Postgraduate Workshop: ‘Speechwriting in Practice’

Three experienced speechwriters and 25 postgraduate students from a range of academic disciplines met on 2 December 2016 at the University of Glasgow for a workshop on speechwriting, organised by the Network for Oratory and Politics.

The aim of the workshop was to train the postgraduates in the art of speechwriting through introductory talks by professional speechwriters and the exercise to writing a speech for delivery. In the final session, the students delivered a set of remarkably persuasive and eloquent speeches which proves that the oratorical tradition of speaking well is alive and flourishing.

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Sara Lodge leads the workshop

Sara Lodge (Senior Lecturer in English at the University of St Andrews and former speechwriter for the Secretary-General at the United Nations in New York) opened the workshop by speaking about the necessary preparatory steps in writing a good speech. Sara Lodge talked about the importance of knowing the audience and occasion for a speech, capturing the uniqueness of the moment, and soliciting feedback from others to avoid any mishaps. She illustrated her points with reference to J K Rowling’s commencement speech at Harvard University (June 2008), and made the postgraduates find the speech’s structure, high point and rhetorical devices.

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J K Rowling at the Harvard Commencement

In the coffee break, the postgraduates were giving a set of five speech ‘scenarios’ from a speaker attempting to persuade Virginia Woolf not to kill herself, a presenter at a Better Parenting conference using Marge Simpson as a role model, a biographer of Walt Disney addressing an animation convention about the forthcoming biography and a civil rights activist introducing Mohamed Ali at a college event. Over coffee, the students divided into groups to decide which scenario to develop into a speech in light of Sara Lodge’s advice.

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Speeches in development…

The next session was led by Rob Goodman (former speechwriter for US Representative and House of Representatives Majority Leader Steny Hoyer and former US Senator Chris Dodd, currently Ph.d. student at Columbia University, NY), who talked about the writing part of speechwriting – whether for oneself or another speaker. He illustrated his talk with Barack Obama’s speech about the Selma march and the ways in which the rich imagery in the speech tapped into the cultural vocabulary of Americans and, in the process, altered it to include dissent and protest about civic injustice in the ideal of American patriotism.

Having received these further tips about rhetorical commonplaces and the rhetorical power of imagery, the postgraduates continued their work on the speech scenarios over a sandwich lunch. There was lively discussion and hard work on ideas and formulations, creating an anticipation of good speeches to come.

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Rob Goodman leads a session on Barak Obama’s ‘Selma Speech.’

In the third session, Rodger Evans (speechwriter in the Scottish Parliament) summarised the tips and advice from the previous sessions and added his suggestions for good delivery of speeches: pace, passion and power of pause as well as musicality in language, energy, diction, pitch and nerves, and the need to practice a speech before delivery. Rodger, funny and poetic as in earlier NOP events, created the perfect platform for the postgraduates’ final push towards the delivery of their speeches.

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Speechwriting in practice…

In the final session, we heard an amazing array of eight persuasive, eloquent, funny, dramatic, powerful, moving and inspiring speeches about Virginia Woolf, Marge Simpson, Walt Disney and Mohamed Ali. And in true Strictly Come Dancing-style, the three session leaders gave their feedback after each speech. It was a truly inspirational end to an excellent workshop, motivating us all to prepare and deliver better and better speeches.

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