9. Why Bother Giving Speeches?

A speech is hard work. It takes time to write, it takes time to rehearse, it takes time to deliver. It’s more stress than a press release and can feel less permanent. It’s like making your own mayonnaise: the risk is that you put in all that effort but afterwards you wish you hadn’t bothered.

So why should you bother? 

Probably for the same reason that for thousands of years, nations at war have declared victory on the podium but defeat on paper.

The same reason that defining figures in space races, transformative new technologies and civil rights movements have all chosen speeches to launch their big ideas.

Namely, when you have something to say, no form of communication amplifies it better than a speech.

It brings together the speaker and the subject in a specific moment in time. Think of Steve Jobs's famous product launches. They were events, gatherings, where one person commanded the attention and even the thoughts of many. This temporary sense of community allowed Jobs to tell a compelling story about his company, rather than simply launching a couple of new phones. 

The personal nature of a good speech allows it to be euphoric or shocking or anything in between. Articles, reports and pamphlets all fail on this front because they rely on bald numbers, not storytelling.

Speeches also look good. A photo of you on stage, talking to an audience of hundreds, with all of them hanging on to your every word, is superior in every way to a photo of you holding up a glossy report. The speech and the report might make the same points. The report might even be more comprehensive. But only one of them resembles leadership in action. That’s why Facebook’s newspaper ads, taken out a few weeks ago in an attempt to address concerns about data harvesting, won’t change much, and why Mark Zuckerberg should get on stage and talk to people IRL.

Mark Zuckerberg's newpaper apology

Mark Zuckerberg's newpaper apology

Speaking of social media, has the pick-and-mix immediacy of Twitter and the rest undermined the power of one person on a platform talking for ten minutes?

Far from it. Good speeches bend social media to their will. Twitter and Youtube and Facebook are full of 90-second clips from Obama, Trump, Corbyn, Farage. The moment in the speech where the argument gleams brightest can now be glimpsed not just by the people in the room but by seven billion people across the world. Prime Minister’s Questions has been shaped by this trend, with both Theresa May’s and Jeremy Corbyn’s teams each furiously brainstorming short passages, of ten seconds or less, that can be tweeted out for the next couple of news cycles.

These passages are often based around the rhetorical moments that would seem absurd, or at least self-important, in other forms of communication. Anecdotes, for example, or rebuttals of opponents’ views. Killer metaphors.Jokes. Passion. The good bits. The bits that only speeches can really carry off.

But it isn't just politicians or Silicon Valley evangelists who should pay attention to the potential power of speeches. We all should. Because whether you're speaking at a tiny gathering or a huge conference, inspiring, personal, unique speeches will always be memorable and they’ll always be effective.

Yes, there are risks involved, as there are with any form of communication. But speeches can do more for your comms strategy and more for your personal profile than any number of articles or insight documents.

At their best, they can change the world.

That’s why you should bother.

8. Weddings

I got married a few weeks ago. Like most grooms, I had to give a speech. And like most grooms, I tore a good deal of my hair out over what to say.

It’s easy to see why people go on Youtube, search for ‘best wedding speeches’ and start plagiarising. It’s easy to see why people spend £100 on a couple of corny cut-and-paste jokes online. It’s easy to see why people take a punt that none of their guests will have seen ‘Four Weddings and a Funeral’, and just copy Hugh Grant’s speech word-for-word. But none of those are good ideas because good wedding speeches are one-offs.

I managed to scrape something together on the day. It wasn’t ideal. I certainly didn’t feel prepared when I stood up and turned on the mic and saw 120 pairs of eyes gazing at me expectantly. But it was enough. It worked. People laughed in the right places and understood what I was saying. And the reason it all turned out OK was that I followed three rules, which will improve almost every speech you’ll ever deliver.

1.      Keep it short. My speech was five minutes. It can be longer than that, but be careful – too long and you risk going on a bit, telling stories or in-jokes that half the people in the audience don’t find remotely funny. Seven or eight minutes is a decent rule of thumb.

2.      Have light and shade. People want to laugh, but they also want you to be serious about why you’re there. They want you to reveal a bit of yourself, maybe even demonstrate a bit of vulnerability. So by all means tell that story about the time you accidentally climbed into bed with your father-in-law, but don’t forget to follow it with a story that demonstrates the close relationship you have with your partner.

3.      Commit the anecdotes to memory. It’s fine to write out the speech word-for-word and read it out. But when it comes to the anecdotes, which you might have told a million times before, try speaking off the top of your head. It sounds more natural. It allows you to connect with the audience. And even if you lose your way a bit, you know that you’re holding the full script in your hand, so you can revert back to that at any time.

The truth is that there’s no formula for a good speech, let alone a good wedding speech. But by bearing in mind these three basic principles, you’ll give yourself a great shot at writing something that’s memorable for all the right reasons.

7. Don't let them eat cake

Over the past fortnight a pick-and-mix of government ministers have delivered a series of speeches under the banner of ‘the Road to Brexit’. Today it was the PM’s turn. And far from the pancake-smooth autobahn that Liam Fox and Boris Johnson described in their own speeches, Theresa May described a road pockmarked with potholes and roadworks. She admitted that ‘our access to each other’s markets will be less’, for example, and that ECJ rulings will continue to apply here, at least temporarily.

This shouldn’t come as a surprise. First because this approach was trailed by the BBC’s Laura Kuenssberg here. But also, as the Guardian's Andrew Sparrow writes at 09.20 here, because the PM has often been criticised for being too blasé about the complexity of Brexit, and about the trade-offs it'll involve. She’s right to confront that criticism, or at least appear as if she’s doing so.

It’s worth noting that Theresa May’s three best, most memorable and most effective speeches – the three speeches that did more than any others to position her as a leader – also focused on delivering hard truths.

First there was the ‘nasty party’ speech of 2004, which slapped her own party in the chops.

Then there was the Police Federation speech in 2014, in which she accused a hugely powerful group of ‘contempt for the public’ and developed her reputation for taking on vested interests.

Finally there was her speech outside Number 10 in 2016, her first speech as leader of the Conservative Party, which attracted significant praise for its radicalism – and for the fact that it was short and to the point. The beginning of today’s speech strongly echoed this rhetoric.

Today’s Mansion House speech wasn't bad. It was a meaningful contribution to the Brexit process and had some tasty turns of phrase. And although it probably won’t join that group of career high points, it was interesting to see the PM reverting back to the realistic, this-is-how-it-is tone that has worked so well for her in the past.

The question is whether it’ll work as well today, when she spoke not as an upstart, not as an insurgent, but as Prime Minister – a Prime Minister who, on the road to Brexit, hauls behind her the collected weight of 18 tough months in Downing Street.

6. Carrot and stick, or gilding the Lilley

Recently it’s seemed like Britain is going through an extremely difficult adolescence, changing from one thing into another, working out which parts of its old personality to keep hold of and which to shrug off.

In other words it looks a bit like this: 

Blackadder (via  www.bbc.com )

Blackadder (via www.bbc.com)

The Brexit vote, the rise and fall of UKIP, the fall and rise of Jeremy Corbyn, and an increasingly difficult relationship with business, Parliament and the media all illustrate this upheaval. Lately I’ve been interested in reading speeches from similar periods of great upheaval in British social and political life and examining how speakers previously made sense of what was going on around them.

I expected to spend most of my time on the social revolutions of 1945 and the 60s/70s. I didn’t expect to find myself reading and rereading a speech less than 20 years old, and I certainly didn’t expect that speech to be by Peter Lilley, who (with all respect to him) hardly has a reputation as a modern-day Churchill. But then I read this:


It’s a fascinating early attempt to rebrand the Conservative party after the bloodbath of the 1997 general election. And it’s important to note that the Peter Lilley of 1999 wasn’t the Peter Lilley of today – a prominent Eurosceptic and occasional rebel, secure enough and comfortable enough to defy the Whips at will. In 1999 Lilley was deputy leader of the party. It was his job to speak for Conservatives across the land. To help lead the party through an electoral Sahara. And he clearly felt that the best way to do this was to admit their shortcomings quickly, publicly and without caveat.

“The public's greatest area of unease about Conservatives is our supposedly hostile attitude to the Welfare State and particularly to Health and Education.”

Or “Conservatives' intellectual body language has conveyed a palpable feeling of guilt about support for the public services.”

Or “Unless and until we are prepared to accept that there is more to life and more to Conservatism than defending and extending the free market, we will always be on the intellectual back foot where the public services are concerned.”

These are huge, bold statements. But they were refined even further, distilled into pure poison, by none other than the current Prime Minister, Theresa May, a few years later, with her famous ‘nasty party’ speech to the Conservative party conference in 2002. The speech is here:


Some party activists would have recoiled at this language, or been offended by it. But here’s the thing. It’s notable that both Lilley and May use their speeches to praise their party leaders. And they don’t denigrate the previous leaders who presided over electoral oblivion.

That’s important and it summarises something important about successful ‘rebranding’ speeches – indeed successful speeches of all types. There has to be both carrot and stick.

The stick is the admission that things can’t go on as they are. It’s the fact that bovine acceptance of the status quo is for some reason unwise or even threatening. It’s the context for your new product or for the activities of your well-established organisation.  

The carrot is the incentive to change – the positive rather than negative case. It’s the vision of what will happen if you do buy the new product or accept that organisation’s expertise.

The most successful speakers during times of serious social upheaval all understand this message. Blair, Barack, Bevan. But we can use that model whenever we speak, in order to strengthen our message, write a more interesting speech and arrive at a more compelling more effective narrative.

5. Speechwriting: it's a funny old game

Last month, tiny Lincoln City slayed the Goliath of Burnley Football Club, and in doing so became the first non league side in modern times to make the quarter finals of the FA Cup. Cue scenes of utter delirium - and never mind the fact that they were themselves unceremoniously dumped out of the Cup by Arsenal yesterday.

How did they upset all the odds to beat a team 80 places above them in the Football League? “We broke the game into six 15-minute periods,” said their manager, Danny Cowley. His idea was that by coming up with specific strategies for each slice of the match, they could control the game far better than if the players had just gone out with a general but inflexible idea of what they wanted to achieve.

The same is true with speeches. As a minimum, every speech should evolve through a beginning, a middle and an end, so the audience feels guided along a rhetorical path.

But why stop with just three sections?

Aristotle – one of the fathers of rhetoric – wrote that an argument had four parts: the introduction, the central claim, the evidence and the conclusion.

Predating Danny Cowley by a good 2,000 years, Roman writers then expanded Aristotle’s four parts into six: the introduction, the statement of the case, a preview of the argument’s major points, the evidence, the refutation of counter-arguments, and the conclusion.

It’s not a rigid rule. so you can mix the sections around if you want. But the idea is that a speech is at its strongest when it comes at the argument from a variety of angles rather than just battering the audience with fact after fact after fact.  

Let’s say you want to persuade employers to let staff stay in bed until noon every day.

One way to do that would be to treat the speech as a conveyor belt for a series of points that support your argument: it’ll reduce sickness; it’ll make staff feel valued; it’ll increase sales of pillowcases, eye masks and alarm clocks. So on and so on. Thank you and goodnight.

But a better way would be to introduce the topic, tell the audience you view, back them up with those three points, point to relevant evidence (for example, what happened when our competitors tried the same thing), pick holes in the opposing arguments ("some say that this is nothing but laziness…but staff are knackered in the mornings anyway, so productivity will probably improve"), and then close with a rousing call-to-arms to Britain’s duvet-hoggers. 

It’s rare for people to say that their latest speech was inspired by the manager of Lincoln City FC.  But just occasionally, it’s justified. As Sir Alex Ferguson almost said: “speechwriting, eh? Bloody hell.”

4. Poacher turned gamekeeper

I had to give a speech the other day. Not a presentation, or a training session. A full speech. Ten minutes behind a lectern with an audience of upturned faces in front of me. Like most of the rest of humanity, I get nervous in situations like that. Unlike most of the rest of humanity, however, I had a couple of coping strategies up my sleeve.

In fact, if you look at one of the photos of my speech (it’s used as a banner here: https://www.speechwritingplus.com/contact/, or in smaller format below) you’ll be able to see right up that sleeve both literally and metaphorically. Literally, because it’s bang in front of the camera. And metaphorically, because you can evidence of a few of my coping strategies is on display – if you know where to look.

1. Scout the venue. Even if you’re familiar with the room that you’ll speak in, as I was, you might not be familiar with it as a speaker. So: what sort of lectern is there, and does it have enough space to rest your script, a drink of water, your props and anything else you might need? Will the audience be standing up or sitting down, and will you have to adjust the length of your speech accordingly? And what’s the mic like? In the photo you can see that my mic’s in a good position – I adjusted it beforehand. A small thing, but it all matters.

2.  Hold on. If you’re nervous, and you’re speaking from behind a relatively substantial, relatively high lectern, then try holding on to the lectern. This can achieve two things. First, it reinforces your posture and makes you feel sturdier. And second, it can stop you gesticulating too much. Both have the effect of improving your standing in the eyes of the audience.

3. The big one: practice. I hadn’t learnt my speech off by heart, but I’d read it through often enough that the basic thread was very familiar. Because I knew what was coming, I was able to look around the room more freely, to make eye contact with specific people and to vary the pace of the speech so that the key bits were really hammered home.

There are more of these little hints. Plenty more. They vary depending on whether you’re speaking in a shop or a stadium, based in a boardroom or a bandstand, or standing on a stage or a soapbox. I can help explain them to you as part of my speech training courses for groups or individuals. Email me at robert@speechwritingplus.org if you want to find out more.


Photo by www.benbroomfield.com

Photo by www.benbroomfield.com

3. Look up

Lord Darzi of Denham OM, KBE, PC, FRS, FMedSci, FRCSI, FRCS, FRCSE, FRCPGlas, FACS, FRCP, FREng. My first boss, and an intimidating one at that. He worked two jobs at the time: one as a health minister, the other as a world-leading surgeon. This gave him a fabulous arsenal of stories, particularly from his early days in the operating theatres of Dublin and London. One in particular has stuck with me.

He was taking a small team of civil servants round St Mary's Hospital in Paddington, where he’s based, when he stopped us in the middle of a corridor. ‘I’m going to show you the part of this hospital that I’m proudest of’, he said. We’d already seen some mind boggling machinery, and tried our hand at the exercises that trainee surgeons use to hone their dexterity (the first – stacking sugar cubes on top of one another using remote-controlled pincers – sounded simple but was infuriating) so we wondered what could possibly come next. We looked at him expectantly.

‘Look up’, he said, with the wave of a hand. We looked up and saw the ceiling. A nice ceiling, but just a ceiling. No flashing lights or pneumatic gizmos. Not even any sugar cubes. So we looked back down again and wondered what he meant.

‘Clean, isn’t it? Most hospital ceilings are filthy, but because cleaners and clinicians and managers only ever look forwards, they never see them.’ He went on to tell us that while he was a trainee he did a couple of shifts with the porters, getting a feel for what it was like to work throughout the hospital, and then he stretched out on a bed and asked one of them to wheel him around, to get a similar feel for what it was like to be a patient. And while he was laying on his back, going down corridors, in lifts and around different wards, he saw ceilings that made his toes curl.

He never forgot it. Even now, 30 years later, he still looks up at the ceilings to check they’re clean – and he tells his staff to remember the importance of seeing things from the patients’ point of view.

That client-focused approach applies to good speechwriting just as much as it does to good clinical care. It’s my job to see things through the eyes of the speaker rather than myself. This means three things.

First, I like to visit the place where the speech will be given. Even better is standing where the actual stage will be. This allows me to see what the speaker will see: how big the room is, whether it’s hot or cold, whether there’s natural light, whether there’s any art, or a hundred other factors that can affect how the speech is delivered and received.

Second, it’s helpful to find out who will actually listen to the speech itself. This is key to working out what to say, how the speaker will come across and which rhetorical devices will work best, as well as what sort of questions the audience might ask afterwards.

And third, it’s so, so important to talk properly to the client before I even put pen to paper. I was once given a brief by an executive of a large retailer who wanted me to ‘write a speech about the EU’, with no information on what he thought or why he thought it. In the end it was a successful speech, but only because I managed to arrange a meeting with him and his colleagues where I learnt everything I needed. Besides, visiting a client in their office can often be a great way to get to know their values and approach, and those of their employer. It's amazing how much you can absorb just by walking through an office and seeing what's going on.

That's what Lord Darzi's story was all about. He knew the importance of seeing things through other people's eyes and gathering information from a range of different perspectives. I try to do the same today. The more information is available before a speech is written, the more powerful and effective it'll be. Otherwise your audience will probably end up looking at the ceiling too.

2. What can PG Wodehouse teach us about speechwriting?

"One has to regard a man as a Master," said Evelyn Waugh of PG Wodehouse, "who can produce on average three uniquely brilliant and entirely original similes on every page".

He’s right, as Waugh often was. A selection of the Jeeves and Wooster author’s better-known turns of phrase might include the following:

“[She] looked as if she had been poured into her clothes and had forgotten to say ‘when’.”

“I started back to the house, and in the drive I met Jeeves. Beside him, looking like a Scotch elder rebuking sin, was the dog Bartholomew.”

“I’d always thought him half-baked, but now I think they didn’t even put him in the oven.”

Hillaire Belloc was a particular fan of Wodehouse’s writing in general and his metaphors and similes in particular. His favourite was Wodehouse’s description of Honoria Glossop as “one of those robust, dynamic girls with the muscles of a welterweight and a laugh like a squadron of cavalry charging over a tin bridge.”

These descriptions are vivid enough to stick in the mind, and yet, as Waugh said, there are often three to a page. The overall effect is one of such comic depth, such unremitting skill, that Wodehouse came to be described as ‘The Master’.

But it isn’t just novels that benefit from vivid imagery and metaphors. Speeches do too. In fact many of the most memorable speeches, both real and fictional, use similar figures of speech as a central part of their impact.

The entire Gettysburg Address is one long metaphor about life, beginning with birth (“fourscore and seven years ago our fathers brought forth on this continent a new nation, conceived in liberty”), continuing through death (“a final resting-place for those who here gave their lives”) and circling round to life again (“this nation under God shall have a new birth of freedom”). Though the Address is only 270 words long, it couched the upcoming battle in terms of the continuity – even transcendence – of the nation. The metaphor of birth and rebirth is powerful. Presidents, Prime Ministers and CEOs use it all the time, to cultivate a sense of progress and almost parental pride among their countrymen or their staff. But those metaphors, like all figures of speech, are only ever truly successful if they’re either intense, funny, dramatic, unexpected or well-judged enough to be memorable.

It can be difficult, but it’s possible to use metaphors so memorable that they expand beyond their original setting and enter the public consciousness.

“Friends, Romans, Countrymen, lend me your ears.”

“I have a dream.”

“One small step for man…a giant leap for mankind”

That last one is a particularly interesting example. Neil Armstrong and his wife came up with the line, but their scripted version had Armstrong saying “one giant leap for a man”, and for years afterwards both insisted that this was the version that Armstrong came out with in that famous recording. Could it be that the apparent omission of ‘a’ made the metaphor even more striking, by blurring the meaning of the statement and making it more mysterious, perhaps even more fitting for such a mind-boggling achievement as landing on the moon? It’s impossible to know. But what we can say is that Armstrong’s slight omission is now one of the most famous phrases in human history.

Wodehouse’s metaphors might never reach that level of appreciation. But they do teach speakers and speechwriters that lively and characterful prose is far more memorable than another bland and colourless succession of facts, assertions and opinions. Audiences can’t help it: their ears always prick up when they listen to metaphor.

1. The first advice I ever got as a speechwriter

"Bob, I want you to do something for me. I want you to write my next dozen speeches in the pub."

This was the first advice I ever got as a speechwriter. It was given to me by my minister at the Department of Health, on the day I began working for her, and it's still some of the best advice I’ve ever had because it gets to the root of what’s wrong with so many speeches – their stifling technicality.

I had just handed her a speech that I was absolutely delighted with. I’d worked at the Department of Health for a few years in a couple of other jobs, and I had channelled all that experience and knowledge into this one piece of work. Everything I knew about public health, about psychology, about the challenges facing the NHS, about the pressure on A&E services… it was all in there. I think there was even a comparison between hospital food and airline food, and this was a speech about maternity services.

It was done for the right reasons. But in reality, people hate that technical stuff. Far better to concentrate on simplicity, on stories and on frankness. In other words, on normality. My minister, who was an exceptionally good speaker and who remains particularly good at striking up a rapport with an audience, understood that.

The US Presidential debates in 2000 illustrated the same thing. Al Gore had facts and figures at his fingertips and he used them constantly and aggressively, trying to batter George W. Bush into submission with this tidal wave of incontrovertible information. He went after Bush’s spending proposals in particular. The insurance premiums of a seventy year-old man, Gore claimed, “would go up by between 18% and 47%, and that is the study of the congressional plan that he’s modelled his proposals on by the Medicare actuaries.” But not only did Bush withstand that argument, he ended up getting the better of it. “[It sounds like Gore] invented the calculator,” said Bush. “It’s fuzzy math… Everyone who pays taxes should get tax-relief."

With offhand humour and one simple statement, Bush had blunted Gore’s statistics and undermined his entire argument, while positioning himself as a straightforward guy. Someone who talks like a normal person and understands a normal person’s worries. Someone you’d go for a beer with. 

So back we come to the pub. What my minister wanted was that accessibility, that simplicity, that Bush had in buckets. She wanted me to write like he spoke. I took her advice, decamped to the Red Lion on Whitehall, and in that environment, separated from the language of policy wonks and ministerial submissions, surrounded by normal people and everyday language, I wrote her next dozen speeches.  

She loved them.