Every year to lighten the admin load for the ESN conference, I set aside some money to invest in a creative project. One year it was an ESN tea towel, the next year it was an enamel mug, the year after that we created a branded European Speechwriter Network notebook.
During the recent political turmoil we’ve experienced, I’d noticed the banners that Unions use on demonstrations. Non-conformist churches also hang them in their chapels. Could I commission something like that for the ESN?
Their images and texts can be very powerful.
I remember Rodney Bickerstaffe, former General Secretary of the National Union of Public Employees, once saying in a speech that the inspiration behind the Union movement was from the Gospel, in particular Jesus’s comment that ‘The labourer is worthy of his hire.’
I like the way a short sentence like that can encapsulate the purpose of the organisation.
At the beginning of the year there was a train strike in the UK. While I was walking past Bournemouth station I saw a picket line. I wasn’t too pleased about the strike, but I really loved their banner for the local chapter of the union. It was brightly coloured and stood out clearly.
This motivated me to take the plunge and contact a banner maker, Edmund Hall, who advertises on the internet. I asked him if he would make a banner for the European Speechwriter Network. He said he’d be delighted, and that I should send him our logo and tell me what image I wanted on the banner.
That was a challenge. My taste was for something old-fashioned. An image from Shakespeare or the Bible.
At first I thought of Joseph. Joseph was an ‘interpreter of dreams’. It was he who could work out the meaning of Pharoah’s disturbing visions, and he translated it into the action that needed to be taken. That could be a metaphor for a speechwriter.
Then I thought we could have, ‘Let there be light’. After all, rhetoric doesn’t come more powerful than that.
But then I remembered the burning bush. Moses was given the task of leading the Israelites out of Egypt. His first response was, ‘I am slow of speech and tongue’. Now that could be interpreted to mean, ‘I’m going to need a speechwriter.’
God’s response is, you don’t need a speechwriter. And we’re all familiar with that line. But in the lines that follow, God grudgingly agrees that public speaking is an important part of leadership, and Aaron is given the role of spokesman.
My communications with Mr Hall were a bit erratic, because he has been suffering from ill-health for most of 2023.
But with the conference ten days away, he suddenly seemed to be energised by this image and the quotation from Exodus.
I asked him if he could bring the banner with poles to Oxford to present it to the conference in person. He was unable to do that, but I did assure him that he has a standing invitation to attend the conference and talk to us about the banners he’s created over the years, and how this form of political communication works.
We unveiled the banner at the conference. I must admit the vivid image exceeded my expectations. It is a beautiful thing.
I explained to the delegates that for me, the meaning of the quotation is that the first qualification for anyone who takes on the burdens of leadership is humility.
If a leader says, ‘Don’t worry about the speeches, I can handle those’, that’s going to be a worrying sign.
There’s so much scope for misunderstanding, for oversight and for impatience to reveal itself in speech, that a leader cannot hope to manage everything alone.
That’s why every leader needs some kind of speechwriting support. We are indispensable. And that should give us the courage to assert and value ourselves.