I was writing a speech for a visionary leader.
(To be clear, it wasn’t Martin Luther King… this was a well-known businessman and it was in 2006)
It was the first time we’d worked together.
I was having a hard time finding the right “voice” for him. It had to suit both the topic and the leader’s character – he was one of those blunt, plain-speaking types. And, although he was a truly charismatic man, his charisma shone through his ideas and what he stood for, not so much in the far-from-winning way he expressed himself.
I was about halfway through when he asked me to share what I’d done.
I showed him my draft.
“This language is too simple,” he said. “Can’t you make it more inspirational?”
“I can make it whatever you want,” I said. “But what does inspirational mean to you?”
“Martin Luther King, the March on Washington.. John F. Kennedy, the Inauguration… Ronald Reagan, at the Berlin Wall.”
Three of the most famous and influential speeches of the past century. There was no false modesty in my visionary leader. No inhibitions about how high to set the bar.
But thinking about those speeches, something struck me.
I have a dream… Ask not what your country… Mr Gorbachev, tear down this wall!
They were written in very simple words, in the service of very simple (but very high) ideals – towering sentiments which remain inspirational today… Three speeches, delivered by three masters of delivery – real performers, who relished their performances, blessed with a faultless sense of drama and timing.
My visionary leader’s thoughts on the circular economy, for all their topical edginess, weren’t really in the same league.
More to the point, now, he was misremembering the speeches. In his memory, they’d become something they weren’t. He thought their power came from some occult power of words. He thought they were full of cute rhetorical tricks, flowery poetic language – he wanted some of that. But in fact, the power of those speeches resides in the truths, the appeals and the vision they convey, not the words used to convey them. Words are just vehicles for vision; it’s not what you say that shapes the vision, it’s what you make people see – that’s what getting the voice right is all about.
Sometimes, a speechwriter has to prune the words, to let the vision shine through.
I tried to explain this to my visionary leader, but he wasn’t having any. He wouldn’t budge from his belief that his speech had to be fancy. So, to show him the way, I gave him what he wanted. I wrote a speech full of high-falutin’, flowery language and climactic rhythms. A tired Hollywood scriptwriter’s idea of a speechwriter’s skill, a visionary voice.
He practised delivering the speech to a couple of colleagues. It fell flat. The people listening were too polite to make it plain, but they weren’t being swept away by the power of his oratory.
He cast me a look of grudging resentment. I told him we had to ditch that flowery language. We had to express his ideas the simplest way we could.
There was some protest and argument, but finally he let me do what I do. Not best pleased – I reckoned I wouldn’t be invited round again. I settled down to rewrite the speech.
It is much, much harder to write simply, to cut and edit your words so that they sound like the speech of a blunt, plain-speaking man. Like his own, unmediated words.
In the end, he made his speech. Against the odds, it went down very well. People gathered round to congratulate him. They said they’d never known he was such a powerful speaker. They said his words had inspired them, opened their eyes to dazzling new possibilities.
He joined me afterwards to sort of thank me.
“It went really well,” he said with a smile. He spread his arms in a somewhat hapless gesture. “It looks like I don’t really need a speechwriter.”
Because words can get in the way of vision. And sometimes, a speechwriter should just get out of the way.