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Rhetorically speaking…
Speechwriters Blog on Speechwriting


Total Politics has published an article I wrote on the secret world of Whitehall Speechwriting in this month’s issue. I’ve pasted the full text of the article below.

Every social group has its own rites of passage. You’re not a real traveller until you’ve caught malaria. You’re not a real soldier until you’ve had your leg tattooed. And you’re not a real Lib Dem until you’ve graduated from the University of Essex, smoked a little dope and worshipped at the altar of George Osborne.
Anthropologists have studied the steps involved in rising up the hierarchies of many different cultures, but no-one has yet, to my knowledge at least, examined the hierarchy one has to rise through to become a real Whitehall Speechwriter: which is a pity because the steps involved are as intriguing as anything to be found in the jungles of Papua New Guinea. The watering holes of Whitehall are filled with speechwriters sharing their stories.
The first step for any speechwriter is the essential public humiliation. During the Renaissance, failing students were made to walk the streets wearing a pair of donkey’s ears. Today’s Whitehall speechwriters are made to endure far worse humiliations. And they never have to wait long for their moment to arrive: this is usually a week-one ritual.
I remember one newly-appointed speechwriter who received a rollocking from her Minister within days of starting. To make matters worse, that rollocking was issued from the dispatch box in the House of Commons. He had painstakingly prepared the Minister’s second reading speech and, as many new recruits do, leant rather towards the kind of purple prose of which the Minister had not approved. After reading out one particularly offensive paragraph, the Minister paused and grimaced at his opposite number: ‘Sorry. I’ve got a new speechwriter,’ he mumbled. The House erupted in laughter. His poor new speechwriter, sitting yards away in the official’s box, was mortified; to make matters worse, the Hansard writers captured his moment of shame in history: the official report recorded not only the Minister’s words, but the House’s response as well: [laughter]. It was the razor-sharp edges of the square brackets that hurt the most.
My own moment of public shame came at the hands of Mary Anne Sieghart: she launched a vicious tirade against declining linguistic standards in Britain after spotting a stray apostrophe that had surreptitiously crept into a speech I had written. This common grammatical error would not usually have warranted such a severe roasting but my crime was made all the worse because it had appeared in a speech written for – yup, you guessed it – the Secretary of State for Education. The following day, I was sent dozens of copies of ‘Eats, Shoots and Leaves’ by thoughtful colleagues in the Department. Thanks, guys.
Second step is the inevitable time-wasting that comes with being a Whitehall speechwriter- expending hours, days and weeks on words that are destined never to see the light of day. Every speechwriter knows the misery of working well into the early hours - cancelling friends, missing dinner and getting the night bus home - only to see their painstakingly crafted words disposed of like used tissue paper first thing the following morning.
Either it’s the policy has changed, the positioning has changed or the politician’s mind: whatever, it is par for the course for the speechwriter. We spend days carving our bow and whittling new arrows only to find that, by the time we’ve finished, the target has moved several yards to the left.
The trouble is that some Ministers do have minds of their own and that they tend to regard their speeches as multigyms in which to exercise them. They see speeches as opportunities to hone their ideas and test their thinking. Sadly for the speechwriter, this often means thousands of words being consigned to the bin in the process, and often in the cruelest, most dismissive manner. In the Seventies, Douglas Hurd wrote speeches for Ted Heath. He told how one of his drafts was returned with the comment: ‘This simply will not do.’ It’s hard to know where to go with that!
Of course, the other thing that can torpedo a carefully crafted speech is ‘events’. Sometimes this might be a diary clash and sometimes it might be something truly momentous.
I was at the TUC in Brighton on September 11 2001 when Tony Blair was due to make his annual speech to Congress: he had been expected to make some politically explosive comments about reforming public services and the euro, setting out an audacious stall for his second term as PM.
Of course, events in New York that day put a stop to all that: he completely discarded his prepared text and instead issued some hastily prepared brief remarks about the emerging crisis in New York before hurriedly returning to London.
I will never forget the sight of one of Blair’s then speechwriters scuttling around the bar at the Grand Hotel, distributing copies of the text which Blair had been due to deliver before the planes went in to the World Trade Centre. You could see the weeks spent working on the text etched on his forehead as he implored journalists and trade unionists to read it, pleading ‘But it contains some really important messages…!’
Third step in the Whitehall Speechwriter’s rites of passage is the identity crisis. This usually strikes after a speechwriter has been writing for the same person for more than six months or so: the lines start blurring between the speechwriter’s personality and that of their principle. This is almost inevitable. After all, the whole job of speechwriting is almost necessarily one of psychological transferrance: to write convincingly for someone, you have to really get into their mind. The trouble is that this results in the absurd situation of fresh-faced recent graduates wandering around St James Park literally imagining that they are cabinet ministers or party leaders, preparing their manifestos for Britain, mouthing their messages to the nation.
The consequences can be terrifying.  In some cases, speechwriters wind up speaking, acting and even looking like their speakers, like owners and their dogs.  If they are writing for a charismatic, attractive politician, this can be to their advantage: but, let’s face it, there aren’t too many of them around so, for most people, the only way is down. It was a tragedy for the young skinny chap from Weybridge recruited to write John Prescott’s speeches a few years ago. One can only imagine what his poor parents thought…
The other risk is that the speechwriter starts believing their own hype. Peter Hyman was so taken in writing Tony Blair’s speeches on education (X3) that he left Number 10 to work in an Islington school. Danny Kruger was so enthused by David Cameron’s talk about the Big Society he left to set up a charity. At least someone understood what he was banging on about.
Fourth step is the crash and burn moments. These moments – when a speech unexpectedly misfires - punctuate the speechwriter’s career. It might be a joke that misses the spot, a soundbite that fails to register, or, occasionally, god forbid, the slow hand-clap. We’ve all seen the coverage of Cabinet Ministers being heckled or slow hand-clapped - Blair at the Women’s Institute, Jacqui Smith at the Police Federation, Patricia Hewitt at the Royal College of Nursing - but, the next time this happens, think less about the red-faced Minister at the podium – he is more than capable of dealing with it - think instead about about the anguished speechwriter at the back of the hall, chewing their nails and contemplating curtains their career.
Because there is nothing like the crash and burn moment to prove the old maxim – if it works, it’s because the Speaker is an amazing orator; if it bombs, it’s because the speechwriter is a complete gimp. That’s right – you’ve just got to accept responsibility and take what’s coming at you: acting as an outlet for your speaker’s anger and aggression is an unwritten part of the Whitehall Speechwriter’s job description. We all have tales to tell about receiving the ‘hairdryer treatment’ at the hands of our hollering bosses.
Fifth step is the stomach ulcer. There comes a time for every Whitehall Speechwriter when the eighteen-hour days, thousands of words every week, the relentless pressure, scrutiny and ingratitude finally take their toll.
The good news is there’s no shortage of opportunities for Whitehall Speechwriters who do reach this point.
You can go into business. In the last few months, a number of FTSE companies have scoured through Whitehall for top-level speechwriters. They are insistent on only seeing people who have had their talents forged in the white heat of Whitehall.  This is proof they’ll be able to withstand the heat of a corporate environment. And they pay handsomely – six figure salaries are the norm.
You can go and write screenplays. A former colleague of mine has, within just ten years, made the transition from writing speeches about European economic reform for Helen Liddell to writing screenplays on Spooks and Fixer for ITV. He wasn’t the first speechwriter to make this leap. Peter Benchley was Richard Nixon’s speechwriter before he left to write the screenplay for Jaws. He was clearly so traumatized by his own rites of passage that he named Jaws’ first victim, Kintner: the same name of his old White House Chief of Staff.
You can write a book on speechwriting. A clutch of Whitehall Speechwriters have now gone on to do this, including myself, Susan Jones and Matthew Shinn – who have written the expert guide, the easy guide and the indispensable guide to speechwriting.
You can go into journalism, finding a paper that reflects your former boss’s politics. Andrew Neather went from being Jack Straw’s speechwriter to being a columnist on the right-wing Standard. Philip Collins went from being Tony Blair’s speechwriter to being a columnist on the right-wing Times.
Or, finally, you can take the ultimate leap yourself and go into politics. The upper echelons of all three of the main parties are swamped with former speechwriters. Ed Miliband began his career as the speechwriter to Harriet Harman. George Osborne began his career as a speechwriter to William Hague. And Nick Clegg began his career as a speechwriter to Leon Britton.
The great thing for them now is they can enjoy putting some other fresh-faced whipper-snapper through their own rites of passage.

Posted by Simon Lancaster on May 8th, 2011 :: Filed under Random

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Budget Speech - Alliterative Pair watch

Yesterday, I blogged about how alliterative pairs create the impression of balance and order, which is why they feature so frequently in Budget statements.

George Osborne’s statement did not disappoint. The climactic soundbite was an alliterative pair - ‘The March of the Makers’ - and they were generally scattered throughout the whole of the text: from rescue to reform, reform to recovery, radically reduced, credible and comprehensive, country must compete, deal directly, important investment, fair fuel, face facts and - last, but not least - a Budget for Britain.

As Toby Ziegler said in the West Wing, too many alliterative pairs and you need ‘an avalanche of Advil’.

Posted by Simon Lancaster on March 23rd, 2011 :: Filed under Random

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In Ancient Rome, the great rhetorician Quintilian said, ‘It is as ridiculous to hunt for rhetorical figures without reference to the matter in hand, as it is to discuss dress and gesture without reference to the body.’

Tomorrow, the matter in hand is the Budget and by far the best rhetorical device for Budgets is the alliterative pair because it creates the impression of balance and order, thereby underlining the true main message of any budget: that it’s balanced and orderly.

You can track this back through history - a price worth paying, prudence for a purpose, the people’s priorities, boom and bust, balance the books, welfare to work and so on.

Osborne has also played with a number of alliterative pairs in the past - repairing the roof and prudence not profligacy spring instantly to mind - but these were soundbites that worked better from the Opposition benches. Tomorrow, he needs something different. He needs to come across as calm, orderly and in control.

Ladbrokes is currently taking bets on which phrases will appear in his speech. I’m surprised they haven’t included ’strong and stable.’ That’s where my money would go.

Posted by Simon Lancaster on March 22nd, 2011 :: Filed under Random

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“It is very hard to fault this carefully crafted book. As the longest serving government speechwriter until he left Whitehall in 2007 to form the Bespoke agency, Simon Lancaster knows his craft. Cutting his teeth writing for Patricia Hewitt and then Alan Johnson, he now writes for a broader audience that includes company CEOs, rock stars, celebrities as well as politicians across the parties. Speechwriting: the Expert Guide shows that he also has the ability to impart his ample wisdom in a highly polished, lively and often amusing way.

The technical stuff starts with Aristotle’s three essential ingredients for persuasive speaking - ethos (the speaker’s character and credibility), pathos (the emotions of the audience and the argument) and logos (the proof - or apparent proof - of the argument). After laying out three golden principles - that the audience is more important than the speaker, emotions are more powerful than logic, and that less is more - Lancaster leads the reader on a seamless journey as he reveals techniques for grabbing attention, convincing audiences and moving them to action. A chapter on the Craft of Speechwriting provides useful structures for different types of speech - e.g. political speeches, responding to a crisis or for celebratory events.

Where this guide really excels, however, is in its broad use of speech material to illustrate its points - from David Cameron to Gordon Brown, from Bill Gates to Nick Clegg and from Julia Roberts to Cicero. For senior public servants wanting to realise their full potential on the platform - and for professional communicators - this is, quite simply, essential reading.”

Posted by Simon Lancaster on February 21st, 2011 :: Filed under Random

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Has Labour banned the word coalition?

It’s not just the meaning of a word that matters but the feelings it rouses. This is true of all language but particularly political language where most of the dialogue between politicians and the electorate takes place at an emotional and unconscious level.

I’ve blogged before about the connotations of the word ‘coalition’ and the reasons Labour should be worried about it’s ubiquity. For most of us, the word ‘coalition’ evokes images of Churchill, the war, and people pulling together in the national interest at a time of national crisis. This frame - unconsciously or not - suggests supporters of the government are patriots whilst critics are traitors. With such a clear dichotomy, I was surprised Labour spokespeople blindly accepted the word: by so doing they were elevating the government to Churchillian heights whilst reducing their own role to more like a conscientious objector.

Ed Miliband seems to have got wise to this. He’s got a grip, reclaiming the language and constructing a new frame. If recent interviews and speeches are anything to go by, he seems to have purged the word ‘coalition’ from the Labour lexicon and replaced it with ‘Conservative-led Government’.  He didn’t use the word ‘coalition’ once in his press conference the other day. In a speech this morning commenting on the Oldham East result, he used the phrase ‘Conservative-led Government’ three times in thirty seconds - with such careful delivery and emphasis as to suggest this is the bit we’re supposed to remember. Watch this clip from the BBC’s website.

This is a much better formulation. As well as removing those unhelpful WW2 connotations, he reminds disillusioned Lib Dems whose tune they’re dancing to these days.

Posted by Simon Lancaster on January 14th, 2011 :: Filed under Random

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‘Dirty Rats’

Mildly amused to see all this fuss about Harriet Harman calling Danny Alexander a ‘ginger rodent’.

Everyone’s alighting on the ‘ginger’ part of the gag but I’m more interested in the ‘rodent’.

Vermin metaphors are extraordinarily powerful and emotive rhetorical devices. They’re most frequently used by people who want to suggest either overtly or unconsciously that extermination is the only option.

So vermin metaphors are used by Mafia bosses to talk about informers (’rats’). They were used by the Hutu to talk about the Tutsi in the Rwandan genocide (’cockroaches’). They were also used extensively by Hitler to talk about the Jews in Mein Kampf. He talked about the Jews as a ‘horde of rats, fighting bloodily among themselves‘.

So Harriet is following her dear friend Polly in likening the Condems to the Nazis, albeit unconsciously. First, Polly apologised. Now, Harriet apologised.

Good on them both for apologising - surely the right course - but if they’d bought my book on Speechwriting, they’ve have known better than to use these metaphors in the first place….

Posted by Simon Lancaster on October 30th, 2010 :: Filed under Random

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Four star review for my book from the Mail on Sunday!

The Mail on Sunday has reviewed my book, Speechwriting: The Expert Guide, in today’s paper. I’m absolutely THRILLED that they’ve given it FOUR STARS (one more than they’ve given Simon Winchester’s new book).

You can download the full review from but here are some of the highlights:

‘Whether you wish to write speeches yourself or just want to know how to deconstruct the words of others, Lancaster’s superbly written guide will prove invaluable.’

‘Pithy and informative insider’s guide to the art of getting one’s message across.’

‘One fascinating gem to emerge from this book is just how little things have changed in the past 2,000 years.’

It took me five years to write Speechwriting: The Expert Guide. It finally feels worthwhile…

Posted by Simon Lancaster on October 24th, 2010 :: Filed under Random

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Word War II

I’m all for using words with powerful connotations but John Prescott went way over the line calling Alan Milburn a ‘collaborator’ for accepting a role as social mobility csar in the new coalition government.

Whether it was Prescott’s intent to invoke associations with the Nazis or not that was certainly the effect. And that’s not really fair on an issue where Alan Milburn has such impeccable personal and political credentials.

It’s the same as when people label climate change sceptics ‘deniers’: by invoking the Holocaust, it raises the emotional register to such a pitch that reasoned debate becomes impossible.

But that was presumably the aim, because any rational analysis would show Alan Milburn is doing the right thing, pulling together with his opponents in the national interest at this time of national crisis.

After all, ‘collaborator’ is not the only word with WWII connotations. There are also pretty powerful connotations to the word ‘coalition’.

Posted by Simon Lancaster on August 16th, 2010 :: Filed under Random

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In praise of … the rule of three

I helped write an editorial for today’s Guardian on the timeless wonder of the rule of three. The link is here:

Posted by Simon Lancaster on July 15th, 2010 :: Filed under Random

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Cruddas: a man of many metaphors

I have always been a huge fan of Jon Cruddas so it is in a spirit of great affection that I point out this sentence from his Guardian article today:

‘These problems existed beneath the radar before the recession struck in 2008, but they were masked by the fruits of an economic system that has now laid us low.’

This is mixed metaphor mania. It’s up there with Prince Hamlet ‘taking arms against a sea of troubles’ and Jim Hacker ‘gritting his teeth and biting the bullet’.

Jon Cruddas’s writing is usually exquisite. I can only imagine he’s lost his stroke after being knocked down in round one of the leadership race…

Posted by Simon Lancaster on May 18th, 2010 :: Filed under Random

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