For one week, not writing but speaking

It’s been an exhausting but satisfying and edifying week. I spent all of it speaking, rather than writing, and I learned a lot about the difference.

I) The written word

The occasion was my Special Report on “Democracy in California”, which was on the cover of the previous issue of The Economist, a cover as cheeky as one might expect of us (see above). The cover of the actual report (which is an insert of 11,000 words, eight chapters) looks like this:

It’s my fifth Special Report (we used to call those things “Surveys”). I usually urge people to read a Special Report on paper, or as a PDF, because it is really one single narrative, with each chapter leading to the next and none meant to be read in isolation. Online readers often land on one chapter and don’t realize it is part of something bigger.

Here are the chapters:

  1. The People’s Will
  2. Direct Democracy: Origin of the Species (I had the most fun with this one)
  3. Proposition 13: War by Initiative
  4. Stateside and abroad (this is a short box comparing other states and countries)
  5. California’s Legislature: The withering branch
  6. Education: A lesson in mediocrity
  7. How voters decide: What do you know? (The second-most fun, and most suprising)
  8. What next: Burn the wagons

I tried to remember and list all the sources here, but it’s inevitable that I forgot somebody, so apologies.

II) The spoken word

Once the report was published, two of my colleagues — Amy Jaick and Dayna De Simone, our brand enhancement geniuses — ferried me around California to “market” the report.

As you might remember, I’ve long been pondering the difference between the written and the spoken word, so it was constantly on my mind this week. The two are really completely different. You can write well but speak awfully, or speak well but write awfully. (You can also be good or bad at both, of course).

All of which is to say that this was really a great warm-up for the speaking I’ll probably be doing in January when my book comes out.

In particular, I now appreciate the importance and difficulty of being a good “accordion”. Which is to say: You have to be able to expand and contract at will — ie, to speak equally well about (in this case) all 11,000 written words in

  • 1 minute,
  • 2 minutes,
  • 10 minutes,
  • 30 minutes and
  • 1 hour.

And that takes quite a bit of practice, especially since I don’t believe in using any written notes at all.

The only reason, as far as I can tell, why somebody might want to hear a writer speak (as opposed to just reading his writing) is spontaneity, which equals authenticity. If you’re speaking from written notes, how can you be spontaneous? Whenever I’m in an audience and a speaker uses written notes, the oratory is dead and boring.

So I speak “naked”, as it were, which can, admittedly, be a bit nerve-racking. I did get sidetracked a couple of times. But as the week went on I got better at my pacing. Every talk was partly the same and partly different, and Amy and Dayna gave me great feedback on what worked and what didn’t, so that “the speech” kept improving.

And the reaction from the various audiences was fantastic. At every event, we ended up having a lively debate. I was learning a lot from the audience. And learning is really my main hobby. So I guess it was a good week.

28 thoughts on “For one week, not writing but speaking

  1. I downloaded your survey to my Kindle, and like Harry, I shall peruse it in the early morning hours. Then I’ll be in a position to determine whether your concluding sentence (“After the past few years of hardship, Californians might just be ready to do something equivalent today.”) is justified or yet another example of hard-headed criticism suddenly yielding to unwarranted optimism out of tune with the foregoing material, at which end good writing turns bad.

    • I look forward to your frank verdict.

      Keep in mind — ahem, nudge — that I wrote that post on March 20th, right around the time when I was … writing the final chapter of my Special Report and calculating the possible responses from the various editors who would take an interest. Curious.

    • Your survey is excellent. You did, however, kick off with the weather and conclude on an optimistic note after using 11,000 words to describe what an unbelievable mess the state of CA has gotten itself into over the years. Both choices can be justified in that thousands of ungulates perished of thirst and the Think Long Committee has now been formed respectively, but in the end, your survey starts with the weather report and signs off with a thumbs-up.

    • For all other readers: Cyberquill is hoisting me by my own petard. Here I wrote about corny opening phrases, and here I wrote about corny conclusion chapters.

      In this particular case, I plead guilty to one but not the other, and I have an excuse for the guilty one. 😉

    • Andreas, I did not mean effeminate. (Not that there’s anything wrong with it.)

      In my neighborhood, the word “swish” means classy, elegant.

      You made me doubt myself, so I googled it. Merriam-Webster says: smart, fashionable; with synonyms:


      Take your pick. They’re all swell words.

      It’s true, though, as it turns out, that there is also a newer slang definition. If I were, myself, a bit more swish, I might have known. But these words, they are so slippery.

      I had intended to write a short (and friendly!) comment before I picked up your special report, and, then, an expansive response on the substance of the thing, once I had read it. You know, like an accordion. (So I amuse myself.) But, now, my short comment is so wordy, that all I will be able to permit myself after reading about California is:

      Wow. Awesome.

      And, then, I’ll keep my fingers crossed that nothing has happened to the word “awesome” since last I used it.

    • “Awesome”? You mean, it inspired awe, fear and shock in you?

      Just teasing. Thanks for all that. Blushing.

      What can I do to force you to blog again?

    • Look for a post in January:

      “Hannibal and Me, Too!”

      What History’s Greatest Military Strategist Can Teach Us Girls About Success and Failure


  2. When I saw that you were going to be writing the report on California I was interested and the report ended up being just as informative as I expected.

    In some ways I thought of it as a primer for what your book might be like.

    Good job all around!

    • Thank you, spi!

      But — or so I hope — it is not actually a primer for my book. The topics are totally unrelated (as you know, I realize), but even the tone and style are different. We’ll just have to see if I was able, successfully, to move from one genre and length to another.

    • I don’t think it would be a direct primer for the book but it felt to me like the report had a little bit of the tone and style from this blog. I guess one would hope that is the case because you write both things.

      The tone and style may only be apparent because I have been following this blog for a few years now. In the end it was interesting to see the transition in writing from these bite sized blog posts and the occasional article to the longer report. The next interesting transition will arrive when actually reading your book. 🙂

    • You know, spi, it feels great to have people like you scrutinizing my writing here, over time and in detail. You probably pick up things about my tone that I’m not even aware of.
      Thank you.
      In the case of the Special Report, I’m especially glad that you picked up my tone, because that means that my writing withstood the editing.

  3. An impressive work of analysis and research, from which I learned much of the causes and extent of the Gilbertian situation which the great State of California finds itself in.

    It’s good that the Economist actually named you as the writer, thereby giving deserved recognition, however belated, to so prodigious a writerly talent as yourself, under whose table few are fit to gather even the crumbs.

  4. Hi Andreas,

    This post has been linked to by a speechwriters’ group on LinkedIn, and deservedly so. Your point about being an accordion is well-taken.

    I enjoyed reading the report very much, and it’s lovely to have a chance to send some appreciation over in writing.

    I’m a speechwriter, so if you ever need a hand with corralling thoughts for speech and are pressed for time, please do get in touch.


    Asher Dresner

    • Thanks, Asher.

      Too bad I can’t read the discussion at LinkedIn — I’ve been resisting joining it, as I have resisted Twitter, even though I constantly get LinkedIn invites. Perhaps I must reconsider one day.

      Like your post about Jimmy Carter’s problems with speech writers. 🙂

  5. First, since you put a picture up there, I will put style before substance. (I still visit the Sartorialist, you know). Not everyone outside the Sartorialist’s domain can pull off the jeans and tie. Well done.

    Second, I’ve delayed my comment because I was hoping to report that I read every word of your special. I still haven’t. But (but) I was in California last week. A colleague told me that we only need look at the coasts to predict the future. Having completed my own informal survey, from the Top of the Mark to the bottom of the BART, from the Magic Kingdom to the Inland Empire, I have to say I’m confused. I’m pretty sure the future doesn’t include the likes of me.

    You’re thinking swishy (not swish).

    • My advantage in all matters sartorial is the bliss of ignorance: If I had known that the jeans/tie mixture is controversial, I might have been tempted to avoid it. But, oblivious, I felt quite comfortable in my skin (and cotton) throughout.

      The future may well exclude you and me. Or not. How did you mean that? I mean sure, they’re nuts here on the coast. But has there recently been an outbreak of sanity inland?

    • I mean, it’s only a matter of time that our place is just like California. This is consistent with my toilet-swirling theory of capitalism; it’s a race to the bottom. The real problems start when there are no more trees to cut down. Everything else is theatre.

      Meanwhile, I’ll be bunkered in the heartland. As Charlton Heston said (paraphrasing), you can have have my casserole dish when you pry it out of my cold, dead hands. We’re perfectly sane, inland.

    • By temperament, I’m incline to subscribe to your toilet-swirling theory. Which yields, incidentally, an interesting (though by no means encouraging) twist: We in the northern hemisphere will go down clockwise, those down under will follow us counter-clockwise. (Or was it the opposite?)

  6. “The longer that people live in California, it seems, the more likely they are to be misinformed, and possibly brainwashed into ignorance.”

    Ha! Good thing I got out when I did!

    “How Voters Decide” — hands down, my favorite part. Who doesn’t feel a certain subversive delight when high school drop-outs know more than folks with more than a master’s degree? I kinda do.

    Terrific read. Totally in your voice, seems to me. Congratulations.

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