Speechwriting for leaders

Former UK ambassador Charles Crawford has written a ground breaking new book on the art of speechwriting. Fascinating. Oh, and whatever you do, don't forget that a speech at Auschwitz is not about you!

A Putin speech that reduced him to tears
Charles Crawford
On 7 January 2015 06:50

Any top person worthy of the position can get up in front of any audience and talk impromptu and to pretty good effect about his or her work and what it means. Such an informal but authoritative speech can go down well enough on the day, precisely because it is impromptu and more or less relaxed.

But leaders usually want to do much more than leave an audience happy. They want to get across carefully calibrated messages, both for the people in the room and far away, friends and foes alike. What they say (and what they cunningly leave out) matters.

They are talking for the record. Share prices and forex values rise and fall in seconds on what business and political leaders say or don’t say. Voters are impressed or dismayed. Foreign leaders and whole communities round the world may pore over every word to see exactly what was intended.

Speeches at this level matter. They need painstaking work, over hours or days or even weeks. And they need help from experts who understand public speaking in the round. A speech is both an event and part of a process. So is the supporting speechwriting.

In all this vital detail, the words are important but not all-important. As Frank Luntz emphasises, “it’s not what you say – it’s what they hear”.

See the ghastly example of President Obama’s statement after the murder of James Foley. The words as spoken were more or less OK. But the fact that he delivered them in an open-necked shirt before returning to the golf-course set a ruinous context.

Too many people heard insincerity or bewildering detachment, to the point where President Obama had to admit publicly that he "should have anticipated the optics … part of the job is the theater of it”.

My new book on these public speaking themes looks hard at speeches by political and business leaders including Barack Obama, Vladimir Putin, David Cameron, Margaret Thatcher, Bill Clinton, Hillary Clinton, Ed Miliband, Pope John Paul II, Benazir Bhutto, Aleksander Kwasniewski, Lech Kaczynski, Radek Sikorski, Malala Yousafzai, Queen Gorgo in 300, and many others.

It explains how even the most distinguished public speakers as well as business leaders and anyone aspiring to a leadership position can make ruinous blunders through misjudging the tone of the occasion. Yes, the legendary example of Gerald Ratner is covered. And it includes in the Appendix some of my original Foreign Office telegrams from Sarajevo and Warsaw reporting on speeches by world leaders that I watched at first hand.

* * * * *

Here is an extract exclusive to Commentator readers, from the Chapter Creating the Right Mood. Two examples showing how not to do it.

In 2010 the U.K.’s Lord Mandelson, as secretary of state for business, innovation and skills, visited India and delivered a keynote speech intended to praise India’s fast-growing ‘emerging’ economy:

For a couple of years up until about the middle of last year there was a debate going on in the financial services sector and in the financial media over the extent to which the emerging economies—including India, of course—had ‘decoupled’ from the developed world.

…I welcome the fact that the Indian government remains so committed to liberalization of its financial, legal and accountancy sectors, which will be an important contributor to attracting the foreign investment it wants for its large infrastructure projects.

The Indian knowledge economy has ambitions to cater for a global market. The expansion of Indian manufacturing, which the government rightly sees as central to defining India’s future place in global value chains, will be built on the further opening up of the Indian market to industrial imports

Hmm. This sort of thing is really hard to do without sounding subtly or not-so-subtly patronizing. Talking about or (much more riskily) “welcoming” what other countries or cultures believe, or are committed to, or see as their ambitions, almost invariably leaves a speaker sounding like a benevolent schoolteacher handing out small candies for good work.

The audience (in this case a senior Indian audience listening with intense attention to anything that might sound patronizing from a high politician from the former colonial power) instinctively heard condescending - go away!

A senior Indian speaker soon had the audience laughing at Lord Mandelson’s expense after he departed. He mocked Mandelson’s patronizing style and banal substance: “We look at the UK and see it as a sub-merging economy!”

* * * * *

For a top-end case-study in getting tone and substance completely wrong, it’s hard to beat the bizarre address by President Putin in 2005 at the ceremony to mark the 60th anniversary of the liberation of Auschwitz. He used his speech to press post-Soviet hardline talking-points:

Auschwitz does not just appeal to our memory, it appeals to our reason. Here, on this earth, soaked in blood and the ashes of victims of Nazism, we can truly see the future that fascism was preparing for Europe …

And here, on this tortured earth, we must say clearly and simply: any attempts to rewrite history, to put victims and executioners, liberators and occupiers on the same level, are immoral and incompatible with the thinking of people who consider themselves Europeans.

His message here? It’s immoral to compare Nazi concentration camps with Soviet gulags, or Nazism with Communism. Some of us, of course, believe that it’s immoral not to compare them.

On he went:

We pay tribute to the courage of  Soviet soldiers, 600,000 of whom gave their lives for the liberation of Poland. And we will never forget that the Soviet Union paid the most terrible, impossibly high price for this victory – 27 million lives!

Ridiculous propaganda. Poland was not ‘liberated’ by the Red Army. It was subjugated for over 40 years. He concluded on an inappropriate, irrelevant note:

But today we must not just remember the past, but recognise all the threats of the modern world, one of which is terrorism … Thousands of innocent people have already become its victims.

Just as there could not be good or bad Nazis, so there cannot be good or bad terrorists. Double standards are not only unacceptable here. They are deadly dangerous for civilisation.

Weary Soviet-style sophistry.

If you’re making a speech at Auschwitz, it’s never about you.

* * * * *

Note from The Editor. John O’Sullivan (previously one of Margaret Thatcher’s speechwriters) has given this book the highest praise:

Charles Crawford is the Dale Carnegie of speechwriting. Also its P.G. Wodehouse. His book is not only terrific practical advice that will win supporters and influence audiences, but also a very funny, entertaining read.”

Buy it here.

Charles Crawford is a Contributing Editor to The Commentator. A former British Ambassador in Sarajevo, Belgrade and Warsaw, he is now a private consultant and writer. His website is www.charlescrawford.biz. He tweets @charlescrawford

blog comments powered by Disqus