Speechwriters don’t just write speeches.
We’re asked to provide statements, forewords, op-eds, soundbites, and much more. Sometimes these commissions are more difficult than the longer speeches. It’s easier to capture a speaker’s voice and personality across 500 words than it is across 50.
It’s also tricky to say anything of substance in such a constrained form as a statement or soundbite. I joke that the speaker for whom I currently write could easily live in a state of constant delight: ‘I am delighted to be here…’, ‘I am delighted to announce…’, ‘I am delighted that we’ve been awarded…’.
As I read HM Government’s Communications Plan 2017–2018, I notice a pattern emerge across the various statements that alerts me to another challenge inherent to short-form writing. Much of the text in this document bears the speechwriter or copywriter’s mark too obviously. It isn’t the language of policymakers; it’s the lexicon of content marketing.
Take, for example, the following three examples:
In the Ministerial Foreword, Chris Skidmore MP writes,
‘The Government Communication Service will be crucial in turning this vision into a reality. It will support these priorities through compelling communications that improve and enhance the lives of people living in the UK and abroad. From promoting the UK as a worldclass destination for trade and investment, to protecting people against cyber attacks.’
My suspicions are first raised by that word ‘compelling’. Sure, describe the narrative that you want to construct as ‘compelling’, but don’t use that word in the copy itself. It’s marketing jargon; it sounds impressive but it’s conceptually hollow.
The incomplete sentence – ‘From promoting…’ – confirms to me that this is a statement washed too clean, wrung through too many committees and content managers, ultimately bleached of any trace of Chris Skidmore MP.
My second example is less offensively bland, but something about it rings untrue to me — perhaps it’s the double whammy of the parallelism (echoing Tony Blair’s famous ‘Tough on crime, tough on the causes of crime’) and the infamous Rule of Three. Alex Aiken, Executive Director for Government Communications, is quoted as follows:
‘Our job is to help ministers reach the right audience with the right message at the right time.’
It’s nice, but at the same time, it’s just that little bit too much. I notice the rhetoric rather than the sentiment.
Finally, there’s a soundbite from
The MayBot Theresa May:
‘The great prize for this country – the opportunity ahead – is to use this moment to build a truly global Britain. A country that reaches out to old friends and new allies alike. A great, global, trading nation. And one of the firmest advocates for free trade anywhere in the world.’*
Again, this reads like a textbook example of marketing copy. It’s direct. It’s succinct. It’s casual, and flouts the rules of grammar. It’s also boring, predictable, and anonymous.
It’s the same language used in the most hackneyed TED talks, in clickbait tweets and LinkedIn headlines, and on smoothie bottles (on the latter: for and against). It might have been appealing and unique once, but now it’s ubiquitous and tired.
Elegance and timelessness
These might seem like minor quibbles on my part.
But try comparing the statements above to other examples from the same document, either the excerpt from the Queen’s speech on page 28, or the historical quotations from Winston Churchil and Sir Kenneth Grubb (both p32):
‘Let’s not shrink from using the short expressive phrase, even if it is controversial… setting out the real points concisely will prove an aid to clearer thinking.’
‘[Information services] testify to a society where facts are essential to the formation of views, where prejudice is to be combatted by reason and where policies should be explained if they are to be understood.’
The Queen, Churchill, and Grubb are each elegant, imaginative, and clear; their measured words bear the full weight of their thinking.
Will May and co. be quoted in years to come? I doubt it. Unoriginal phrasings equate to unoriginal ideas.
*Uncited, but from her January 2017 speech, ‘The government’s negotiating objectives for exiting the EU’
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