The ups and downs of speechwriting

From clashing egos to meddlesome advisors



The lot of the speechwriter is seldom a happy one. Unless, of course, he or she goes in for a spot of revenge.

Speechwriting is an attractive profession. At the very least, there’s job security: almost every decision-maker, whether in the public or the private sector, needs speeches. The days when politicians like Bismarck or Churchill wrote their own speeches are long gone. Today, the sheer number of speaking engagements makes it impossible for even the most talented politician or CEO to cope without outside help. Even the traditional rule for “ghost writers”, namely to remain anonymous, no longer applies. Some speechwriters have become celebrities in their own right and some politicians or industry bosses now even boast that they employ speechwriters, because they think it enhances their social status, just like bodyguards.

However, speechwriters cannot be picky. The blockbuster speech, which mesmerises the audience with new ideas and powerful emotions, is the exception. Opening a new section of a highway or making the case for a new pension scheme hardly requires Shakespearean hyperbole. And let’s be honest: has anyone ever listened attentively to a half-hour speech from start to finish? The attention span of today’s Twitter-age audience is shorter than that of a ferret on a double espresso.

In any event, what the speaker says is not always that important to begin with. What counts is that he or she appears in the first place. As Woody Allen observed, “80 per cent of success is showing up”. You can pose with the speaker for a selfie, or you can put a question that will hopefully come across as immensely profound and will impress those around you. Since the speech will be posted on the internet, you can still read it later if you feel like it (though you probably never will feel like it).

The speechwriter’s enemy: the speaker

The speechwriter has only one natural enemy: the speaker. There are several reasons for this. One is pride. Although the speaker knows that he needs the speechwriter, he nevertheless remains uncomfortable about someone else putting words in his mouth. He will therefore try to resist such heteronomy.

For example, he will make last minute cuts while driving to the conference venue – only to realise, while already on stage, that he cut the wrong part and now needs to decipher the very text he had just crossed out. He will try to depart from the text to address the audience personally – and then fail to find his way back into the manuscript. He will deploy his trademark sound bites early in his speech from the top of his head – only to realise that the exact terms re-appear in the written text and that he now needs to skip them in order not to be repetitive. Or when he flips a page, he may – or may not – notice that he actually flipped two. But such hiccups don’t matter. For the duration of his speech, the speaker is in full control.

The speechwriter has no choice but to cope with this paradox of writing speeches that are new, yet familiar.”

The need for authenticity creates yet another challenge for the speechwriter, which is to find a balance between tried-and-tested material and new ideas. Sometimes, the boss may complain that his new speech looks very much like his old ones, and demand a totally new and original draft. But once that new draft is presented to him he may continue complaining precisely because it doesn’t look familiar. He may then ask for another draft built on the stump speech he is so used to, with only minor tweaks. He will then deliver this text with a certain ease, as it contains all his old friends, but then complain again that there wasn’t really anything new in it. And the whole pointless process will begin again.

The speechwriter has no choice but to cope with this paradox of writing speeches that are new, yet familiar, and conveying a sense of authenticity. Even if today’s audiences know that the speaker didn’t write his own speech, they want to be given the plausible illusion that he put pen to paper. Sometimes, they even get hard evidence that he did. One dignitary, walking away from the rostrum after having finished his speech, left the manuscript behind. The chairman of the event noticed that the last page of the speech was handwritten – and was mesmerized. He grabbed the manuscript and held it up as proof that the speaker wrote his own hallowed words, and not “a speechwriter or something”.

 Both the speaker and the speechwriter were equally perplexed. For one, the handwritten part of the manuscript seemed to impress the audience much more when they saw it rather than when they heard it just a few minutes earlier. Above all, however, the handwriting was not the speaker’s: the speechwriter’s laptop had broken down before all the pages could be printed, forcing him to use his pen instead. Unsurprisingly, neither the speechwriter nor the speaker felt the need to set the record straight: the illusion of authenticity was too good to have it spoiled by revealing the ugly truth.

Too many cooks…

The speaker-speechwriter relationship can become more complex if there are extensive brainstorming sessions involving additional staff. In principle, this should be a stimulating process: after all, this is the opportunity for real strategic thinking, for discussing different topics, ideas, outlines; for inventing – and discarding – memorable sound bites. But what do you do when the boss gets hooked on an approach that the speechwriter knows will never work? What can you do if other “advisors” (usually those with no writing skills) try to overload a balanced draft with their “bold” ideas? Who will ultimately win the battle between those who believe that the speech should form one coherent narrative, and those who see it just as a vehicle for transporting established press lines, without caring too much about whether the speech hangs together?

“The few hours before the delivery of a speech are the most crucial.”

Even if the whole process leading up to a speech goes very smoothly, success is far from guaranteed: the boss may still change his mind and request that the text be changed. Indeed, the few hours before the delivery of a speech are the most crucial. For it is often those last-minute updates, intended to make the speech more topical, that turn the speech from “quite okay” to “just plain silly”. When instead of “terrorists” it is suddenly “tourists” who will be consigned to the dustbin of history, or when the speech starts with three questions but answers only two, because someone had “improved” the text at the eleventh hour and deleted a crucial part. These are the moments when the speechwriter is reminded that he is at the bottom of the food chain. No matter how hard he may have worked, he will never have full control over the final product.

The elusive gold standard

There is yet another reason for tension between the speechwriter and the speaker: they each may consider the other to be unfit for the job. While the speechwriter is prone to believe that his excellent text deserves a better orator, the speaker may think that a better speechwriter would turn him into a second Barack Obama. These past few years, Barack Obama was the gold standard in the speechwriting business, and before him, Bill Clinton and Tony Blair.

The ease, the humour, the political messages, the perfectly timed emotional appeals! Why can’t my speechwriter give me the same? The speechwriter knows the answer to this question only too well, but he keeps it to himself. He would never dare tell his boss that his performance is not remotely on a par with Obama, whose oratory skills could even make the Washington phone book sound exciting. Oh, and while we’re at it: when President Obama spoke, he never put his hands into his pockets of his jacket, which were sometimes sown together precisely for that reason. In short: if you were brutally honest, you‘d have to tell your boss that even if his speeches were written by Obama’s staff, he would never be a second Obama. Of course, that would be the end of a carefully balanced relationship.

Even if the job entails a degree of humiliation: the speechwriter is happy if his boss manages to connect with the audience. For a brief moment, they are both happy, albeit for different reasons. The speechwriter believes that it was his speech that inspired the boss to deliver a great performance; the speaker believes that the success was due entirely to his own wit and charisma. In the end, it does not matter who is right. Dogmatism is alien to speechwriters.

Vindictiveness, of course, is quite another matter. Rumour has it that one arrogant politician who never used to look at his speeches before delivering them was trapped by his disgruntled speechwriter. After turning the third page of his manuscript, he realised in horror that the remaining pages were blank, except for a small handwritten note by his speechwriter: “From now on, you‘re on your own, you SOB ...” Of course, these are just rumours. Honestly!

Three key lessons from Michael’s speechwriting career

1. Write speeches, not articles. The latter are easier to write, but even the most elegant article will never work when used as a speech.

2. The speech must fit the speaker, not satisfy a perfectionist speechwriter. If the speaker feels comfortable, so will the audience.

3. Get the speaker to rehearse. Nothing kills authenticity faster than a speaker who struggles with a text he obviously hasn’t seen before.

Michael Rühle

Michael Rühle is head, Energy Security Section in the Emerging Security Challenges Division in NATO’s International Staff. Previously he was head of speechwriting and senior political advisor in the NATO Secretary General’s Policy Planning Unit. He has published widely on international security issues.