Collecting Intellectual Income

“Never feel guilty about reading, it's what you do to do your job.”

– William Safire

This quote appears on the very last page of Peggy's Noonan classic book, “On Speaking Well.”  Mr. Safire was giving this advice to a young writer.  Ms. Noonan goes on to say that “reading is the collecting of intellectual income; writing is the spending of it.  You need to read to write, you need to take in other people's words and thoughts and images.”

Regardless of your political views (both Safire and Noonan were speechwriters for Republican Presidents) is is hard to top the expert advice that Safire and Noonan offer.  They are professional writers and speakers and they continue to be students of writing and speaking.  Both have written for others (politicians, business leaders and celebrities) as well as for themselves.  They are keen observers of the political scene but they excel at studying and explaining how choosing the right word for the right occasion helps to communicate a powerful message.

After listening to the eulogies at President Ford's memorials I picked “On Speaking Well” out of my bookcase.  I wanted to re-read Peggy Noonan's thoughts about writing for others.  I had my own opinions about which politician relied too heavily on a speechwriter and which may have written their own eulogy for President Ford.  (My opinion is that Vice President Cheney wrote his own  – it was the the most sincere speech that I ever heard him deliver!)

I ended up re-reading the book from cover-to-cover – what a great investment!  I certainly collected so “intellectual income” from this book which I will be spending soon.  I am not writing a full book review of “On Speaking Well,” but I give it my full recommendation as a book that must be in your bookcase if you are serious about improving your communications skills.  (I was so charged up with my re-reading that I am now re-reading Jack Valenti's book , “Speak Up With Confidence.”)

President Reagan was labeled as “The Great Communicator” and Peggy Noonan was one of his speechwriters.  Many critics panned Reagan as a simple-minded politician who never-the-less was able to win over audiences and leave behind many memorable phrases.  The critics said that it was a case of style over substance.  Ms. Noonan – as you might suspect – argues aggressively that this is not the case.  And she is very persuasive in making it!  She argues that Reagan used simple language to communicate big ideas:

“The language of love is simple because love is big.  And big things are best said, are almost always said, in small words.”

You will gain a new appreciation for using simple words to express big things by reading “On Speaking Well.”  For me, the highlight of the book is Peggy Noonan's insightful commentary of some of the best-known speeches of the past 100 years.  Of course there is the usual John F. Kennedy, Winston Churchill, Ronald Reagan.  But also the Earl Spencer's eulogy for his sister Princess Diana.  And… Hyman Roth's speech to Michael Corleone in The Godfather II – What a bonus!

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