"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.