Browse Tag: speech writing

speechwriting for a Prime Minister

Detained by the United States Secret Service while, um, speech writing

I have been busy helping wannabe candidates for Parliament polish their CVs over the last few days so missed posting this on Monday, the 10 year anniversary of my first flight to the United States.

Speech writing is usually tough, hard, lonely work. Many UK speech writing clients like to keep you as a secret resource. It’s often hard to get enough quality time with the client and the time pressure is usually huge. But sometimes you find a client who gives you the time, understands your job, has something important to say and is a bit different.

I flew from Heathrow with Air India and was upgraded to First Class and it was fantastic. I am normally an EasyJet kind of guy but the deliciously spicy food, the First Class Service and the choice of good Scotch made it a First that I could get used to.

I was picked up by a big black Embassy car and driven to the United Nations Plaza Hotel. It looks like it has been upgraded now but it was a bit tired at the time – especially compared to some of its shiny neighbours. It is a tall building on the eastern edge of Manhattan’s Midtown, directly across from the headquarters of the United Nations.

I was in New York to work with a client I had never met who was scheduled to give an important speech to important people 10 days later in the United Nations building. He was the Prime Minister of Sri Lanka. I was excited. This was big stuff.

That night I met my client, Sri Lankan Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe M.P. at a reception at the Sri Lankan embassy. I also met his Political Secretary, Bradman Weekaron (a serious grown up with a big CV who, delightfully!, didn’t take himself seriously), members of his cabinet and the Sri Lankan Ambassadors to the United Nations and the United States. Everybody was bouncy and upbeat and there was an excited pre-match buzz in the air. The Prime Minister was gracious and smiling but taut and pent up. He was the performer. They were the fans.

When I found out what he wanted to say and achieve, I understood why. I got excited too. This was bigger than I had thought. Speech writing is too often about making dull stuff sound interesting. Writing a peace speech to the world does not come along every day.

Speech writing can’t be done in a vacuum – I need to understand the message and the messenger. I needed to understand the Prime Minister’s voice and his style and his vocabulary as well as his message. He was fantastic and gave me huge amounts of access  – many of his visitors were surprised to find me in the back of the huge room when they held their meetings with the Prime Minister and his advisors. I just sat, pen in hand, quietly absorbing it all and concentrating on him and his voice and vocabulary.

The Prime Minister and I worked together late at night high up in his corner suite after all his other meetings were over. Being a Prime Minister is tough –  18 hour days are standard. The Secret Service guards would relax after checking my United Nations pass. They had just come back from being on a security detail in Afghanistan and were happy to be back home.

It wasn’t all work though. There were loads of events during the ten days. I (glancingly) met German Chancellor Gerhard Schroeder, who I had once chatted with in a small Kneipe in Wernigerode called the Carousel when he was campaigning to become Chancellor of Germany. I saw the scrum that surrounded Silvio Berlusconi when he arrived at the hotel. I also met and made friends with Henry Chimunthu Banda, who was the Malawian Deputy Foreign MInister, now the Speaker. I was born in Malawi, but he didn’t believe me until I pulled out my passport and showed him: Place of Birth – Blantyre, Malawi!

Then I went and got myself arrested.

The speech was over and the delegation had gone home and I had 3 hours free on my last day in New York. I had never been to the US so I went sight seeing. I wasn’t used to seeing such big buildings – in Bulawayo, where I was brought up,  there were probably only 2 or three buildings taller than 5 floors – and here I was in a city of shiny glass and metal skyscrapers. I slung my camcorder over my shoulder but under my jacket so it wouldn’t be stolen and wandered around, eyes up and mouth open, filming. I was in a different world, walking along streets decorated with green door canopies that I recognised from TV – I was hoping to find the Cheers pub and buy a souvenir drink.

Then I heard a pistol being cocked behind me to the left. A controlled voice told me to put my hands in the air. Slowly. The Controlled Voice politely said: “A moment please Sir.” – then a large hand clasped my right shoulder and arm. It wasn’t a request or a suggestion. These guys were tense.

They wanted to know why I was filming skyscrapers and buildings and they didn’t like my story much. To be fair, if you were them, would you believe a Brit who claimed to be working for the Sri Lankan Government, carried a United Nations pass and spoke with a southern African accent? And it was in the secure zone and “Bushlock” had reigned for days. (Random question: Do New Yorkers call gridlock Obamalock now?)

I got “escalated”. I was taken around the corner to a long, white pantechnicon with shiny aluminium Jacobs brakes on the outside and space for at least 15 people inside. I knew what it was because on the side in 5 foot letters it said “US Secret Service Mobile Command Centre”. Apparently, New York is loaded with them again this week, as the UN convenes again at its traditional time. In Britain it would have been a Transit van with a BT logo. A senior officer questioned me while he half-sat on a desk and played back the video footage on my camcorder, an officer took notes and someone else phoned the United Nations pass office, the British Embassy and the Sri Lankan Embassy. Twenty minutes later, they started to relax and I was released after I was sternly told that New York is safer than London.

My work over the last 20 years has taken me to remote, dusty, non-tourist bits of China, glitzy Dubai, sweaty North Africa and over a hundred towns or cities in Europe.  But I have had few gigs as memorable as my trip to America. Watching the speech live from the front of the chamber was a once off. Watching it again on CNN from inside the tiny cramped CNN studio in the United Nations building was special – MY words on CNN! MY English teacher would have been proud.

So what happened then? When he returned to Sri Lanka, The Prime Minister took over 8 hours to complete the 30 km drive from Bandaranaike International Airport to the capital Colombo because of the crowds who had come out to greet him.

According to

“Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe has returned to a hero’s welcome in the Sri Lankan capital Colombo. Tens of thousands lined the streets outside the airport to celebrate the return of Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe. Swarmed by officials and supporters at the airport…

According to Wikipedia, The Sri Lankan President later sacked three ministers of the cabinet, took over the ministries using her constitutional powers and ended the uneasy coalition between her and the Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe while he was out of the country.

I took this photo of the Prime Minister of Sri Lanka from the Malawi desk right at the front of the inner chamber of the United Nations.

Sri Lankan Prime Minister speaking at the United Nations

How to give a compelling speech and not just make noise.

Compelling Speeches Make Points and Get Results. They compel.

  1. Prepare, Practice and then Practice the speech some more.

    Some “experts” say that you should spend 20, 30 or 40 times as much time preparing and practicing your speech, as you spend delivering it. Of course, the more important the speech is, the more time you will be able to budget/justify for the speech – but reading it out loud 7-8 times are an ABSOLUTE minimum. The most important bits of the speech are the beginning and the end – if your time is limited, focus more time on the beginning and the end, even learning them off by heart. This will also help you relax and calm the fear.

  2. Be You, Be Real and Be Authentic.

    Tell personal stories in your speech to underline what you are saying. Parables work – so do personal stories. Remember to only tell the part of the story that the audience needs to “get it” – don’t clutter your stories with unnecessary details, words and phrases. If they don’t have a job, get rid of them.

  3. Take your job seriously – not yourself.

    Self-deprecating humour is not just useful, it is almost mandatory. Ask Boris Johnson. Don’t mock members of the audience, forget jokes as a general rule and be careful of jokes against the opposition.

  4. Know Your Stuff

    If you don’t know why you are giving the speech, what you are talking about or why you are talking about it, why are you even thinking of talking? Know your stuff, know the issues, know the causes, the alternatives, the enemy, the victims and, above all, know the solution.  

  5. What do you want them to do?

    Know what you want. You must be speaking for a reason, either to persuade people or to move people to action. Be specific, make it easy for them and clear about how to do what you want them to do. Political speeches want to convince or activate votes, corporate speeches usually want money. Good political  speechwriters are used to asking for votes and money – as a Conservative speechwriter it is a basic requirement!!  Some call it “deliverables” or, even worse, “required outcomes” – whatever you want to call it, ask for it!

Everybody wants to give a passionate speech – why do so many people fail?

Everybody wants to give a passionate speech – why do so many people fail?

There is a problem with wanting to give passionate speeches. If you want to give a passionate speech, you have to follow the rule of giving passionate speeches. The rule says you have to be passionate about what you are speaking about. Most people are not.

Unless it matters to them personally. Which is why personal narratives and storytelling in speeches are so powerful. Real passion is genuine and cannot be faked. Watch this Labour politician, Australian PM Gillard, and compare her with the manufactured “passion” of Tony Blair.

My mother would have seen herself as small “c” Conservative. She could smell BS several miles away. She would have stood up and applauded this woman. She would have been downright rude about Tony Blair.

Plastic rants and tirades are tactics and lies. Real politicians are those who give a damn about what they are saying and what they are doing. They are real and authentic and coherent. They are compelling and credible because they are so close to the edge. Think about this – this YouTube video has been viewed over 1.29 million times in 4 days. That is what happens when speeches are authentic and they resonate with people.

A friend, who I like and respect, called this speech unstatemanslike. I wish there more speeches like this – more fire in the belly of our politicians of all sides. More fiery speeches about things that matter to people. And balancing that – more compromise and cross-party cooperation and non-politicking and no or less cheap-political-point-scoring when there is broad consensus.

Some may say that this speech is political point scoring. I urge you to watch it and make up your own mind. I have seem loads of point scoring in my life – don’t think this is it.

The 8 Point Cheats Check List to Improving or Crafting Your Speech in 5 minutes.

The 8 Point Cheats Check List to Improving or Crafting Your Speech in 5 minutes.

Giving a speech is important – otherwise why do it? So of course you should take the time to write it, book in more time to practice it and give your speech time to bake in your head. Then reality intervenes and messes it all up! So for all those speechwriters and speechmakers who are put on the spot at short notice and the others (very stern look in your direction because I have obviously never been in your shoes!) too lazy to prepare.

  1. Do you want to inform or persuade? What must you achieve? What defines success?
  2. If you want to persuade, compare the current with your vision of the future. Use “we”.
  3. Use fresh examples and metaphors. Avoid those with lost meaning. Speak as you would to a friend.
  4. Use short sentences and words. Max 15 words per sentence and 2 syllables per word.
  5. Narrow your message to 3 key themes. They won’t remember more anyway.
  6. Identify and repeat the words that summarise your message.
  7. Never speak for more than 20 minutes. 5 is better. 3 even better.
  8. Speak slowly and confidently. Breathe slowly and deeply from your belt buckle. Stand up straight and smile.

How to give a great speech. The most important speechwriting tip ever.

This is the single most important speechwriting tip ever.

There are many tips and tricks to delivering a good speech. But this is the most important secret to writing and delivering good or even great speeches and it is the one thing that most people never do.

If you have to give a speech or a presentation, I bet you that the date is in your diary. That’s a good start. But there are two other dates that should also be in your diary.

The first is an hour to write your speech. Sketch it first then write it out in full. You won’t be able to do more than that in an hour but it is a great start.  An hour is not very long to write a speech but if you spend at least one full hour writing before you deliver the speech you will catapult yourself ahead of most of the competition who haven’t taken the time. Obama’s speechwriters (note – plural) take month’s to write a State of the Union speech.

The second date for your diary is an hour practising your delivery. David Cameron spent days practising the delivery of his conference speech that turned him from young pretender into Conservative Party Leader and then Prime Minister. Practice makes better, it identifies wobbles and weird and uncomfortable to pronounce words and it helps you calm your nerves and speak with notes.

Storytelling -Telling Stories is more than structure and words. Story telling is about how you make people feel.

Storytelling -Telling Stories is more than structure and words. Story telling is about how you make people feel.

Experts sometimes get it wrong.

Sometimes the storytellers and speechwriters busy crafting stories and writing speeches for business or politics forget the most important thing about good storytelling. They get too involved and excited about speech writing techniques and speech structures and the process of speech writing and storytelling.

“Isn’t that what a great story does? It makes you feel.”

Dustin Hoffman

People buy and vote emotionally and justify their ‘investment’, choices or purchases logically. A simple addition of facts that favour the required decision could win the argument. But the emotions, the feelings, behind a compelling narrative are far stronger. And when the facts underpin, and are translated into, a compelling story that is passionately and effectively delivered, you are on your way to winning.

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