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October 2019

‘So what do you do?’: the 19th European Speechwriters’ Conference, Paris, 25 September 2019

What’s the collective noun for a group of speechwriters?

A proclamation? A peroration? A paradox, perhaps?

Speechwriting is, after all, a profession full of contradictions. Speechwriters craft public language and lurk in the shadows; they crave close access to their speakers and often see their texts mangled by cloth-eared apparatchiks. They need to be agile networkers, and they work - for hours and hours - alone.

A collective of speechwriters might seem an oxymoron.

Which is why the very concept of a speechwriters’ conference promises intrigue and surprise. Both were evident at the 19th conference of the European Speechwriters’ Network, held in September 2019 at the Irish Cultural Institute in Paris.



The location was apposite. Last year, French speechwriters founded La Guilde des Plumes, which is rapidly establishing itself as the francophone companion organisation of the ESN. Members of the guild attended the September conference, contributing to a day of rich conversation, both on and off the platform.


You might expect the conversation to be wide-ranging. But you might not expect the sheer enjoyment that invariably bubbles up, the moment these people get together. Forget the bottom-numbing, tunnel-vision specialism of most professional conferences. ESN conferences are fun. (Guy Doza’s puckish chairing in Paris set the tone.) Speechwriters are a motley band with a wide range of responsibilities; and every good speechwriter has a healthy obsession with ‘general knowledge’. You can never tell where the conversation might turn.




Melanie Dunn’s briskly stimulating talk opened the proceedings, distilling impressive experience into a checklist of necessary skills, amounting to a virtual job description. Speechwriters, she told us, need to be able to absorb, sponge-like, vast amounts of information, and then distil it into three crisp ideas. Melanie notices a new requirement, too: the ability to navigate social media and online analytics.




Speechwriters - whether political or corporate - must also integrate with the culture in which they work – while often finding themselves isolated. (Another paradox.) During the day, we encountered cultures aplenty. This is a truly European network: French, Danish, Polish, Norwegian, Dutch – the list goes on, and includes Americans, Canadians and others.

Then there’s the Irish connection. Tom Moylan mischievously suggested that his country’s heritage gave it several linguistic headstarts over the English. (Gaelic has given English numerous words, including ‘Tory’.) Ireland has a noble storytelling tradition: every leader or taoiseach, throughout history, has had his file (pronounced ‘filly’), a prophetic poet who foretold the future in verse or riddle.


Speechwriters, Tom suggested, could well transfer some of the core conventions of that tradition into their own practice: be humble (never begin until you’ve been asked, three times); open innocuous but intriguing; and don’t protest if you’re interrupted.

Pauline Genee, who writes speeches for Dutch politicians, brought her expertise as a novelist to the conversation. Focus on conflict and character, she told us.



Don’t be afraid of simple formulas. A wants B and is prevented by C; without that dynamic, a rambling narrative will never become a compelling tale.

Sometimes the story explodes in front of us. Kevin Toolis considered how leaders respond to a crisis: a sudden, overwhelming, threatening event. The purpose of a catastrophe speech must be to restore authority, order and calm in the face of incipient violence or chaos. It needs to be delivered immediately; time, Kevin told us, is your enemy. This is a dangerous, risky speech to write – the world is listening – but it’s unavoidable if you want to capture the narrative.



His example was Tony Blair’s speech on the morning of Princess Diana’s death: forged at white heat with Alistair Campbell in the night watches after the fateful car accident; perfectly framed (Blair stops off, on a damp Sunday morning, as he takes his family to church in Sedgefield); and performed – there is no other word – with pinpoint precision, complete with careful hesitations and a voice breaking with emotion.


That speech did its job perfectly. And every speech, as Peggy Noonan reminded us via Melanie Dunn, has a job to do. Foregrounding the task of persuading an audience over the bland delivery of complex information can be tricky, especially when your principal is a pathologically cautious banker.

A number of European central banks were represented in the audience; and, on the platform, Antonia Fleischmann painted a vivid picture of her role at the Bundesbank. Her job is to help the bank maintain trust. When so many speeches from central bankers are so alike, markets can move on the substitution of an exclamation mark for a full stop. (These speeches are also scrutinised in transcript.)



Antonia sits with market analysts – rather than her comms colleagues – so that she can understand the mind-boggling complexities of international finance. She’s learnt that, if you want to convince economists of the virtues of clear language, the best tools are data-driven text analytics and readability statistics.

Improv, on the other hand, might not cut it with financiers. But there’s no reason why speechwriters shouldn’t try a bit of stand-up. In one of the afternoon breakout sessions, Alexandra Fresse-Eliazord – who has assembled a collection of 300 drama exercises – cajoled a group of us into making up stories from scratch. Composing extempore can help bring written speeches to life.



Of course, we need to balance spontaneity with attention to structure and style. At ESN conferences, the rhetorical tradition, from Aristotle onwards, is never far from the surface. Imogen Morley took another breakout group through a lively analysis of a speech by Hilary Clinton to demonstrate how studying good speeches from the past, far from being a dry academic exercise, can generate new ideas.



Even tennis can provide valuable insights. Jennifer Migan – herself a professional tennis player turned speechwriter and coach – explained how the skill of reading your opponent on the court can become the skill of empathy with a speaker who might find it hard to open up with a writer.




In the end, of course, it all comes back to language. The words have to work hard. Writing for a Chinese corporation, Jennifer told us, meant focusing on the company vision and ruthlessly excising any content that didn’t fit. Writing for a prominent speaker in Doha, Melanie Dunn explained, meant exchanging punchy arguments and explicit emotion for the poetry of Arabic and a shimmering presentational image for the speaker. In a one-party state, as one delegate explained to me over coffee, the task of a public speech is simply to fill the void.

And working in France, as Lucie Robin explained in the day’s keynote talk (more mischief: Lucie's chosen title was Know Your Enemy) means understanding how eloquence in French is closely codified and monitored. The French take pride in their language and value the appearance of smartness (don’t take out the long words; add to them). Avoid the taboos (money; religion); cultivate wit (l’esprit). Above all, treat your audience with maximum respect.


It’s a sobering thought. At a moment when public discourse in English is suffering from a surfeit of bad manners, we anglophones would do well to remember that the language of diplomacy is founded firmly on French. We need to find a new public language: principled, nuanced, collaborative. And speechwriters could have a leading role in establishing it.

The European Speechwriter Network holds its next conference at Emmanuel College, Cambridge, on 1, 2 and 3 April, 2020. To book a place, email [email protected].