Lessons for Speechwriters from Heinrich von Kleist

8 March 2013

kleistThe German playwright, Heinrich von Kleist, wrote an essay in 1807 On the Gradual Formulation of Thoughts While Speaking.

The significance of this essay for speechwriters is that he suggests a way to clarify thoughts is not through reflection but by speaking.

He begins:

My dear thoughtful friend: if there is something you want to know without being able to find it out through meditation, turn to any acquaintance you run into to talk about the matter.

Kleist suggests that the person you’re talking to doesn’t need to be clever or know anything about the subject under discussion.

As an example he quotes how the great French playwright, Molière, would test a good line out on his maid, and he claimed that her judgement was usually more sound than his own. The German playwright suggests that creativity is a flowing process:

The French say l’appétit vient en mangeant, and this empirical maxim remains true if one makes a parody of it and says l’idée vient en parlant.

He explains how he can struggle with an obscure mathematical problem for hours without any joy.

But if he turns to his sister, by the sheer fact of listening to him, she gets his brain to work on the solution.

It works even better if she has reason to interrupt him, because that excites his brain to finish what he is saying, and raises the quality of his output.

The other person’s face is a curious source of inspiration for a person who speaks. A single glance which indicates that a half-expressed thought is already understood, bestows on us the other half of the formulation.

He goes on to suggest that great orators often open their mouths without knowing what they’re going to say. But the situation, and the tension of the occasion, inspire them to become eloquent.

Dale Carnegie puts this in a more banal way. If you knock someone over in the street, you will soon find they have something to say.

The film maker, Mike Leigh, is famous for his improvisational techniques. He creates plays by putting his characters in rehearsal through the experiences in the plot without knowledge of what is going to happen. By recording the reactions of the cast, he generates text.

The final script is a filtered version of that text. So the script can be both spontaneous, and yet, fixed, to make it both fresh and easy to film.

For speechwriters it is appropriate to play the role of Kleist’s sister, stimulating the speaker to produce thoughts, and then with frequent attempts to interrupt the flow of thought, you can stir up the mind of the person, thus producing sharper and more colourful ideas.

The Dutch Genius for Writing Speeches – in English!

1 March 2013

Frans Timmermans, Dutch Minister of Foreign Affairs

Search Linkedin for those people who share a vocation for speechwriting across Europe, and you’ll find a few German Redenschreiber, a small well-connected gang of Danish taleskriver, but hundreds of Dutch speechschrijver.

Perhaps because of some rhetorical tradition, or quirk of their educational system, the Netherlands breeds speechwriters.

This would be fine. After all nobody is going to take over the world gurgling Dutch.

What is extraordinary is the number of Dutch who can write accessible, idiomatic speeches in English with a deep and sensitive knowledge of the culture.

Yesterday I attended the Policy Network event on Europe at the Guildhall in London.

The Finnish Commissioner Olli Rehn spoke well, but it took a while to tune into his accent, and he never really rose above a few technocratic phrases.

What a contrast with Frans Timmermans, the Dutch Foreign Minister.

Timmermans began by quoting Monty Python’s Life of Brian, ‘What have the Romans done for us?’ – which was a witty way to question Euroscepticism. You couldn’t hear any accent whatsoever in Mr Timmermans voice. He was flamboyant, funny and persuasive.

He talked about the disconnection between European bureaucrats and citizens. He made the simple point that if Britain left the EU, it couldn’t defend Scottish salmon producers from Norwegian competition. He said he wanted the British to be part of Europe and told us that British civil servants were very effective within the Commission.

It was stirring stuff. Where do we find similar speeches from pro-European British MPs?

Timmermans even had the audacity to warn us by paraphrasing our greatest orator: “As Winston Churchill said, if you feed the crocodile of Euroscepticism – my addition to this quote – the only thing you will achieve is the crocodile will eat you last.”

The keynote of the day was to come from Herman Van Rompuy. Nigel Farage once described him as having ‘the charisma of a damp rag’.

Rompuy has an accent, but his speech comprised simple sentences with some sensitive use of metaphor. Lines like:

“How do you convince a room full of people, when you keep your hand on the door handle? How to encourage a friend to change, if your eyes are searching for your coat?”

Those of us in the know, detect the influence of another Dutchman on Rompuy’s speech, Luuk Van Middelaar, the ‘Jon Favreau’ of the European Council.

He has given the President an intimate turn of phrase, which was apparent in the London speech and the speech at the Nobel Prize ceremony last year.

When you also consider the fact that the prestigious American Cicero award for speechwriting in 2012 (which every speechwriter wants to win) was awarded to another Dutch speechwriter, Annelies Breedvelt, for a speech she wrote in English for General Peter Van Uhm, (see it here) you wonder, how do they do it?

Does the skill of speechwriting have a lot to do with understanding grammar and structure? Is it an advantage to stand outside the language you’re writing in? Most native speakers don’t agonize very much about how to say something, because it’s their language.

On the Eurosceptic side, we have talented speakers like Dan Hannan MEP, a kind of public-school ‘Ian Paisley’, but the great strength of these Dutch speechwriters is that they can make a persuasive case for sensible policies in a thoughtful and entertaining way.

Annelies Breedveld will be speaking at the Spring Conference of the European Speechwriter Network on Thursday 16 May 2013 at the Institute for Government. Click here to purchase a ticket.

Interview with David Murray, Editor of Vital Speeches

26 February 2013

What is Vital Speeches of the Day?

Vital Speeches has for 76 years now collected the best speeches from the leading thinkers in the world. The original idea, back in 1935, was that newspapers and radio so finely filtered what we heard, that it would be a service to the nation—Vital Speeches was then a very much America-centric enterprise—to provide a look at whole speeches, not just sound bites chosen by biased media organisations. That musty old mission sounds kind of modern, doesn’t it?

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The Ragan Communications Conference in Washington DC

18 February 2013

Three days in February 2008 changed my life.

I travelled to Washington to attended my first Ragan Communications Speechwriters & Executive Communicators Conference at the Mayflower Renaissance Hotel in Washington DC.

It was like visiting another planet and finding aliens there, who were just like me. There were over two hundred professional speechwriters gathered in one hotel. I had been invited to speak on ‘Writing Humour’ on the first morning. To my great relief, it went well, and my text was later published in an American publication, Vital Speeches of the Day.

During one of the breaks I went for stroll to look at the White House. I stared at the South Portico to see if I could spot George W Bush inside.

The American delegates asked me how things worked in the UK. I didn’t have a clue. I’d never met any other speechwriters in the UK.

In the bar, Hal Gordon, a former speechwriter for the President Reagan Administration, gave me a lecture on how the British political system worked. I’d never heard such an insightful American perspective. There was some truth it it, but it was a very romantic picture.

Later Hal gave a very inspiring talk about using stories in speeches. His tip was, save something good for the end. The end of your speech needs to get them applauding. He explained why Jesus used parables, and how we identify with different characters. One heckler suggested that Jesus used parables because he didn’t have statistics.

I got an insight into American corporate culture from Linda Rutherford from Southwest Airlines. Doing sales is not something Americans apologise for. She explained how Southwest Airlines had an internal speakers bureau, which arranged for company employees to go out and speak to schools and other organisations.

Drew Westen, the author of The Political Brain, gave an analysis of how to use emotions in speeches with reference to Presidential elections. The Americans are very comfortable talking about feelings. Something the British avoid, especially when talking about politics. We were invited to investigate our feelings towards a party’s principles, our feelings towards candidates, our feelings towards candidates’ personal attributes, our feelings towards candidate’s policies. Lastly we were asked to evaluate the facts about the candidate’s policies.

Westen ended by quoting Ella Fitzgerald, “It don’t mean a thing, if it ain’t got that swing.” You’ve got to connect with the feelings of the voters. Tony Blair was the master of that.

Mark Ragan, the CEO of Lawrence Ragan Communcations, was a very charismatic host of the conference. He looked a bit like Michael Douglas.

In the best tradition of British entrepreneurs, I took the Ragan idea and worked out how to adapt it. In 2009, we had our first conference, which turned out to be similar, but British. Many of the characters I met in Washington have become friends since, and a few have travelled to Britain to speak at our conferences.

Speechwriting work is often a lonely pastime: fellowship springs up very quickly among its practitioners at conferences. Every speechwriter needs to make one pilgrimage to Washington. You can still get a place at the 2013 conference. Click here for details.

10 Steps to Writing a Vital Speech – Review by Alan Barker

9 February 2013

By Fletcher Dean
Published by Vital Speeches of the Day, 2011

Fletcher Dean introduces his book as “a primer on how to write a speech”. And, as a primer, it works extremely well.

Dean knows the worlds of both political and corporate speechwriting. He takes a pragmatic view of the speechwriter’s job.

He’s not afraid to tackle the fuzzy areas: the relationship between script and notes; the fraught question of Powerpoint; and most importantly, the relationship between scriptwriters and their principals. Dean’s first command is to know the audience. What, above all, do you want them to do after listening to the speech?

Although the early chapters are somewhat checklist-heavy, Dean’s take is refreshing. At the heart of his approach is what he calls the Communication Hierarchy: five ‘communication possibilities speakers can achieve with their audiences’. At the base of the staircase is ‘Inform’; we progress through ‘Create understanding’. ‘Reinforce values’ and ‘Change attitudes’ to the ultimate purpose: ‘Elicit action’.

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Garr Reynolds comes to London

2 November 2012
Garr Reynolds

On Wednesday 7 November 2012, I attended the Presentation Zen conference at the London Hilton Paddington.

It was excellent. Garr Reynolds is a charismatic presenter and he kept us going for the whole day.

However, there was one moment when, as a speechwriter, my heart sank. It was when Garr described an article published in Psychology Today. The title of the article is The 8 Key Elements of Highly Effective Speech…and why your words barely matter.

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Rich Watts becomes PEER 1 Hosting UK Business Speaker of the Year

4 October 2012
Terry Connor, PEER 1, Rich Watts, Ross Thornley, RT Media

Rich Watts, an account director from Leepeckgroup, won the £2000 prize for PEER 1 Hosting UK Business Speaker of the Year 2012 competition.

The final, hosted by the leader of Southampton City Council, Cllr Richard Williams, pitched nine speakers against each other at the hub theatre in Southampton on Thursday 27 September.

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