Thursday, July 17, 2008

Q&A on political speechwriting

Published in the March 2008 edition of Victorian Writer magazine.

How did you come to be a speechwriter?

That’s one of the two questions I’m most often asked when I tell people I’m a speechwriter. The other question is: Have you ever had to write a speech on a subject you’re opposed to?

Last question first. No, I haven’t had to write a speech that goes against my moral compass. The reason why that’s the case is that I’ve only worked for politicians I have an affinity for; namely, Steve Bracks, John Brumby and Rob Hulls. Generally speaking, we’re standing on the same philosophical ground, which means I can see where they’re coming from on any given issue, I can see why they’ve made the decision they’ve made, and I can always say if I disagree.

The other point to make before I answer your initial question is this: there’s more to speechwriting than sitting your bum down in front of a computer terminal. A speechwriter should not be given a brief and told to go away and write 1,000 words of oratorical landfill. A speechwriter should be engaged in a running conversation with the person they’re writing for – talking about everything from policies to poetry – so that they get on, and remain on, the same wavelength as their speechmaker. If they’re not engaged in that conversation – which is more about listening than talking, by the way – it’s very hard to stay in tune. If you not talking regularly with the person I’m writing for – or watching them deliver speeches – you can lose your feel for them and stop writing in their voice. To put it in the sporting vernacular, if you’re not engaged with the person you’re writing for you lose your form – and the ball just doesn’t come off the bat sweetly.

But, back to your question, I became a speechwriter almost by accident. Back in 2004, the former Premier, Steve Bracks, was looking for a new senior speechwriter and my name came up as a candidate because I’d written a novel and published some poetry. At the time I was working in job that, temperamentally, was the polar opposite to speechwriting: press secretary. Press secing is helter skelter – mobile phone ringing around the clock, running from here to there; action, action, action – whereas speechwriting is much more ponderous – read a bit, scratch a few notes, walk to the library, read a bit more, buy a coffee, go back to the office and check the email; type, type, type. The only thing that made them think of me as a potential fit for the speechwriting gig was my extracurricular writing, otherwise I’d probably still be press secing.

In the end, I had an interview, wrote a speech as a try out, and was duly hired. I was lucky that I clicked with Steve from day one as his speechwriter.

Is it more than ‘just a day job’ for you? Why do you do it?

Politics, like writing poetry and fiction, is more a way of life than a job. The reason I work as a political speechwriter is that I believe in the notion of not just representative democracy, but participatory democracy; that the more actively involved a community is in the political process the better off it will be socially, economically and environmentally. In short, I want to make a contribution, and, given my skills, speechwriting is the best way I can make that contribution.

On the subject of politics, some people seem to think it’s a bad thing if politicians disagree or argue – I find that thinking wrongheaded. The bottom line is that, if a community is democratic, there are battles that need to be fought by each and every generation – battles over discrimination and inequality, battles over poverty and prosperity, battles over development and the environment, and battles over ignorance and injustice. I believe the best way I can lend a hand right now is by working in politics as a speechwriter. Sounds corny, but it’s the truth.

Who have you written speeches for? Who are you now writing for?

I’ve written lots of speeches for a lot of people, but the main two have been Steve Bracks and John Brumby.

Do you get to hear the speeches you write?

One of the most important parts of the job is seeing the speeches delivered. After all, the written draft of the speech is not the speech, is it? It’s just the words. Those words only become a speech when they’re articulated. That’s the trouble with all the collections of great speeches that are kicking around: they are the speaking notes, not the real thing. What makes a speech successful is its delivery. Was the speaker confident? Did they sound like themselves? Did they connect with the audience? These are questions that can only be answered if you’re in the room when it’s delivered. As Rob Hulls once told me, “It’s all in the delivery”.

How do you feel about handing over your words for someone else to speak in public i.e. do you get anxious about whether they’ll get the nuances right?

It can be difficult watching the speeches being delivered. There’s some performance anxiety for the speaker, because I want the speech to work for them. Ultimately, it doesn’t matter how well written a speech is – if it’s not delivered well it’s not a good speech. A good speech hits the right tone, has the right content and narrative, clarifies and amplifies the views of the speaker, and connects with the audience. The bottom line, though, is that the words are not mine: they belong to the person delivering the speech.

Have there been any disasters and what have you learnt from these?

Early on in my tenure as Steve Bracks’ speechwriter I accepted an invitation to speak to the Year 10 students at a private school. Unfortunately, I was flat out writing speeches for Steve in the lead up to the event and didn’t have time to prepare for the event until I was taking a taxi to the school. Without going into too much excruciating detail, it was a train wreck of a speech. Needless to say, it was not an experience I want to relive. Since then, I’ve delivered many more speeches and lectures and always – always – make sure I’m fully prepared. Besides the motivation that disaster has given me, the experience of delivering a bad speech taught me a great deal about what it takes to write and deliver a good one. Failure can be the best preparation for success.

What sorts of occasions would you be called upon to write a speech for?

Everything from Parliamentary statements to campaign launches to international symposia to ALP state conferences to the Commonwealth Games to community cabinets to flower shows. You name it, I’ve done it.

How do you approach writing a speech for someone? i.e. what preparation do you need to do and what elements to do you consider in the writing.

That goes back to the running conversation. You have to be on their wavelength so that you’re able to write the speech that they would write if they had the time. Moreover, you need to do your research so that you can bring something extra to the speech – a new fact or perspective. Ideally, you should make the speechmaker sound like an amplified version of themselves.

How does one become a speechwriter? Does it require special skills?

Speechwriting is such a nebulous profession I don’t know how you become one. There are no qualifications, per se; basically, you become a speechwriter when someone asks you to write them a speech. Simple as that.

Banging out boilerplate speeches without voice or form or rhythm or a narrative drive doesn’t count. I don’t consider that speechwriting. I call that speechtyping.

Full blooded speechwriting requires simpatico. The person writing and the person talking are breathing the same air, thinking the same thoughts and speaking the same language. That’s hard to attain and hard to retain. I can’t tell you how to get there, but I can tell you how it feels. It feels like when you’re trying to solve one of those 3-D wooden puzzles in the dark, and there’s only one right way, and you fumble and feel around until it clicks into place.

So far as special skills go, speechwriting is a job for a writer. If you’re not a writer – someone who can sit down and research and write up to 10,000 words a week and get such a buzz out of the process that they want to turn around and do it all over again the next week – if you not that person this is not a job you can sustain. Writing is physical labour. It requires a strong back.

In a career as a professional speechwriter, how many opportunities would you get to write the ‘great speech’?

If you sit at your desk waiting for the “great” speech to land on your lap you’re going to miss it. The only way for me to approach the job is to treat every speech the same. They’re all speeches for the Premier of Victoria, therefore they’re all important. To treat them otherwise is to short change the people who turn up to hear the speech.

Afterwards, I might look back and say to myself, “That was a good one” – but, ultimately, the only judge of whether or not a speech is great is posterity. Let’s just say there are several speeches I’m proud of.

What do you believe makes a great speech, one that will be remembered in history?

What makes a great speech is a great occasion. Put it another way: Michael Gurr, a former speechwriter and fabulous playwright, wrote in his memoir, “Political speechwriters dream the Gettysburg address and wake up to the Cheltenham Chamber of Commerce.” What Michael’s driving at is this – I might write the most brilliant speech ever put to paper, but if it’s delivered at the opening of a flower show no one’s going to give a rat’s arse.

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