Making speechwriting authentic, powerful and intimate

5 October, 2011 - 08:44
The best of the best in speechwriting recently gathered in Bournemouth to discuss the secrets to crafting engaging speeches and capturing audiences. Karuna Kumar was there to scoop up the top tips.

By Karuna Kumar

‘Say less, think more’ was what the veterans of speechwriting conveyed at this year’s UK Speechwriters' Guild conference recently held in Bournemouth. Throngs of speechwriters and communicators across Europe attended the conference to learn how to craft messages and witness how ideas, creativity and presentation are instrumental in influencing society and changing the lives of individuals.

Death by PowerPoint – not exactly

The event kicked off with Max Atkinson, former speechwriter for Lord Ashdown and author ofLend Me Your Ears, a classical piece of work on preparing speeches. With an Oxford degree in hand, Atkinson has pioneered academic research into effective political speechwriting.

In his presentation, In Praise of PowerPoint, Atkinson remarked at our excessive dependence on PowerPoint for expressing ideas and sharing views with colleagues. He pointed out common blunders in the way data and statistics are misrepresented through PowerPoint by way of oversimplification. That aside, PowerPoint can be a highly beneficial tool for presenters.

Atkinson says, “Presentations should be visual and not verbal. Great speechwriters use the visual language to communicate with audiences.”

UK Speechwriters Guild - Credit Sean GardinerMartha Leyton and Marin Shovel presented the second session of the day entitled Speaking to the Mind’s Eye. Shovel is writer, speechwriter, cartoonist and communications expert for Brighton-based CreativityWorks and is a regular contributor to the Guardian’s Mind Your Language blog. Leyton is the editor, writer and speechwriter for CreativityWorks.

The two focused their session on using the right words that leave the mind with picture images. Drawing comparisons with Gordon Brown’s and President Barack Obama’s public speeches, Leyton and Shovel pointed out the essence of using the right words in speechwriting.

“Using words that conjure up images are the ones that we learn in our primitive years of growing up. The significance of using those words lies in that they illustrate images. This makes them effective especially in speeches where the audience hears it in real time. Often abstract terms as ‘freedom’, ‘democracy’, ‘hope’, etc are unavailable to our senses. They must be connected with concrete verbal words,” says Shovel.

Are we having a laugh?

During his presentation, The Power of the Spoken Word, Stuart Mole - former Director of the Secretary-General’s Office in the Commonwealth Secretariat – drew from real life experiences from his work writing speeches for MP, Clement Greud, as well as the Chairman of IBM and the Commonwealth Secretary General.

Mole spoke of value systems and speech systems, reaffirming the power of using the right words as crucial means of communication. As he dug into his personal experiences, he drew on pertinent points of what to say and how to say it. His humourous presentation garnered a plethora of chuckles from the crowd.

The laughter continued when Hollywood speechwriter Fred Metcalf took to the lectern. He’s also the Editor of the Penguin Dictionary of Jokes and the Penguin Dictionary of Quotations.

Fred Metcalf - Credit Sean GardinerMetcalf picked out pieces of satire from Frost on Satire to illustrate how satire could add an embellishment to speechwriting Metcalf pointed out, “For humour to work, it was important to understand the audience first. The more you know about the event or conference you are at, the more easy it is for you to be humourous.”

He added, “Humour, simply put is something that makes you laugh and if it doesn’t, it’s not humour.”

On being asked whether humour can be adopted as a skill, Metcalf responded, “Some of it comes by instinct but over the years you could also develop the skill of being humourous. Humour is something you gradually attain by exposing yourself to jokes; it is not something that can be taught in a week or two. The more hard you try; the less humourous you get.”

When it comes to using humour in the corporate world, employees become wary, Metcalf says.

“If the conductor of an orchestra is loved by the orchestra, it is a bad orchestra. In other words a lovable and humourous boss is usually considered as a bad thing in the corporate world. One would be very suspicious of a leader who would only be making jokes.”

Tick, tock

Next up: political speechwriting with insight presented by Conor Burns, a frequent speaker in the House of Commons and MP for Bournemouth West.

Sharing the rules that he applies to his own speeches, Burns says, “The first rule to understand is that less is definitely more. When you are given a time limit, you need to realise that it is a time limit and not a target. Secondly thing to remember is that speechwriting is a process and not an event. I am constantly speechwriting. I am speechwriting when I am reading a newspaper. I am speechwriting when I am listening to the radio. It is important to collect information that you may draw upon, months and even years ahead.”

Referring to the teachings of one of the priests at his local church, Burns said:

“You can make more friends in two months, by being interested in them than in two years by making them interested in you. People are interested in themselves and if we can share their interests, we can make them friends.”

He later added, “A speech is a message and must be approached with seriousness keeping in mind the benefit of the audience.”

Burns also highlighted the need to have the courage to stand up before an audience with a well-prepared speech and deliver with conviction what you believe in with the audience’s best interests at heart.

Silence is not necessarily golden

After political speechwriting, the agenda moved to corporate communications. Rod Clayton, Head of Issues and Crisis Communications and Joint Head of Corporate Communications at Weber Shandwick spoke of The Sound of Silence; Why Organisations in Crisis Should Speak Up.

“I am the face of misery. My whole job is dealing with corporate issues and a lot of them are driven by litigation. The most important thing that I advice in these times is to talk about it and lawyers in the past have been averse to it because when you talk about it you create evidence. But, to me it is most important to communicate in times of a crisis,” says Clayton. Communicating is one of the most profound solutions when being questioned for ethical conduct.

After Clayton related his experiences of dealing with lawyers and corporates and acting as peacemaker, the conference broke into four streams of conversations each of which targeted a niche topic of interest for respective speechwriters.

From the many roles of the Speechwriter to writing speeches in English for non-native speakers and from using video to enhance and promote your speeches to proofreading, the streams had something for everyone.

David Murrary - Credit Sean Gardiner

David Murray on transforming impossible speechwriting assignments

Vital Speeches of the Day editor David Murray concluded the inspirational day by shedding light on how to turn challenging speechwriting gigs into improbable communication victories.

Murray played a short clip of former US President Lyndon Baines Johnson to show the power of effective speeches when delivering difficult messaging:

“I often walked home late in the afternoon wishing there was more that I could do. Somehow you never forget what poverty and hatred can do when you see its scars on the hopeful face of a young child. I never forget then, in 1928, that I would be standing here in 1965. It never even occurred to me in my fondest dreams that I might have the chance to help the sons and daughters of those students, and to help them and people like them all over the country. But now I do have that chance. I’ll let you in on a secret - I mean to use it.”

Following the clip, Murray explained how certainty and moral courage stand at the core of speechwriting. “You need a leap of faith to stand before a public and convince an audience that disagrees with you,” he pointed out.

In an unusual twist, Murray then referenced a speech given by the late Fred Rogers, a legendary figure in children’s television in America. Murray played a clip from testimony Rogers gave to a US Senate Committee advocating government funding for children’s television. The speech was perhaps the most profound moments of the speechwriting conference as it encapsulated all the elements that an effective and impactful speech can ever have.

“Certainty, clarity and intimacy - those are the goals we need to be pushing towards in speechwriting,” Murray concluded.

UK Speechwriters Guild - Credit Sean Gardiner

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