thriller that won some award (PNWA 2013). Represented by Jill Marr of the Sandra Dijkstra Literary Agency.

6 Comments

Filed under 4 Writing Secrets Wednesday, Fiction, Red Pen of Doom, Speechwriting

Build your own Writing Monster (Part 2 of Why critique groups MUST DIE)

Conventional wisdom is conventionally wrong.

Nowhere is this more true than in the fields of writing, social media and publicity — three lands where tradition and mythology rule the day.

Those who haven’t read these posts should start here, so they don’t get all Confused, because this is really Part 2 of Why critique groups MUST DIE.

So: if people listen to this silly blog and (a) stop trying to use Twitter to sell books and (b) go all Michael Bay as they blow up old, obsolete critique groups, what should they do instead?

Get a team. Build your own Writing Monster.

Hopefully, better than one of these.

Now, this is the opposite of a critique group, which is typically people who live in the same area, have the same rough skill level and do essentially the same thing, whether it’s writing romances about Men in Kilts, epic fantasies about elves with lightsabers riding dragons or dark mysteries about haunted detectives who are allergic to razors and brush their teeth with bourbon.

That’s not a team. Those are your buddies, your clones.

Successful authors, actors, pro athletes and other public figures have a team full of world-class specialists: publicists to get free ink and airtime, marketers to sell widgets, trainers to make them look good if paparazzi shoot them on a beach in Maui, minions to handle the scheduling and correspondence, editors to edit their words and speechwriters to, I don’t know, write the speeches. Continue reading

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Filed under 4 Writing Secrets Wednesday, Fiction, Journalism, publicity and scandals, Red Pen of Doom, Speechwriting, The Twitter, the Book of Face and the Series of Tubes