That row in Poland about my speechwriting support for former foreign Minister Radek Sikorski rumbles on inconclusively. See eg here (where they impertinently add a year to my age) and here. Excellent that Hungarians are following this saga with keen interest. And Czech that!
Here are some extended thoughts from me about how speechwriters help leaders address foreign audiences in their non-native language:
Foreign leaders aiming to make an impact through speeches delivered in English or any other non-native language have extra problems. First and foremost, getting the language precise. The speech needs to be cast in non-formal, non-pompous ‘conversational’ language. But beware those idioms and mixed metaphors.
Take Polish. It has a (for most of us) unpronounceable idiom meaning (variously) within arm’s reach or so close you can touch it: na wyciągnięcie ręki. In a metaphorical sense it denotes something very close, in a positive way. But one seemingly obvious idiomatic translation into English, “at arm’s length”, denotes exactly the opposite: you like it close, but not too close. It is all too easy to write a speech in Polish using that idiom that, when translated into English by someone with superb but non-native colloquial English, gets the meaning of a key sentence completely wrong. Result? Mess.
Similarly mixed metaphor horror©. This sentence may mean something in the original language (though I doubt it). Translated into English by someone who clearly has a more than fine grasp of English word and grammar, it makes the speaker sound like a lunatic:
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
A foreign leader’s in-house speechwriting support team may have no personal experience of the occasions the leader is expected to address and what is going to work on that sort of occasion. A speech to a 2000-plus US Jewish community audience in Chicago is simply nothing like a speech to 600 Europeans at a black-tie dinner in Edinburgh, or an address to a foreign policy thank-tank audience in Moscow. Each speech has to match the tone of the occasion in a way that works flawlessly for the speaker and multiple audiences. A smart speechwriter who is not in the leader’s immediate circle and maybe from a different country brings perspective and helps the leader get all that right.
The biggest point is what speechwriters don’t and can’t do. They don’t fine-tune the leader’s own sense of responsibility and risk. That is down to the leader personally.
Polish Foreign Minister Radek Sikorski’s 2011 speech in Berlin on the Eurozone’s problems was quoted widely round the world, because it delivered so uncompromisingly his own trenchant thoughts in language soaring far beyond anything any mere speechwriter could write:
The biggest threat to the security and prosperity of Poland would be the collapse of the Eurozone.
And I demand of Germany that, for your own sake and for ours, you help it survive and prosper. You know full well that nobody else can do it.
I will probably be first Polish foreign minister in history to say so, but here it is: I fear German power less than I am beginning to fear German inactivity.
“I demand of Germany”. Wow! Vain? Audacious? Absurd? Outlandish? Intemperate? Inappropriate? Provocative? All of the above, and more. But all the more impactful accordingly. Radek Sikorski that night embraced all the personal and national reputational risks that speaking out so strongly as a Polish leader in Germany on such a market-sensitive topic might entail. It was not surprising that he featured well on the list of the 2012 Foreign Policy Top Global Thinkers list, “for telling the truth, even when it’s not diplomatic”.
And there’s more on general speechwriting technique and principles over at the Foreign Policy Association blog, Candid Discussions:
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…
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.
Sums it all up perfectly.