For many of our clients we are a dirty secret. Phone calls regularly begin with variants of: ‘Can you guarantee discretion?’ But there’s not a dealer, pimp or even a Botox clinic in sight. We write speeches.
Traditional taboos are fast disappearing. Personal trainers, moisturising creams and therapists are shared between friends. It is socially acceptable to plan your wedding with a professional and outsource every-thing from the flowers to the invitations. But the groom is about as likely to reference his speechwriter as his affair with the chief bridesmaid.
Our client meetings are arranged in dimly lit pubs and distant cafés, far from the prying eyes of spouses and friends. My colleague Dolan met an Arab princess on a park bench in Battersea. Dave took notes in a lorry park off the M6. I had a very enjoyable coffee with a client preparing for his wife’s 60th, until she spotted him through the café window and waved. Thirty seconds later he introduced me as a photographer.
Many clients, of course, find my company, Great Speech Writing, through the ‘Relax, we’ll write it for you!’ ad that I’ve run in The Spectator’s classifieds for 15 years. Some clients are genuine glossophobes, dreading their moment in front of the crowd. Others are up against impossible deadlines. Barristers are not alone in wanting to surpass high expectations. Many just can’t get started because they know the pool of jokes online has run its course. A wedding can no longer be ‘so emotional that even the cake’s in tiers’.
Often, a client comes with a specific concern. Divorcees can struggle to navigate the maze that is flattering their second spouse at a wedding reception in the presence of grown-up children from the first. We call this challenge ‘the Boris’. A representative for the president of a large African country called to explain that he had read the script for an address to the nation written in-house and was pacing around his office in a state of blind panic. Could I jump on a plane that evening?
Brilliant people with extraordinary ideas need to translate them from the technical into the understandable. CEOs who dazzle around a boardroom table need help because they don’t want colleagues to know that they tremble at the prospect of a town hall. One, rather touchingly, asks his PA to diarise our meetings as ‘life coaching’. Another, who could probably have done with some life coaching of his own, has asked for help with a hat-trick of groom speeches.
On one call I’ll never forget, Jack, a wonderful Australian gentleman, rang from Sydney airport, en route to Nairobi. ‘Hello mate. I’m going to email you a bunch of notes I’ve made about my mum. Could you think about turning it into a speech while I’m in the air?’ We did just that, penning a ten-minute eulogy that wove together various aspects of what had clearly been an eclectic, eccentric and fascinating life well lived. I called him that night and the following morning to make last-minute edits. He didn’t pick up and I worried that we hadn’t met his expectations.
Jack called a week later to thank me for the eulogy. I asked how it had gone. ‘Sorry mate. I think you misunderstood. She’s not dead. I just thought we’d put something on paper just in case.’ He called three years later to ask for a few minor edits to reflect her passionate defence of the Australian coal industry in her final years.
There’s no lack of demand for a great speech. But what’s the recipe? The ingredients are, fortunately, no different in business, politics, fundraising or at Aunt Dolly’s 90th.
It needs to be relevant. We have all sat through embarrassing, ill-judged, rambling and over-emotional speeches delivered by drunken best men, infatuated newlyweds or teary parents. We’ve seen the blank looks, raised eyebrows and attention drifting at conferences. That can be avoided by putting the audience first. A seminar full of techies has little in common with a gathering of potential investors. A traditional, cross--generational reception in the bride’s parents’ garden requires a different nuance to a dinner on the stag do in Ibiza. Surprisingly, this realisation comes as a lightbulb moment to many.
A great speech should be punchy and clear. Great speakers tend to deliver around 120 words per minute. We are regularly asked to look at a ‘ten-minute’ draft written by a client containing 5,000 words. The never-ending story about a couple’s first trip to France culminating in him making a flawed grand gesture may be replaced with something brief and punchy: ‘For any single men in the room… there’s a key lesson we can all take from this couple’s first holiday together: you are unlikely to impress your new girlfriend… by approaching the smartly dressed chap at the entrance to the Hotel de Ville in Bordeaux… and asking to book the honeymoon suite.’
You’ll notice that was written for the spoken word with ellipses denoting pauses. Remembering that one is writing a speech, not an essay, is crucial. Great content with poor delivery (something we still refer to as a ‘Gordon’) is as unlikely to work as the opposite (a ‘Clegg’).
Most of all, it’s important to start writing knowing what you are trying to achieve. Asking how you’d like a member of the audience to describe the entire speech in a single sentence is a brilliant place to start.
For the speechwriter, the key is to ask the right questions — which means more emotion and less fact. Clients compare our sessions to therapy. They open up about frustrations and anxieties, hopes and dreams, fading memories and failed relationships. That perspective allows us to write in their voice, ideally at the very top of their game, with regular requests for something in the style of both Obamas, Muhammad Ali or Sir Ken Robinson. The aim is that when it all comes together, a speech they have commissioned and rehearsed is more authentically theirs than anything they could have written on their own.
At a recent dinner party, a solicitor we’ll call Bob asked what I did for a living.I explained briefly, and he reacted with a chuckle of amusement and disbelief, the sort of response to which I long ago became accustomed. He then asked loudly and incredulously if people really paid for that type of thing.
Three days later the phone rang. ‘Hi, it’s Bob here. We met on Saturday. Would you be interested in helping me with a speech for my boss’s retirement party?’ He paused. ‘I assume that no one needs to hear about this?’