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Candid Discussions: Charles Crawford on Speechwriting

Charles Crawford

Charles Crawford CMG is a public speaking and negotiation expert. He worked for 28 years in the U.K. Diplomatic Service, including three postings as British Ambassador to Sarajevo, Belgrade, and Warsaw, before starting a private consulting career in communication technique. In his early diplomatic career he served as Speechwriter in the U.K. Foreign and Commonwealth Office (FCO). He has contributed to speeches by members of the British Royal Family and successive U.K. Prime Ministers and Foreign Ministers. In 1987 he wrote the Foreign Office’s first Guide to Speechwriting; 25 years later it remains the basis for the FCO’s speechwriting training.

Reza Akhlaghi of the Foreign Policy Association talked with Charles Crawford about his new book, Speechwriting for Leaders: Speeches that Leave People Wanting More, published by Medauras Global.


Why a new book on speechwriting? How is your book different from others?

Scribo, ergo sum. [I write, therefore I am.] I left the Foreign Office at the end of 2007. Since then I have been pouring out articles, blog posts, commentaries, and all sorts of things on a vast range of speechwriting, foreign policy, and other themes. I’ve decided to pull together many of my thoughts on public speaking and communication technique in one handy book. Luckily for me, Diplomatic Courier in Washington kindly agreed to help get it published. They have produced a beautiful, unusual design and ‘feel’ for a book of this sort.

As you say, there are plenty of books about public speaking and the art of oratory. In fact, this genre is one of the oldest on the planet. I don’t want to compete with Cicero. Instead, I have tackled the subject from three highly practical directions, all based on my own experience in diplomacy and thereafter: writing a speech, delivering a speech, and (crucially) organizing a speech. It’s really hard to combine successfully the explicit and implicit messages of the speech, sometimes on a high-level abstraction, with the meticulous operational detail needed to make a speech successful on the day. I have not read any other book on public speaking that covers this ground in quite the same way.

In the book I use the metaphor of a jigsaw. It doesn’t matter how attractive or how big a jigsaw is when it’s completed. What people notice are the two or three missing pieces. It’s the same with speeches. If something isn’t quite right with the message, delivery, tone, or venue, the audience (including those following the speech through the Internet or the media at a distance) hear that something is wrong. They might not be able to spot precisely what is wrong, but they’ll sense it anyway and be miserable.

My book describes, from a senior insider point of view, a number of top-level speeches I have watched myself during my diplomatic career: President Clinton, President Chirac, and Pope John Paul II in Sarajevo; President Putin at Auschwitz; President Kaczynski in London; and so on. In the book I analyze these and many other speeches from the point of view of substantive impact and drafting technique. And where I have extracted them from the FCO system using Freedom of Information requests, I have included in the book some original cables I sent reporting on these speeches. This creates a new level of analysis and interest for people keen to learn how such things work.

All in all, the book is sharp and opinionated, but fraught with interest for anyone tasked with giving a speech, drafting a speech, or organizing a speaking event. And it has a lot to say about how diplomacy and wider government processes really work.

In an age of sound bites and video outtakes, are traditional long-form speeches still important?

Interesting question. Here in the U.K. there is huge new interest in public debates. Large crowds gather to hear experts on different subjects hammering out their differences. Precisely because there is so much ‘spin’ and general blather out there on everything, people want political, business, and other leaders to be ‘authentic’. This in turn generates a new industry of people claiming to help deliver authenticity, gravitas, or whatever the latest buzzword is. So even authenticity becomes processed and, ultimately, inauthentic if not phony.

That said, on both sides of the Atlantic and everywhere else, people who come across as speaking honestly and fearlessly are getting good results. This encourages all sorts of radical populism, for better or worse. Mainly worse. It’s far easier to knock something down than to build something better.

In all this hubbub there is a key role for thoughtful, long-form agenda-setting speeches. But they need to be good! As is now known, I have quietly helped Radek Sikorski with a number of his speeches when he was Poland’s Foreign Minister. His speech in Berlin in 2011 was quoted round the world precisely because he himself had written its key passages in an inimitable personal style that showed him taking risks with his own reputation. In my book I also look at a speech by George Soros, also on the Eurozone crisis, that is very different in style but no less powerful because, again, he puts his full professional reputation on the line to deliver very tough messages.

This is true authenticity. It’s about risk-taking. The speaker is, in effect, saying to the public “Here’s what I think. You may not like it, but it’s my best shot. Now, make up your own minds and act accordingly.

And, oddly enough, at that point the wise speechwriter steps back and lets the leader decide just how far she or he is willing to go on this occasion. It becomes a very personal choice. In the book I quote Ronald Reagan’s speechwriter Peter Robinson describing how the President was urged by all sorts of people to avoid provocative language when he made his famous Berlin Wall speech:

Reagan asked Duberstein’s advice. Duberstein replied that he thought the line about tearing down the wall sounded good. “But I told him, ‘You’re President, so you get to decide’.”

“And then,” Duberstein recalls, “he got that wonderful, knowing smile on his face, and he said, ‘Let’s leave it in.’”

That’s the ultimate challenge of speechwriting: helping the speaker truly own and take responsibility for his or her words.

What is the key to preparing effective leadership speeches, and what are the main pitfalls?

When I give private public speaking coaching, I always start by asking two questions. “Do you want me to be honest about your public speaking technique? And, a much harder second question: how good you want to get?

This searching second question is all about the speaker’s willingness to take those personal and professional risks. That affects everything—message, style, tone, energy, commitment. Any audience is hearing these things subliminally, in one way or the other. It also turns out that often even very senior people aren’t really quite sure what they want to say in a speech, and how this speech fits into the wider public speaking program—in other words, how the speaker paces his or her observations and insights over time.

A good way of getting a speaker to focus on these things is to ask what newspaper headline the speaker might ideally want to result from the speech. The words in that ideal newspaper headline might not even feature in the speech itself, but they will sum up the core theme or message in a few words.

Or you get the speaker to say in one word the existential theme of the speech. Hope. Change. Defiance. Reform. Continuity. Attack! Impatience. Resolve. Any speech will boil down to one or two words, whether the speaker likes it or not. Much better for the speaker to choose that word and build the speech accordingly, rather than let the audience decide what the speech was really saying.

In my experience, in-house speechwriters get very wrapped up in the message and don’t think enough about the occasion and the audience. Yes, the boss can give a brilliant and cleverly calibrated speech on reforming the banking system or climate change technologies. But what is going to work on this day for this audience? What are they expecting? What do they want to hear? What do they not want to hear that the boss might want to tell them? What two or three absolutely basic points should the audience be able to quote in six months time? How do you get all this right, and then help the boss deliver it with the right tone for the occasion, including deft humor and vivid anecdotes?

It’s more than obvious that this is a very subtle business. Churning out paragraphs rebooted from earlier official work is likely to produce a speech that is dull, if not insulting. Busy people have set aside precious time to come to an event to listen to a speaker. If the speaker does not do them the basic courtesy of making a strong effort to give them a speech that makes sense for where they are, the audience gets a message of tedium, if not disrespect.

In short, the hardest part of preparing a speech for both the speaker and speechwriting team is to find the time to make a plan for getting all the jigsaw pieces to snap together. Not only on the day. They also need to think about how this speech is presented afterwards. Far too many organizations dump on the Internet a PDF of the speech, edited or otherwise. This is discourteous to Internet readers. They are part of the audience for the speech. It needs to be presented to them in a way that makes sense for the medium they are using. This means boring extra work for the leader’s team in reformatting a speech for a PC or tablet. So be it. It’s all about details.

Among world leaders today, who do you think delivers the most effective speeches—speeches that truly demonstrate leadership?

It doesn’t follow that someone whose speeches display robust leadership is necessarily pursuing wise policies. As I say in the book, President Putin’s speeches lacked charm. I doubt whether his Kremlin team spent much time running them past focus groups. They are not especially well organized. Many of his messages are tendentious, or even odious and dangerous.

On one famous occasion in 2002 Mr. Putin left European leaders who were with him at a mass press conference staring uneasily into space when he answered a journalist’s question about the heavy cost of civilian casualties in Chechnya:

If you want to become a complete Islamic radical and are ready for circumcision, I invite you to Moscow. We are a multidenominational country. We have specialists in this question. I’ll recommend that he carry out the operation so that nothing grows back.

There are now some seven billion people living on Earth. Not one of them could have drafted those crude words for Putin as a proposed answer to a tough question on Chechnya. They emerged smoothly, almost nonchalantly, from him and him alone.

The effect was creepy, but staggeringly powerful. He did not answer the question. He conveyed a top-level message of sheer ruthlessness that the European leaders and most of the foreign journalists had never heard before.

Yet despite (or maybe because of) such repellent Soviet-style cynicism, President Putin’s speeches project strength and self-confidence. The audience at home and beyond Russia’s borders is left in no doubt that what President Putin says is what he believes, and that under no circumstances will he ever apologize for anything.

Another leader who eschews easy sound bites but engages in a relentless, methodical way with great issues is Angela Merkel. Her speeches don’t cause much public excitement in the Anglosphere media (she speaks mainly in German!). But they represent rock-solid leadership and a patient generosity of spirit that is morally and politically convincing. It represents the best that modern Europe has to offer.

The recent speech by Egypt’s President Sisi that called for a “religious revolution in Islam” is deservedly attracting attention. Why? Because he has taken a huge personal risk in speaking out so directly and in a way that infuriates appalling extremists. That’s leadership in action.

And what about the worst speeches? Who consistently bungles their speeches today, and what opportunities do you think they’ve lost as a result?

I can’t think of anyone who consistently messes up significant speeches, although U.K. Labour Party leader Ed Miliband is probably closest to that ignoble result. It is startling that someone with his self-consciously ‘intellectual’ background in British and European left-of-center politics is so tone-deaf when it comes to drafting and delivering speeches with heavyweight content. Look closely at his speeches. They do not lack authenticity. Indeed, they reveal far too much about him and his general approach to politics. But they are so thin and glib that any normal person has to conclude that he’s not ready for a prime-time global leadership job.

President Obama’s speeches are on a totally different order of seriousness and importance. But I have to say that while he is a peerless speaker, in my opinion his speeches too often lack bite, or hard intellectual engagement with the key issues. It’s not for nothing that he is often accused of being ‘detached’ or self-absorbed: far too many of his speeches somehow project such negative sensibilities.

His Cairo speech early in his first presidency was a classic example of pulling punches and sending unhappily ambiguous messages. Similarly, his speech in Moscow. These two major speeches now look forlorn. Not so much for what they said, although a lot of that was bland and too eager to please. But because they did not get to grips with the really difficult issues in a way that revealed a leader determined to make a difference by taking risks.

President Obama produces a truly colossal number of speeches every year, of all shapes and sizes. The White House website is a fine resource for following all these different pronouncements. Yet who can think of a single resounding phrase he has delivered in office that has summed up key policy objectives in a memorable, motivational way? Maybe I’ve missed them?

You talk about the impact of new technologies like Twitter and social media on speeches. Has it really altered the way we prepare and deliver speeches today?

Probably not. I suspect that most speechwriting teams in most organizations around the world have not quite grasped the implications of making speeches in the face of e-heckling by audience members tossing in disobliging comments live from the other side of the planet.

Two issues here. One is how a speech is written with these social media problems in mind. The other is how far the leader on the day is able to handle the embarrassment or annoyance or distraction caused by live social media interaction.

My book gives my own example, when I live-Tweeted comments during a Baltic leaders’ panel discussion about the problems of the Eurozone, the President of Estonia responded tetchily to my Tweet that appeared on the conference screens. I think he made a mistake. Again, authenticity. Does a leader want to project grumpiness or good-humored engagement? It doesn’t matter what a speechwriter puts in the brief for such an occasion. What actually happens will depend upon the spontaneous reaction of the speaker and her or his self-awareness and self-discipline.

That, in fact, is the concluding thought in my book. There comes a point when speechwriting is all about therapy, rather than drafting clever words—is the speaker actually able to deliver a fine speech convincingly? Leaders tend to think that they have mastered the art of public speaking, since (obviously) they wouldn’t be leaders otherwise. But today’s leaders are well behind understanding the capabilities and challenges posed by social media phenomena, and may be averse to taking tough-love advice on how to operate in this turbulent new environment. Even more likely, their team will not dare tell the leader that she or he is messing up.

You’re known as a speechwriter, but you don’t actually write out your speeches. You dictate them into your computer using voice recognition technology. Why is that?

Speechwriting is a fundamentally unnatural and possibly absurd task! First, you are writing words that are meant to be spoken. Second, you’re writing words for someone else to speak.

A great speech is not a lecture. It’s not someone reading from a text. It’s a conversation with the audience. Part of that conversation is all about the speaker’s body language and eye-contact. The more a speaker is looking down at notes or reading out carefully phrased paragraphs, the more any sense of conversation with the audience ebbs away unhappily.

So a speechwriter has to produce and format a text that allows, as far as possible, the speaker to convey ideas directly, but with a certain informality and human spontaneity. How that works in practice is, of course, highly context-specific and culture-specific. It depends on the speaker’s own confidence in the material served up. It depends on all sorts of other intangible or hard-to-spot issues on the day, such as the way the room is laid out, and the comfort of the audience. Details!

I’ve found that by using voice recognition technology to dictate proposed passages for a speech (or a written article) straight into the computer, the text immediately achieves energy and directness and lack of cliché that are much harder to reach by tapping away at the keyboard. Writing and speaking are different things. If you want to prepare a text that is going to be the basis for someone speaking, why not actually speak it yourself? The technology is stupendous now. Try it.

Your book appears to have touched off some controversy in Europe over public leaders consulting with external speechwriters in preparing their speeches. Do you feel such controversy is warranted? Is there really anything unusual in the practice of consulting external experts?

Not really.

The best speechwriters do not mainly write speeches. They help the leader and her or his team tackle multifold questions. What speeches might I give, and where and when? What different audiences do I need to reach, and how best to reach them? What messages and tone make sense for this next speech? How will the event be organized on the day? Simultaneous or consecutive translation for foreigners present? What material to include in the speech, and what to hold back for a subsequent Q&A? What protocol courtesies need including? How to balance humor and cultural sensitivity? What do they want to hear? What don’t they want to hear that I need to tell them? Where might this coming speech fit in with the next one in a different country?

Foreign leaders planning speeches delivered in English or any other non-native language have extra problems. First and foremost, getting the language precise.

Take Polish. It has (for most of us) an unpronounceable idiom meaning “within arm’s reach”: na wyciągnięcie ręki. In a metaphorical sense it means that something is very close, in a positive way. But the obvious idiomatic translation into English, “at arm’s length,” denotes exactly the opposite: you like it close, but, hey, not too close! A Polish speechwriter and a leader whose combined English is outstanding but not perfect could together make a serious mess here.

Attempts by foreign speechwriters to produce work in English that sounds folksy or informal or just idiomatic can end up in a mixed metaphor calamity. This sentence may mean something in the original language. But translated into English by someone who clearly has a more than a fine grasp of English word and grammar, it makes the speaker sound demented:

We have to give the European Union credit for its effectiveness as a powerful conglomerate of various vectors and ambitions framed around a common lowest denominator which is generally grand enough to allow it to write scenarios for others worldwide.

Who are your favorite speechwriters?

Audiences are likely to enjoy any speech that Frank Luntz has helped prepare. Luntz’ book on this subject is magnificent. Here in the U.K., Phil Collins worked with former Prime Minister Tony Blair. Phil has a confident, light-touch style that I find attractive.

It’s not about individual speechwriters. The fascination comes in working with the speaker on both content and message, and delivery and tone. It’s so rewarding to help a speaker get the basic message and structure right (normally by cutting out piles of fluff) so that the speaker is confident with the material. A confident speaker with good material sounds good. The audience responds well, so the speaker gets even more confident, and the speech sounds even better. A virtuous spiral. Words, speaker, audience, venue working with each other to produce a super result.

I helped one British woman give a nerve-wracking 45-minute conference keynote speech to several hundred professional colleagues. After working on it for months, and with only a week or so to go, she decided to throw away everything she had prepared and instead go with my completely different approach. Success. Afterwards she said something profound and interesting: “Throughout the whole speech I could hear the audience listening to me!”

That’s the test of a marvelous speech. The speaker hears the audience enjoying it.