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:
- The People’s Will
- Direct Democracy: Origin of the Species (I had the most fun with this one)
- Proposition 13: War by Initiative
- Stateside and abroad (this is a short box comparing other states and countries)
- California’s Legislature: The withering branch
- Education: A lesson in mediocrity
- How voters decide: What do you know? (The second-most fun, and most suprising)
- 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.
- It started with television (memorable chiefly because I was told to “park in Johnny Carson’s spot”),
- continued with radio and more radio,
- and then continued even more with lots of live-audience public speaking and debating, at UCLA, the World Affairs Council, the University of San Francisco, and on and on until I was numb and hoarse.
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.