A Researcher’s Guide to Speechwriting

Ah, speechwriting. At once one of the most enjoyable, and most nail-bitingly terrifying things that the average bag carrier gets to try their hand at, short of standing between some honourable members and the Stranger’s Bar at opening time. Unlike Ministers with their armies of civil servants, paid professionals, and actual resources, many opposition or back-bench MPs often have neither the time nor the inclination to write every speech they make, and Lo have turned to their poor, woe-begotten, already-have-17-things-to-do-before-lunchtime researcher, and said “Right, this speech tomorrow. I’ll need you to write it, and put it in my hand just as I nip back to the office before the start of the debate, after a spot of breakfast in the Member’s Canteen. I won’t have time to read it before I go in.” Gulp.

But have no fear, remain calm, relax, (throw something at the picture of your boss that you have nailed to a dartboard for just such an occasion, to remove any unspent anger and hostility) and you will prevail. The thing to remember about speechwriting is:

  1. It is actually quite good fun once you get into it, even if the deadline is ridiculous and seemingly impossible (it never actually is; somehow, like DHL, you always find a way), and
  2. The House of Commons Library. The Library is the Parliamentary Researcher’s godsend, their knight in shining armour, their rescue dog with a cask of warm beer sent out to find lost travellers among the ice and snow on the side of a mountain in the middle of a blizzard. If you don’t know what the focus of a debate will be, or what people have said on an issue before, ask the Library. Or go online for a debate pack specially prepared by the Library’s top boffins, which might actually be the best thing since the bread-slicer. If you don’t know why the Honourable Member for Chesenham has asked for time to debate the 1947 Sewage Reduction and Redistribution Act, or which Statutory instrument it actually was which amended animal welfare regulations to permit the owning and training of gerbils, ask the Library. If there’s ghosts in your neighbourhood… well, they could probably handle that too.

Once you have decided what actually needs to be in the speech, you can devote all your attention to how to say it. The key, as with many things, is clarity and brevity. Be clear what you are saying, and for heaven’s sake be brief. The Gettysburg Address was a mere 272 words, Winston Churchill’s famous speech after the Battle of Britain only 207. However, I have known backbench speeches on new regulations governing pigeon fancying in Wales to last longer than the Eastenders Christmas Special. I think you see my point.

But in preparing your own version of Martin Luther King’s ‘I have a dream’ speech also remember that some people have actually done this for a living, and then have gone on to earn a real wage by writing books which tell other people how to do it. Many of these books highlight common speech-writing techniques which simply and effectively can make a speech far more accessible and engaging. Examples include the rule of three:  e.g. I came, I saw, I conquered. Or, to put it in the context of the modern political debate: I came, I saw, I demanded that the Threbblehill Post Office be re-opened.

Or another classic, comparing and contrasting statements:  e.g. The man who reads nothing at all is better educated than the man who reads nothing but newspapers.* Thomas Jefferson. [In contrast the man who reads nothing but the Daily Mail is better educated than a potato. Just. And only if the potato quit school before it’s A-Levels.]

So now (17 hours, 34 cups of coffee, 16 doughnuts and 79 cigarettes later) after you have sweat blood and tears, and filled your speech with more altitude than a 747, and more vision than your average branch of Specsavers, it’s all done, and in your MP’s sweaty little mitt with approximately 46.3 seconds to spare. All that’s left to do is sit back, relax, switch the office TV to the right channel, and wait for your MP to deliver a speech that will not only blow the roof off the place, but will ensure that headhunters are literally falling over each other as they beat a path to your door.

However, before this moment of bliss and deserved self-congratulation it would be remiss of me not to point out that no matter how good a speech may actually be, any MP worth their salt can ruin it in a matter of seconds. We all remember those dark days when as mere children we were forced to face the public humiliation of standing to face a class full of our peers and read out such great works as ‘What I did with my weekend’ and ‘Why I like things that are green’. Now imagine that someone else, who has no idea how you intended it sound, is reading out why you like grass. And now imagine that they have never been near a field.

And this is assuming that your speech makes it from paper to spoken word unscathed. Many a devastating statistic, an epic line, or superb segue has been destroyed by a sweeping red pen as your MP sits waiting for their turn to speak, never to have its chance in the spotlight and destined to be forever consigned to the category of unrealised potential. I could have been a star I tell you.

If you did not know the meaning of hubris before, you sure as hell do now. So when you reflect on your inaugural speech, still wincing involuntarily at the memory of your MP mis-pronouncing the words fiscal stimulus so that it sounds like something you could only do with a fishing rod and some kind of propeller, demanding a new UN Beekeeping mission to troubled African states, or calling the new leader of the free world President Bananarama, remember that with experience comes knowledge, and with knowledge comes understanding, and with understanding often comes a need to watch the West Wing and get very, very drunk until the all bad memories go away.

But also remember that you’ve done it, and the next time it will be easier, and the next time easier still. You are a speechwriter my friend, and yours is the word, and everything in it.

Joe Connor


Added: 12 January 2009