Tuesday, October 19, 2004

Chrenk's Speechwriting 101 

Yesterday I quoted Mark Steyn and the deputy leader of the Liberal Party Peter Costello on differences between political styles and political rhetoric between the United States and Australia. Costello was of the opinion that American style doesn't work Down Under; Steyn said that it didn't really matter, as he prefers the Australian one, anyway. I promised (well, not quite, but in any case I feel obliged) to write a bit more about these differences. What's below is literally only "a bit more" but I thought it might still be a worthwhile if brief contribution to the topic. I wrote it before my blogging days (God, was there really something before blogging?) and although I'm not generally environmentally-minded, I like recycling. As you will be able to see, I'm an American speechwriter trapped in an Australian body.

Can there be any greater contrast between speech-writing style of George W Bush and John Howard? What’s the last speech of any Australian politician that's remembered for good reasons, and not because it came back to haunt the speaker? ("...by 1990 no child in Australia will live in poverty...", "...the things that batter..." [Labor's Bob Hawke's and Liberal's Alexander Downer's respectively; the former because it was a silly promise that couldn't be delivered, the latter because it was
a poor attempt at humor]) Why is that the rest of the world cringes every time an American president invokes a higher power, or speaks in the language of moral absolutes?

The chances are that you've never given any thought such questions. The chances are this is because anytime a politician opens his or her or - if you follow the overwhelming public sentiment – its mouth, your eyes glaze over, your mind tunes out, and your fingers reach for the remote control. Not many people listen to the pollies speaking (unless they are forced to), even fewer people stop and analyse not just what they are being told, but also the way they are being told.

Let us take a quick look at the speech-writing prowesses of Howard and Bush respectively. Where Howard is down to earth, Bush is exuberant; where Howard is understated, Bush is memorable; Howard’s speeches are largely rhetoric-free zones, those of Bush are spiced with flourish. These generalisations hold even truer when applied to speech-making styles of Australian and American politicians as a whole.

The explanations for this divergence are many, but the most valuable line of inquiry concerns national history and national character. The United States was founded and nourished by religious and political dissidents. These were the people who reached deep into the well of Biblical language and imagery to express their visions of the present and the future. While some were inspired by Jerusalem, others preferred to reach back and embrace the classical heritage of Athens and Rome. The end result was a nation of preachers and orators who took their politics and civic life very seriously indeed. From the first days of Puritan settlements, the Americans (before they even knew they were Americans) perceived themselves as special in the greater scheme of things, a divinely-inspired experiment, "a shining city on the hill." As the United States grew more powerful, and eventually attained the status of a superpower and "the leader of the Free World," American politicians came to realise that they are speaking not just to domestic audiences, but indeed to the whole world.

Now take a look at Australia – a large landmass but a small nation, a continent suffering from
"the tyranny of distance" to abroad and harsh, inhospitable environment at home. First a penal settlement, then a colonial outpost, our nation was built by rebels and politician-haters who nevertheless ironically always looked to the government for protection and support. They made the Australia of today into a country that spends its time on the beach and not inside a church, idolises sportspeople and damns politicians, celebrates heroic defeats and views success with disdain and suspicion.

No wonder the United States gave us Lincoln’s "mystic chords of memory", Kennedy’s "ask not...", Reagan’s "ash heap of history", Bush Sr’s "thousand points of light" and his son’s "axis of evil." No surprise, also, that in Australia, the only poignancy, feeling, and even (God forbid) flashes of rhetoric pop up when our leaders speak of
Anzacs – be it Keating in 1993 at the funeral of the unknown soldier, or Howard in 2000 at Lone Pine.

But it’s time for a reality check now. All this talk about great oratory, or lack thereof, on both sided of the Pacific merely obscures the fact that 99.9% of all political speeches are boring. For every "I have a dream" there are 10,000 explanations why the government considers it to be in the public interest to regulate sale of milk. The main purpose of political speeches is to sell the government policy to people who don’t want to buy anything, or to savage the opposition’s policies to people who couldn’t care less who the opposition is. Politicians tend to speak to small group of the converted, or large groups of the indifferent, and sometimes even to nobody at all (if you don’t believe me, check out Australian Parliament or American Congress on an average day). Very often our leaders speak off-the-cuff, rehashing half a dozen talking points they memorised before; almost as frequently they read out word for word tedious speeches prepared for them by their departments. Here there is no need – and no room – for any "tricks", the delivery hardly matters, and no one notices when the speaker strays from the script.

That’s the stark reality. But what if we do want to write something memorable, even historical, for our politician? What tricks can we use to ensure our product ends up into the next edition of William Safire’s "Lend Me Your Ears"? (no, it’s not a biography of
"Chopper" Read, but a veritable bible for speech-writers and speech-lovers, an anthology to get you inspired, and more often, make you jealous.)

Why are some speeches so much better than others? A rather obvious, if also rather circular answer is that they are written by good speechwriters. On that account alone the economies of scale will suggest that US Presidents will have the best luck. Roosevelt had Robert Sherwood, who also happened to be a successful playwright, Nixon had Safire (he of the above-mentioned anthology) and Buchanan (who might be an unsavoury throwback to economic, racial and foreign policies of the 1930s but he still is a damn good wordsmith). Ronald Reagan had Peggy Noonan, and George W relied initially on the talents of David Frum, one of the best right-wing journalists in North America today (Frum is Canadian).

But even if you’re not in that major league (God knows I’m not, but would love to be), don’t despair, for not all is lost. I can’t offer too many good suggestions, but here are a few to get you started:

Choose a good topic that is conducive of taking strong stances. It is difficult (but probably not impossible) to sweep the nation with you as you discuss salinity or trade practices reform. On the other hand, talk about the war in Iraq, Australia’s place in Asia, multiculturalism, or the future of our constitutional system, and you’re off to a good start. Oh, and once you’ve got a good topic don’t forget to actually say something on it! You don’t have to be inflammatory or controversial, but you can’t be pissweak either.

Write for the topic, as well as for the audience. If you’re speaking to a friendly group which will cheer and clap at appropriate moments, you can build the speech in such a way as to pre-arrange those interactive crescendos. If the audience is not going to oblige, such verbal climaxes will only make you look stupid and out of touch.

Open with something interesting to capture the audiences’ attention right from the start. Some people start with a one-liner or a joke, I personally like short stories that in a simple way say something about the speaker, or the topic, or sometimes both at the same time.

Try to come up with a clever phrase or a term that will stay in people’s memory – something like the "evil empire" or an "axis of evil", or our very own
"light on the hill". Just as good is a catchy sentence, like "Mr Gorbachev, tear down this wall!", "We have nothing to fear but the fear itself", or far more pedestrian but still effective "We will decide who comes to this country and the circumstances in which they come".

I love repetition for good effect – of words, or parts of sentences; usually three times, sometimes even more if you can get away with it. My favourite comes from JFK in June 1963, speaking not far away from the freshly erected Berlin Wall: "There are many people in the world who really don’t understand, or say they don’t, what is the great issue between the free world and the Communist world. Let them come to Berlin. There are some who say that Communism is the way of the future. Let them come to Berlin. And there are some who say that in Europe and elsewhere we can work with the Communists. Let them come to Berlin. And there are even a few who say that it is true that Communism is an evil system, but it permits us to make economic progress. Lasst sie nacht Berlin kommen! Let them come to Berlin!" Or one from the recent debates in the run up to the Iraqi war – not as elaborate, but fast and punchy: "It’s peace for Mr Crean, peace for Ms Macklin, peace for Senators Faulkner, Bartlett and Brown, but it’s hell for Iraqi people" [all Labor or minor party anti-war politicians].

Use short sentences! Long ones are difficult to read and even more difficult to say out loud or listen to. Speakers need to catch their breath, too. Plus short sentences have more punch and more impact. It’s a steady artillery fire, instead of a drone of a bomber flying somewhere overhead.

After you write a speech, read it out aloud – not mumble under your nose, but speak up, as it will be delivered by your politician. Some things look good on paper but sound absolutely dreadful when said aloud. Some words seem easy when on the page, but bastards to say out loud and pronounce properly. This rule is an offshoot of the previous one – just as you use short sentences, use short, simple, words. The audiences will understand, and your boss will thank you.

Delivery, Part I – speak, don’t read, or at least don’t look down at your papers too often. Pollies who participate in the second reading debate on the Corporate Law (Amendments of Amendments) Bill 2003 don’t really give a stuff – because neither does anyone else. But if you want to make an impact you need to engage the audience: it’s about eye contact, which leads to control, which leads to impact. To be able to deliver a speech fluently you need to practice. Good memory helps, but even average one will do with enough experience.

Delivery, Part II – slow down for effect. It will make your message seem more serious and profound, and you, the speaker, seem more in control as well as more empathetic with the message. Use for "serious", sad, important topics.

Delivery, Part III – don’t underestimate the force of a pause and a moment of silence. Ostensibly to let the listeners reflect on what you’ve just said – in reality there’s not enough time for reflection, so the real reason is to make greater impact. Sometimes slow drops are more powerful than a torrent. Use it when you’re having a go at somebody/something. Imagine an American Indian chief speaking up against his white nemesis: "They said they come in peace. (pause) They lied. (pause). Then they killed. (pause). And raped. (pause) And pillaged. (pause)" and so on.

And finally – finish with a punch.


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