‘The words belong to the leader’ – the greatest lesson in speech writing.
It was on a winter’s day in Boston that I learned the greatest lesson in speech writing.
Ted Sorensen, the acclaimed speechwriter to John F Kennedy has just finished speaking at the Kennedy Library. After the speech, a small group of us gathered to speak with this oracle of history.
I had purchased Sorensen’s book Counselor at the bookstore (a fine book on his times with JFK) and asked him if he would sign my copies. With hands that appeared to be suffering from the pains of arthritis, Sorensen slowly and meticulously signed and inscribed the books.
We were still talking when another man brought over a book for Sorensen to sign. The man then said “Mr Sorensen, will you sign this as well” and he produced a parchment copy of the Kennedy Inaugural Speech.
Sorensen, of course, had toiled over that speech. In fact, after Kennedy had given a Farewell Address to Massachusetts days before the Inaugural, Joe Kennedy ripped strips off Sorensen because he believed that Farewell Address could never be bettered. “You should have saved it for the Inaugural”, Joe Kennedy fumed.
Joe Kennedy was wrong. Days later, his son delivered one of the finest speeches of the Twentieth Century and it turned Sorensen into the prince of speechwriters.
On that day at the Kennedy Library, Sorensen looked at the parchment, held his hand up and said, “I’m sorry sir, I can’t sign it. That’s President Kennedy’s speech”.
The first rule of speechwriting is to understand that you are writing to and for someone else. It is their speech, never yours.
I accept Paul Keating’s judgment about speechwriters “Craft can belong to speechwriters but sentiment and substance only belongs to the owners of the speech: the leaders”.
A speechwriter can’t graft wisdom to the foolish, courage to the meek, or strength to the timid, because to do so would be apparent to all. It is the leader and their judgment, virtue and character which give speeches their true form.
To write a speech is to engage with a leader around their voice. It is to reflect them, project them, and occasionally (just occasionally) it is to guide them.
The easiest way to find a leader’s voice is to talk with them. It is to start with the “what do you want to say?” and proceed from there.
Turn a digital recorder on and you will be surprised where the conversation ends.
I consider being the chief speechwriter to an Australian Prime Minister one of the great privileges of my life. Of course, it was also challenging because Tony Abbott is such a gifted writer – and any words, rightly, had to be as good as his.
In late 2014, the Prime Minister and I were talking about his planned speech to the Prime Minister’s Literary Awards. We talked about what he wanted to say and he said with a smile “We should tell them how much I enjoy reading Nikki Gemmell.”
That passing reference, along with his other observations became this opening:
“Ladies and gentleman, in February 2012, I received what I thought was an innocuous tweet asking whether I was reading anything at that moment that I’d recommend to others.
So, I replied: “I’ve just read Nikki Gemmell’s With My Body; a captivating successor to The Bride Stripped Bare!”
Now it’s not often that the Twitterverse comes to a standstill – but for a moment there was, it seems, a pause: perhaps an inaudible but palpable gasp of surprise.
Not least from Nikki Gemmell who wrote and “here was I thinking that the spring in his step was because of the machinations on the other side of politics!” This was in 2012, I hasten to add.
There seems to have been a shared assumption that my reading must be a dull reflection or reinforcement of views already held.
Likewise, when I respond to questions from young people about what they should read with the answer, the classics, Shakespeare and the Bible, it is seen as proof of a pre-existing world view – rather than an invitation to understand and appreciate the works that have shaped our culture and our world.
If I thought that young people had no need of such counsel – because they were already reading what’s sometimes called the Western canon – I would not offer that advice.
Our reading, after all, should challenge our thinking, not just confirm it.”
No matter if a speech is for a prime minister, CEO, or a celebrity, speechwriting should be considered a privilege because you get to work with others in projecting their voice. A good speech will eloquently reflect the speaker’s experiences, values, wisdom and above all, their essence.
A speechwriter should understand the unspoken pact between the writer and the principal that Sorensen had captured on that winter’s day: speechwriters have the privilege of crafting words for others, but once those words are uttered he or she can no longer claim ownership of the words. The words belong to the leader.
Paul Ritchie was chief speechwriter to Tony Abbott throughout the Abbott prime-ministership and is now Senior Writer at Speech-Write.