Speechwriting for Party Conferences

Updated: 15 December 2008
Added: 14 September 2007

Here are some handy hints to writing speeches for your MP if he or she is taking to the rostrum at the Party Conference – or anywhere else for that matter. A great speech at Conference can have a long lasting impact, as well as being a fantastic boost to your boss’s confidence, especially if it’s their first time. But of course a bad speech can be plain embarrassing, and will be remembered – and dredged up – for years to come.

Some people can take to the stage with an idea of what they want to say and engineer an eloquent speech on the spot, although few can match the senior politicians who are able to deliver an impressive twenty minute speech with neither notes nor autocue. For mere mortals speaker’s notes or a fully drafted script are vital props, and it is up to you to provide.

Writing a speech for a Conference audience of sympathetic party members is very different from writing for the sparring, political atmosphere of the Chamber – for a start, the speechmaker generally doesn’t have to worry about heckling from the audience as is frequent in the Chamber, so you can be much more liberal with use of rhetorical questions when drafting. In the same vein, while constructing a watertight case to support your point is paramount in the Chamber, on Conference occasions it’s not unusual to spend a while pondering the profundity of politics before getting down to the nitty gritty of your subject matter. And you can use PowerPoint, video/audio, props and other devices to give the finished product a great deal more innovation, style and flair.

 

Index:

  1. First things first
  2. Opening the speech
  3. The body of the speech
  4. Closing the speech
  5. Further Reading
  6. Quick links to great speeches

 

1.  First things first

Formulate a clear, specific statement of purpose for the speech. There are six basic purposes of a speech:

  • to entertain
  • to inform
  • to inspire
  • to motivate
  • to advocate
  • to persuade.

With the exception of pure entertainment, any one of these could be the purpose for a Conference speech.

Do your research and search widely for information, try looking at:

  • policy briefings
  • recent news articles for relevant events
  • debates
  • legislation
  • statistics
  • anecdotes

Think about, and make a note of, what you wish the speech to accomplish, then make a list of your main points and back these up with supporting points.

You might also find it helpful to devise a core statement for the speech. You can then  ‘signpost’ this core statement throughout the speech, so the audience doesn’t lose track of where you’re going.

Pare the list down to the four or five most important points, discarding the remaining ones or converting them into supporting points.

Arrange your main points in a logical order: this will form the outline of the speech. For each main point, fill in with appropriate supporting points and evidence from your research to back them up.

2.  Opening the Speech

The opening of the speech is probably the most difficult part. If the opening doesn’t work it can often be downhill from there! Here are some ideas; your subject matter should help you decide which approach (or combination) is the most suitable.

Ways to begin tend to fall into five main categories:

  • Novelty – taking a cue from props, asking the audience to imagine a scenario, telling an anecdote and then revealing it as a dream and so on. They can be very effective tools, but not everyone can pull it off.
  • Dramatic – a warning about the content of the speech, or straight into shocking statistics – these openings can really grab the audience’s attention.
  • Question – A rhetorical question for the audience to ponder, or one which the speaker might answer himself. It’s only safe to use these in Conference speeches as rhetorical questions in Chamber speeches can often elicit cheeky answers from the opposition!
  • Humorous – if in good taste, and delivered with the right timing, humour can be a very effective way of gaining interest and breaking the ice. It sets the tone of the speech though, so steer clear of humorous openings if the rest of the speech is about famine or war. Self-deprecating humour can be a particularly good device, as long as the speaker doesn’t undermine his or her knowledge of the subject matter – the audience might believe them!
  • Reference – this type of opening is certainly the most common. The speaker uses a reference as a launching pad for the rest of the speech. The reference might be the location, the subject, the Party, a recent event, the speaker herself, a quote from another, and so on.

Whichever you choose, or a combination of some of the above, ensure that you have done the following in your introduction:

  • established a common ground between the speaker and the audience
  • set the tone for the speech
  • reinforced or established the speaker’s authority to speak on the subject
  • aroused interest in the subject
  • segued smoothly into the subject.

3.  The Body of the Speech

Go back to your pared-down list of four or five points and ensure that related points follow one another fluently, so that your speech follows a logical progression and is easy for the audience to keep up with.

Don’t try and overwhelm the listener with countless points: making a few and making each more effectively will give the speech a far greater overall impact. Make sure each point is well supported with statistics, quotes, anecdotes, examples and facts, and check your facts again.

Remember to signpost, just like in an essay! At the end of each point, try and return to the theme, this ensures the audience doesn’t lose sight of where you’re going in your speech.

For some clues on phrases to be avoided at all costs, listen to this programme on Radio 4 at 8.45pm on Wednesday 12 Sept 2007. Matthew Parris takes a canter through the arid badlands of political language and asks why politicians drape their speeches in the tired glad-rags of stale phrases.

Remember – tell them what you’re going to say, say it, and then tell them what you’ve said!

 

4.  Closing the Speech

Some different techniques for closing the speech:

  • Summarising – wrapping up the main points of the speech and bringing everything together.
  • Direct Appeal – asking the audience to take specific action.
  • Reference – like a reference opening, one that refers to the location, date, time, a quote and so on – anything the speaker can tie into the subject.
  • Inspirational – a moving anecdote, quotation, poem and so on. This could be humorous.

Don’t let an interesting, intelligent and lively speech fade away towards the end – make sure your ending packs a punch and leaves a lasting impression.

5.  Further reading

  • Richard Dowis, ‘The Lost of Art of the Great Speech – How to Write One, How to Deliver It’
  • Simon Sebag Montefiore – ‘Speeches that Changed the World’ (and audio CD)
  • Richard Heller – ‘High Impact Speeches: How to Write and Deliver Words that Move Minds’

 

6.  Quick Links to Great Speeches

  1. Martin Luther King, ‘I Have a Dream’
  2. Winston Churchill – ‘Blood, Sweat and Tears’
  3. John F. Kennedy – Inaugural Address
  4. Susan B. Anthony ‘On Women’s Right to Vote’
  5. Edward VIII – Abdicates the Throne

 

CD/December 2008