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.