Tuesday, November 20, 2012

Food for Thought for Speechwriters from E. B. White

"It is not the written word, but the spoken word, which in heated moments moves great masses of people to noble or ignoble action." This observation by E. B. White in his essay "Freedom," published in July 1940, captures the mood of the U.S. in that difficult time. We were still 17 months away from joining in the war, but we were watching it unfold throughout Europe. To understand the enemy, White read and analyzed Mein Kampf. Although not a speechwriter himself, White fully understood the power of spoken rhetoric--especially when it is mouthed by tyrants.

White advocated equally for the "written word, [which] unlike the spoken word, is something which every person examines privately and judges calmly by his own intellectual standards, not by what the man standing next to him thinks." One wonders what he'd make of our age of hyper mass media.

My favorite part of White's essay: "I am inordinately proud these days of the quill [pen], for it has shown itself, historically, to be the hypodermic which inoculates men and keeps the germ of freedom always in circulation, so that there are individuals in every time in every land who are the carriers, the Typhoid Mary's, capable of infecting others by mere contact and example."

For speechwriters and corporate history writers, White's "Freedom" provides excellent food for thought during Thanksgiving week. It appears in One Man's Meat (a collection of his essays for Harper's Magazine), which is still in print -- as is the anthology Essays of E. B. White. That's something to be thankful for, this week or any week. Happy T-day!