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Putting words in their mouth: The art of speechwriting

Speechwriting is a tough profession. Crafting another’s ideas and words into an eloquent package involves a lot of people who, as Don Watson told his audience at the 2015 Byron Bay Writers Festival, “really they never thought about words.”

Rather amusing for the man who was speechwriter to Paul Keating when he was prime minister, and who went on to lead the charge for quality and integrity in public language.

No easy task as you can imagine, and I think to be successful you must have some measure of passion for the person you’re writing about and what they stand for.

Certainly for Watson and Michael Cooney, who was speechwriter to Julia Gillard, there is no shortage of passion for the prime ministers they served.

This showed in their discussion and Jeni Caffin, their session chair at the festival, who described their books as “love letters” to the prime minsters they served.

So what makes a great speech?

Watson, who authored Recollections of a Bleeding Heart: A Portrait of Paul Keating PM, is matter-of-fact: speeches should be direct, concrete, and never in the passive voice. He describes speechwriting an endless and often draining task, and admits to finding a certain measure of respectability in being considered a “bleeding heart”.

The most famous of Keating’s speeches, the Redfern Speech, is an intensely gritty acknowledgment of the crimes committed against Australia’s indigenous population. Watson had a heavy hand in writing the speech, however it’s interesting to note that Keating himself has claimed sole authorship, insisting that it is inherently his.

Who then do the words of the speech belong to?

There’s a lot of anonymity in being a speechwriter. While it’s generally known that speeches are written by a person hired to do so, there’s so much give and take between the writer and the speaker that there exists a sort of co-authorship that cannot be ignored.

The responsibility for the work is perhaps a little less clear. If the work is good, the praise will fall to the person you wrote the speech for. If you fail, you’ve given them bad advice. In the case of Paul Keating’s Redfern Speech, this symbiotic relationship between speaker and writer is quite relevant to me after hearing Watson speak.

The dawn of the digital age has made Cooney’s experience quite different Watson’s. Watson talks about coming from the age of newspaper transcripts, when speeches spread slowly and were much less far-reaching. Online communication has made the world considerably “smaller”.

Gone are the days of waiting for print media to write about the events. The same day Julia Gillard made her famous self-written misogyny speech, it spread as far as to where I lived in Massachusetts, US. An incredible feat, far removed from the experience of Watson’s time.

Cooney praises the internet and social media and the effect it has had on speechwriting. The increased visibility of famous speeches means that they can now be spread globally in a matter of minutes.

Cooney suggests that a great speech must form a well-thought out and impressive whole; the digital age and expansion of global media means that your 20-minute speech is going to be broken up, often delivered in 7 second clips. If the entire speech is lacking, that 7-second clip will be as well.

He suggests that the easiest way to fix a lacklustre speech is to format sentences into subject-verb-object structure, to deliver lines that are direct. In speeches such as the one Gillard delivered in Brisbane on Australian mining, the carbon tax, and the economy as compared to the rest of the globe, his short, cutting lines punctuating longer thoughts proved that this this strategy really works.

The impressive speech came just before the G20 Conference, and was one of the defining moments of Gillard’s political career.

After hearing these incredible men discuss their careers, I can’t help but wonder after the title of the conversation. Can anyone really say that speechwriting is putting words into someone’s mouths?

It’s so much more complex than that. Caffin suggests that unlike a movie script, you aren’t creating thoughts for a person. You’re voicing what they already think and feel. It’s a tremendously difficult exercise in empathy; there’s art in being able to anticipate and construct a piece that reflects what another person wants to say.

The responsibility of writing for another person is a heavy cross to bear, but if Cooney and Watson’s passion and fervour for the work they’ve done is anything to go by, it’s well worth the struggle to succeed.

Megan A. Morgan is a Bachelor of Arts student studying Writing and Visual Arts at Southern Cross University. She holds a prior degree in English from the University of Massachusetts Amherst. 



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