There is a stereotype of the speechwriter as a figure hurriedly crafting compelling arguments and desperately coining memorable phrases, ready in an instant to pull diverse policy initiatives and impenetrable jargon into human and humane narratives.
Sometimes, the stereotype is accurate.
But more often than not, the speechwriter’s literary ambitions come second to the expediencies of corporate culture.
A speech is rarely just a speech. Rarely are we speechwriters given an opportunity to write something that might, one day, be included in those collections of speeches that changed the course of history.
Instead, speeches are many things – often all at once. Below, I offer a few examples, as well as my own reflections on what the speechwriter’s responsibilities might be in each instance.
Speeches as corporate messaging
In those collections of Great Speeches, the emphasis is typically on the unique relationship between the speaker’s individuality and their role as representative of an institution. There are occasions, though, when the balance shifts towards the latter; when the emphasis really needs to be on the corporate message with minimal interference by whoever happens to be delivering it.
These speeches can be frustrating because the speechwriter has to use boilerplate text and marketing slogans that reflect the official top lines on the subject. Often written by committee, such language can be turgid and lifeless. But that is precisely where the speechwriter comes into play: to add life and colour to boring corporatese.
Speeches to be seen rather than heard
There are some events when the organisers and attendees want the prestige of the speaker’s presence but aren’t terribly interested in what the speaker has to say. These might be annual events, at which the speech is part of the tradition, or social events, at which the speech is a slightly annoying interruption.
These can be useful events for speechwriters – not to hone some shimmering prose, but rather to encourage the speaker to think about their delivery.
For example, I recently wrote a speech to be given at a charity event that just so happened to be a beer festival. In the heat, three pints down, no-one wants to turn away from their friends and give their undivided attention to a stranger.
But, if the speaker can capture and hold the attention – even just for a moment – of a beer festival audience, that person is doing well, and the speechwriter should take note of their techniques.
Speeches in which what is not said is important
These will be familiar to any speechwriter who has written for a politician. Sometimes material is avoided because the speaker’s institution has no coherent take on the relevant issue; sometimes material is avoided in order to send a message.
These are fantastic opportunities for speechwriters with literary ambitions. They need to make a topic apparent and not-apparent at the same time. They need to not write about the thing they’re writing about: truly, a modernist paradox.
When the audience is not the audience
There are other occasions when the audience in front of speaker is not really the audience that she or he is addressing.
A politician might, for example, speak at a fancy dinner but deliver a message to the media at the back of the room and, thus, to the general public at home watching the news. A businessperson, similarly, might speak at a company meeting but deliver a message that will be most widely received through employees reading it at their desk in the form of an email.
In these situations, the speechwriter needs to be more than a speechwriter: the speechwriter’s responsibilities lean into public affairs, corporate communications and media relations.
So, speeches aren’t always speeches, and speechwriters are rarely just speechwriters!