The 2010 UK Speechwriters’ Guild conference took place yesterday in beamish Bournemouth. To fine effect.

Tobias Ellwood MP purposefully kicked off, closely followed by my own attempt to share some of the operational problems Leaders and their speechwriters face in working out how best to respond to Bad News (examples aplenty, including how (not) to respond to natural disasters).

Max Atkinson is the great UK if not world expert on the speech-making art, which he examines down to fascinating micro-detail. He explained to us with various terse video-clip examples how effective an unexpected visual prop can be in helping a speaker convey a message. Which, of course, does not necessarily mean that the message itself is any good.

Edward Mortimer recounted his sudden move to become Kofi Annan’s speechwriter at the UN and the complexities of speechwriting in that esoteric environment.

Phillip Kahn-Panni showed us what can be done with a superb voice and an easy, confident style.

John Shosky recalled his abrupt rise to senior US speechwriting glory in the Reagan years. He made an eloquent case for speechwriters to see themselves as the very guardians of words, in an age where some popular role-models for public speaking can hardly speak at all, let alone say anything worthwhile. 

The participants included some escapees from speechwriting jobs in the Brussels EUrocracy, and Simon Lund-Jensen and Peter Palshøj from a terrific Danish group delivering public speaking services, Rhetor. They showed us how an object (Rufus the Horse) could be used to help waffling/boring speakers get back to simple straightforward messages.

And plenty more.


The event showed once again the gulf between US speech-makers (and speech-writers) and the rest.

Americans expect a show, preferably one with a positive ‘hopeful’ message. Hence their good speakers are superb story-tellers, taking real-life examples and building on them to convey ideas of wider significance.

Here in the UK we snootily dismiss that sort of thing as falsely folksy or just plain sentimental. We are culturally ill-at-ease (or at least we think we are) with anything which has too much obvious commitment or passion. Speeches here typically are lower-key, more about conveying information and ideas cogently, with an emphasis on self-deprecation – not quite the same as American gracious courtesy.

Meanwhile over in mainland Europe the quality of speechmaking is anywhere between awful and calamitous. Hard exactly to explain why, but it must be part of an inherited cultural tradition that Europeans perforce must listen to their biggers and betters, who therefore have no real need to try hard to explain themselves. This goes to dizzy heights of paternalistic self-parody in the EU.

Americans really do think that their leaders are working for them, not that they are working for their leaders. The atmosphere is substantively democratic. Hence part of the explanation for the Tea Party tsunami – millions of Americans think (rightly) that the Washington establishment have lost the plot and become a decadent complacent part of the problem. Speakers (and speechwriters) in this turbulent context need to exhibit considerable energy to survive.

One other point. Many speakers spelled out the central idea that a good speech tells a story. Audiences visibly perk up when someone starts to say something ‘real’ or obviously not the usual blah-blah of corporate and political discourse. Something to think about if you have to get up and ‘say a few words’.

All in all, Brian Jenner has done a terrific job in launching the UK Speechwriters’ Guild and helping get public speaking skills a greater focus here. Total Politics helped sponsor the gathering – a good move by them.

The event can only grow and grow, moving in due course to a Europe-wide level where we all can pull together to help hundreds of millions of Europeans escape Audience Agony.

Is any cause more deserving?