Just a few weeks ago I was delighted to have received an invitation in my inbox for this workshop run by the Network for Oratory and Politics. As postgraduate students of the University of Glasgow, we are very fortunate to be invited to many events allowing us to share in the wisdom of many high-profile academics and professionals, but this one stood out for me – as a postgraduate student of Political Communication, and someone hoping to secure funding as PhD candidate in the same field, with a huge personal interest in the quality of communication between political leaders and the public – you could say this really was my ‘cup of tea’. I responded immediately and was extremely pleased to receive confirmation of my place.
In preparation for the workshop we were sent, in advance, two speeches to familiarise ourselves with:
1) JK Rowling’s Commencement Speech, Harvard University: ‘The Fringe Benefits of Failure, and the Importance of Imagination’
2) President Obama’s Selma Marches Anniversary Speech
Both very rousing and inspirational speeches and, on reflection, a solid indicator of what we should expect from the day.
Thinking about the workshop itself, the session was structured logically and professionally. The first speaker, Sara Lodge – a former speechwriter for Kofi Anan, now Senior Lecturer in English at St Andrews University – introduced us to the importance of preparation. She explained how what sets a speech apart from a talk or a sales pitch was the challenge of involving the audience. She stressed how successful speeches work by joining together the audience and the speaker. Something she said that stuck in my head was that: ‘We read as individuals, but we hear as one.” – very true, and thought-provoking. Sara’s analogies of speech structure as a musical concerto, building with intensity until it reaches the crescendo really resonated with me. It became very clear to me that the use of language in this manner – to celebrate or commemorate, signify a moment of change, or in Sara’s words: “to invoke the sublime, the ever-enduring possibilities of the human spirit” – demonstrates just how poetic, inspiring and powerful speeches have the potential to be. She suggested that a professional speechwriter may spend up to one hour researching for each minute of the speech they are writing, ensuring they are confident with the historical context of the occasion as well as the people involved. To know the audience means that a connection can be made, bridges can be built by recognising shared values and experiences, and by being consistent and confident throughout the speech. She formulated it as winning the audience by acknowledgement, reassuring them, and arousing their interest. What I took away from Sara’s presentation was that structure in a successful speech is key, and that together with genuine audience involvement – where the orator speaks with, and for, the audience, not at them – contributes to a sincere collective expression of togetherness, in other words the ideal speech conditions.
After Sara’s presentation we split into groups of two and were given a practical task. We had a choice of five scenarios for which to write a brief speech for. We spent half an hour working on this before the second presentation, this time from Rob Goodman, a visiting PhD candidate from Columbia University, but also an experienced political speechwriter having worked in the recent past for US Representative and House of Representatives Majority Leader Steny Hoyer and former US Senator Chris Dodd. Drawing upon his personal experience Rob introduced the concept of the rhetorical commonplace. He explained that commonplaces exist in cultural vocabulary, and that what sets them apart from clichés, which tend to stop thinking, is that commonplaces link pre-existing beliefs to new purposes and goals. The art of rhetorical persuasion channels what the audience already believes but takes them on a journey building upon those beliefs via persuasion. Connection can be achieved by conjuring up concrete images in the minds of the audience. He made reference to Aristotle’s notion of ethos, and how by presenting oneself in a consistent light the speaker may carry out the task displaying comfort, ease and confidence which, in turn, gives the audience the same comfort and confidence in the speaker’s words. Reinforcing exactly what Sara had said about how crucial audience involvement is.
The last speaker was Rodger Evans, an award-winning speechwriter for the Scottish Parliament and former music journalist. Rodger gave us tips for delivery including ‘the power of the pause’, when to raise and lower our voices to emphasise certain points and also how speech can be considered an art-form alongside music and poetry. Much aware of time-constraints we were then given a further half an hour to work on our practical exercises, my group’s task being to introduce Muhammad Ali to a college audience in light of his sacrifices of reputation and career in protest against the Vietnam War and fight for civil rights, which led to his conviction for draft evasion. When working on this task you could feel the enthusiasm and creativity in the room, for me it was the most enjoyable part of the day.
The final part of the session saw each pair present their speech to the group, applying the skills we had learnt that day in a practical, meaningful way. All of the speeches were of a surprisingly high standard and the feedback received on each from our team of workshop leaders highlighted how well every group had done at grasping the core elements of what makes a successful speech in terms of both design and delivery.
What I take away from this workshop is an appreciation of how speechwriting skills are crucial across disciplines, there was student representation not only from Politics, but also Law and Criminology at both Masters and PhD level. I believe that I can speak on behalf of all the workshop delegates to say how grateful we are to the Network of Oratory and Politics, and the funders, The Royal Society of Edinburgh, for making this workshop possible, especially considering that many of us in attendance would not have been in a position to finance such training ourselves. This workshop has changed my perceptions about the art of speechwriting and delivery, at a time when most of us are deep in theory writing assignments, a break to engage in something so practical and meaningful was very welcome. I’ve come away full of hope about how we, as humans, in what may seem an isolated world at times can come together and connect with our emotions, share our hopes for the future and engage in purposeful political involvement. My new awareness of how much the speechwriter and speaker have considered their audience as the integral component in the design of their speech gives me hope for the future of democratic involvement and popular empowerment, and the more people that understand this, the more accessible politics can be for all. Thank you very much.
Postgraduate student MSc Political Communication
University of Glasgow