Writing a speech

‘Break any of these rules sooner than say anything outright barbarous’. That was the caveat with which Phil Collins, former chief speechwriter to Tony Blair, began his seminar on how to write a speech, at this year’s Progress political weekend.

It’s fitting that it’s a quote from George Orwell’s Politics and the English Language, as (without sounding obsequious) Phil Collins embodies that love of words combined with a no-nonsense approach to political ideas which characterised Orwell’s writing (and if you’ve not read Collins’ recent Times article on House of Lords reform, then do so immediately and wonder why it’s not been instantly adopted as Labour party policy).

At the risk of disappointing those looking for a line-by-line walkthrough of the seminar, I’m not going to do that. Why? Because it was just too damn good to be broadcast more widely.

However, it’s certainly worth giving an overview of some of Collins’ top tips (or ‘rules’), the first of which was to think hard about the audience of any speech. Not just the obvious stuff of who are they, but what do they think already? What’s their mood? (Perhaps unsurprisingly, Tony Blair’s now infamous Women’s Institute speech came up … )

Collins’ next rule was that you need to be clear on what the audience’s expectations are. This, he explained, was crucial to you being realistic about what you can achieve with the speech, and therefore what the aim of it is. For example, are you seeking to simply convey information, or to inspire, or to persuade?

Next was the advice to think really hard about what the ‘topic’ of any speech that you write is. Not, as Collins explained, what the subject is (eg housing benefit), but what the topic as Cicero defined it is – ie, what the argument is (eg, reforming housing benefit in a certain way).

Then comes the writing itself, but the insight that Collins provided was that this is not the main job of a speechwriter. Most of the work, he explained, is done by adhering to the rules outlined above – the thinking and research – and then the bits that come after the first draft has been committed to paper or a screen.

The rule when it comes to editing and refining a speech, explained Collins, was in understanding what the character of the person delivering it is. For example, if they (or you, if you’re the one delivering it) are not particularly extrovert, then don’t write a speech seeking to emulate the best tub-thumper.

Collins’ final rule was about the delivery itself. As he put it, ‘if you haven’t got time to prepare, you have to wonder if you should be doing it. But, if you prepare well, then you should know it verbatim’.

All invaluable advice, as was (I believe) one of the very last things that Collins said as the Q&A following his presentation drew to a close: ‘to be a good speechwriter, read things for the love of the words, not the content’.

Needless to say, therefore, I am extremely grateful to anyone who’s reading this.

Chris Calland is a communications consultant with PLMR

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