Words don’t come easily to everyone, but speech writers have a head start. James Doughty, Ministry of Work and Pensions wordmaker, shares some trade secrets
Speech writing is a job unlike any other in the public service. It is a work of contradictions. You work alone and with everyone, you are a specialist but also a generalist, you are creative and constrained, you are in the thick of the matter and withdrawn.
It’s a job title that speaks candidly. Yet the cover on the world of the speechwriter is very rarely lifted. For speech writers, like spies, anonymity is the rule. Spies work in the shadows. Speech writers, more specifically, work in the shadow of their masters. Their words are often in the spotlight, but they are not.
Here are five glimpses into the world of a speechwriter and the speechwriting profession and how they add value to organizations and the public service at large.
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What is speech writing anyway?
When a lot of people think of speechwriter, they think of Sam Seaborn from The West Wing. The reality is somewhat different. Consider walking and talking slower in the hallways, more careful research, and searing writing and rewriting.
Essentially, a government speechwriter helps ministers communicate their vision, policies and goals. In a short-burst social media world, delivering a single speech from a lectern to a room full of real people is always the vehicle of choice for doing so. A speech offers the space and time to develop ideas, take the audience on a journey, tell a story – something you just can’t do in 140 characters.
What Happens in Writing a Speech?
It often begins with a first meeting with the minister to fully understand the main points he wishes to make. Then it’s about having detailed conversations with the political teams – often multiple teams, analysts, special policy advisers and press officers. During this process, the speechwriter is the conduit through which ideas flow. They are the lightning rod, capturing every thought, every angle and every idea proposed. It is through the speechwriter that these ideas are then distilled, ordered, reordered, refined and woven into a narrative that makes sense and fits together.
To do this, a speech writer must be able to convey complex information in a straightforward and compelling manner. They have to pull everything together into a cohesive whole that, like a piece of music, comes and goes to hold interest and create contrasts – calm and strong passages, long, flowing passages and short jerky points, poetry and political prose. After extensive collaboration, this is the part where the speechwriter needs quiet solitude, which can be rare in a ministry. I’ve heard that a department has plans for a “speech bubble” – a module dedicated to speech writers.
How do you keep the pen and your cool?
For any speech, there will have been an army of people involved in one way or another, from fact-checking and policy advice to analytical contribution, # 10s and engaging those who have. a powerful story to tell that will bring a speech to life. The speechwriter has to deal with all these different actors and make sure that they are all happy and that the speech beats with one impulse and one purpose.
“A speechwriter can often find himself at the center of some sort of frenzied melee”
In doing so, a speechwriter can often find themselves at the center of some sort of frenzied scrum, especially as the speech date approaches. It can, ironically, be one of the loneliest, most difficult, and skillful parts of being a speechwriter – keeping a firm grip on the pen while surrounded by persuasive and often quite high-ranking officials who are advocating. so that a row is included – or more often than not – excluded.
It’s an interesting place and a test of the nerve. I think it’s always important to remember who the speech is: it’s the boss’s speech – the person who actually needs to stand up and speak it, from whose mouth the words will come out and the person whose name and reputation depend on them. They’re still the best speechwriters, we just play a supporting role.
Because they are the boss, it can sometimes feel like a brutal and murderous profession. You need to be prepared for your carefully crafted lines to be crossed out or rewritten. It’s a healthy part of the process, even if it does wear out the hair a bit. One of my speech-writing colleagues had all but two of the words removed from a first draft of a speech. The two surviving words came at the end: “Thank you”.
What does public service speech writing look like?
Speech writers are an integral part of Whitehall furniture. Each department has a speechwriter-shaped gap to fill, but the way they are deployed and where they are recruited varies greatly from department to department.
Some are based in the press office, some work from home, many work in the ministerial cabinet – from where you actually have much better access to ministers. Some are recruited because they are used to working with a minister. Others worked in the same department for successive ministers. Some are career civil servants who hold the position for a while before moving on. Some came from outside the public service, mainly from journalism. Regardless of their background, many go on to become career speechwriters, choosing to specialize in speech writing as a vocation.
Figures between departments also vary. Some have one, others have entire teams. Some people double the role of speechwriter by being private secretary to a minister. Others have experimented with relatively new approaches that merge functions. For example, within the Directorate of Work and Pensions, alongside my speech writing functions, I also lead a team of communication officers who provide dedicated support to ministers on briefing and communication.
More and more speech writers are diversifying and becoming generalist writers as well, alongside speech writing. They are dedicated to writing and editing key departmental products that require solid and compelling prose, such as green papers or annual reports. In the past, I’ve known departments hiring outside writers to do this. Departments are increasingly turning in-house to the existing talent of their speech writers.
I like the sound of that. How to become a speechwriter?
No formal qualification is required. A flair for writing, an interest in politics and public affairs are important, as are emotional intelligence and the ability to fully absorb another person’s language and tone. I’ve played in the past, so being able to be someone else is a real plus! Resilience and thick skin are also needed to withstand endless deadlines and the strain on a speechwriter.
In terms of training, there are some great short courses for aspiring speech writers. One of the best is a course taught at the Groucho Club in Soho by former Whitehall speechwriter Simon Lancaster, who now writes speeches for some of the world’s top CEOs. Simon has also written a book on speech writing, Speechwriting: The Expert Guide. This is my bible. While it is difficult to teach someone to write well (in my opinion, it is something innate that comes from deep within), there are some rules and recipes that you can do. follow to make sure a speech is as good as it gets. I would recommend it as a good read to anyone who wants their writing to have more impact.
Speech writing jobs are like gold dust, but it’s worth it to survey departments about any upcoming future positions and register your interest. I also run a network of Whitehall speech writers and we are always happy to discuss opportunities with aspiring speech writers. Many large companies now have a speechwriter as an essential part of their professional environment, so it’s worth looking into as well.
One last word
Speech writers add tremendous value to an organization. They write with a bird’s eye view of the organization and the wider horizon. They bring perspective, clarity and purpose, cutting through the complexity of politics and making it resonate with the outside world.
Speech writing is a job of contradictions, but it’s what makes it one of the most interesting, challenging and rewarding jobs in public service.