speechwriter’s notes: on voice and vision

A while back, I was writing a speech for a visionary leader.

(To be clear, it wasn’t Martin Luther King… this was 2006!)

It was the first time we’d worked together.

I was having a hard time finding the right “voice” for him, one to suit both the topic and the leader’s character – he was a blunt, plain-speaking type.

He was truly charismatic. But that came out in his ideas and the values he stood for, not in the way he spoke.

I was halfway through when he asked me to share it, so 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?”

He mentioned Martin Luther King – the March on Washington.. John F. Kennedy – the Inauguration… Ronald Reagan – the Berlin Wall…

Three of the most famous and influential speeches of the past century – no false modesty there. Three speeches, delivered by masters of delivery, blessed with a faultless sense of drama and timing – true performers, who relished their performances, and believed, believed in their message.

But then, thinking about those speeches, something struck me.

I have a dream… Ask not what your country… Mr Gorbachev, tear down this wall!

They were all written in very simple words, talking about very simple (but very high) ideals – making appeals which remain inspirational today. They didn’t just believe in their ideals, they lived, they embodied them…

My client’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 the power of those speeches is in their truths, the beliefs and conviction they convey, not in the words used to convey them. In a speech, words are mere vehicles for vision, and it’s not what you say that shapes a vision, it’s what you make people see – that’s why getting the voice right is so crucial.

Sometimes, a speechwriter has to prune the words, strip them down to let the vision shine through.

I tried to explain this to my visionary leader – he wasn’t having any, insisted he wanted a fancier speech. So to show him, I gave him what he wanted. I composed a speech full of high-falutin’, flowery, Latinate language, climactic rhythms, telling poetic images. 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 very 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 looked at me with grudging resentment. I told him we had to ditch the flowery stuff. Express his ideas the simplest way we could.

Finally he let me do what I do; I rewrote the speech.

Now, 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, when he made his speech, 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.”

I laughed.

Because words can get in the way of vision. And sometimes, a speechwriter should just get out of the way.