Often overlooked by PR people more focused on the new frontier of digital, the ancient art of speechwriting still has the ability to affect a company’s share price and make or break a career.
Great speeches, such as David Cameron’s notes-free talk at last year’s Tory party conference, have the power to save careers. And in the case of former retail tycoon Gerald Ratner’s speech in which
he compared the longevity of one of his own products to an ‘M&S prawn sandwich’, it can destroy them too.
Be it announcing annual results, product launches, trade events or shock resignations, the private sector is waking up to the importance of good speechwriting – long after the public sector has done.
Former Whitehall speechwriter and proprietor of Bespoke Speechwriting Services, Simon Lancaster, says: ‘It is still the most powerful form of communication, but in the private sector responsibility for writing the speech is often passed around like a grenade with its pin pulled out.’
At product launches, journalists will want to quote a CEO’s spiel verbatim, while at a meeting of investors and shareholders, the CEO will need to convey accurate financial data without sounding boring.
On the other hand, an awards ceremony could see the spokesperson dealing with a rowdy audience where brevity and light-heartedness are key.
‘What makes a good speech?’ asks Lancaster, whose private sector clients outnumber his public sector ones two to one. ‘Clarity, precision and purpose.’
Manning Selvage & Lee MD of global account development Jo Ellen Zumberge has been writing speeches for 30 years. ‘Why do speeches matter?’ she asks. ‘Because human beings are still in charge of making business work. You need confidence in the CEO for the share price to be good.’
There are four things that a good speechwriter needs to keep in mind. Write it for the speaker – when it is good, you know no-one else could have given the speech. Then you have to have some understanding of the subject. Keep the speaker’s audience in mind and, finally, know the level of oratory skill the speaker has.
So what makes a bad speech? Zumberge suggests it is one without a beginning, middle or end, while Lancaster says it is a ‘lack of consideration for the views of the audience’.
Tony Blair’s 2000 speech to the Women’s Institute was a cringe-inducing example of the latter. Fresh from paternity leave, Blair was ill-prepared and received slow hand-claps from the twinset-and-pearls brigade for being ‘overly political’.
‘His speech would have been great if it had been to the Fabian Society or some other progressive group,’ says Lancaster. ‘But it was not at all where the audience wanted him to be. You cannot go steaming in there disturbing people’s values. You need to show what you are proposing sits comfortably with them.’
The best speeches start in the same position as the audience and then – imperceptibly – pull them to where the speaker wants them.
An ancient comms tool it may be, but the speech still has the ability to be brought up to date. Richard Branson’s 2005 Virgin Digital launch saw him beamed as a hologram from his Caribbean holiday.
‘A lot of good PR people are using traditional speeches in modern media,’ says Lancaster. ‘The Queen’s speech on YouTube is another example.’
Zumberge adds that in the face of more direct interaction, CEOs are going to have to shape up as their own on-the-hoof speechwriters. ‘Transparency is the thing,’ says Zumberge. ‘These days, you have
to think about how you want to communicate all the time.’
analysis Steve Jobs – public speaker
‘When Steve Jobs launched the 3G iPhone at a California conference this year, he reclaimed his crown as Generation X's Messiah.
Jobs is one of the most impressive speakers of our age. Along with Richard Branson and Bill Gates, he systematically uses speeches to project his personality on to his brand.
But this 21st century icon has a rhetorical style firmly rooted in 18th century preaching. It is John Wesley without the incense – the Apple logo replaces the crucifix, dimmed lights replace candles and, instead of chanting, we get an occasional whoop.
When Jobs saunters on stage, there is near pandemonium. He speaks from memory, rapidly conveying a series of signs, moods and images that reinforce Apple’s key messages.
The crowd goes wild and Apple shops are besieged. But why is it so successful?
First, he is perfectly aligned with his audience: not hectoring, but delivering what they want.
Second, he is credible: his words are consistent with his actions. He is not banging his fist while communicating a message about listening and learning.
Third, he uses simple language. By describing the iPhone as ‘twice as fast at half the price’, Jobs echoes Abraham Lincoln. The Gettysburg address was 269 words – 205 were one syllable.
There are rumours Jobs is again unwell, having defeated pancreatic cancer in 2004. We hope he recovers, for he is not only a mind-blowing designer and businessmen, but a spectacular speaker.
A quick guide
- Make sure you know your speaker’s mannerisms and speech patterns
- Know what the speaker’s real agenda should be
- Have some good sound bites scattered within your speech
- Expose the conflict in a situation up front, then take it to its resolution
- Write in the active not the passive
- Practise, practise, practise.
- Write over-long sentences or try to cram too much in – the best speeches have a single line of argument
- Over-use metaphors – one will do, which you should come back to near the end of the speech
- Disturb people’s values – start with what they want to hear then take them on a journey
- Write it at the last minute.