7 speechwriting lessons from Australia

When giving a ceremonial speech, avoid spin, research the event, and ‘acknowledge the elephant,’ says a Qantas speechwriter.


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Two speeches. Two prime ministers. Same subject. Same event: the 10th anniversary of a 2002 terrorist attack in Bali, Indonesia, that claimed 202 lives, among them many Australians.

The speech by Australia’s current prime minister, Julia Gillard, fell flat, says Qantas speechwriter Lucinda Holdforth. The address by one of her predecessors, John Howard, hit all the right notes.

Why? Holdforth, who addressed the topic at a Ragan’s 2013 Speechwriters and Executive Communicators Conference, examined the two speeches—and other successes—as she offered principles for all speechwriters drafting ceremonial addresses. You can watch the informative session RaganTraining.com.

1. Use words of strength and compassion.

Does your craggy poobah want to be known as a strong but compassionate leader? Your words have the power to establish that image.

Holdforth praises Howard’s statement, “We saw in those days, those two great qualities that our nation has: strength but also tenderness, the gentle efficiency of those who medically evacuated in 37 hours 66 badly injured people.”

Howard also mentioned the “compassion” that Australians felt for the victims.

These were striking words, coming from a man who “was known as the most starchy, old-fashioned, buttoned-up type of guy,” Holdforth says. “And he uses two words: compassion and tenderness. It’s such a surprise to see them allied with strength, and by using these gentle words, he invites us to imagine he has those qualities himself.”

2. Avoid spin.

What works in a press release may not be suitable for your bigwig to bellow from a public pulpit.

“You are the custodian of your speaker’s personal voice, and you are there to protect and enhance his or her personal reputation,” Holdforth says. “Let the others do the spinning. We are the truth-tellers.”

3. Research the event.

Talk to the organizers and, if possible, find someone who’s emotionally involved.

“Listen for the keywords they use, and then say them back in the speech,” Holdforth says. “Shared language is going to reinforce common perspectives and common values.”

Oh, and perk up your ears when the organizer tells you, “But you can’t mention this.” That will help you understand the hidden contradictions and conflicts, and find something that’s true and strong that rises above them, Holdforth says.

4. Acknowledge the elephant.

In his speech, Howard acknowledges the fear among the victims’ survivors and loved ones that those who died will be forgotten as time’s arrow wings on.

“He acknowledges that the form of the nation’s sympathy will change with the passage of time,” Holdforth says, “then gives that lovely reassurance that there is a lasting memorial for those who are lost”—that is, the friendships that young Australians and Indonesians continue to form.

5. Do no harm.

This should go without saying, especially at the highest levels of political speechwriting, but clearly, not everyone’s listening out in Politician-ville. “Get your facts right,” Holdforth says.

Do you really want the news media or your opponents to spend the next week nitpicking details? Or mightn’t it be better if they focused on your real message?

Also: “Don’t offend anyone unless you want to,” she says. “Don’t commit your speaker to something they can’t deliver.”

6. Know your real audience(s).

Your real audience might not be identical with the crowd sitting there nodding and applauding every time your bigwig clears her throat. Who else is listening? What is your message for them?

“We can’t talk to everyone instantly,” Holdforth says. “We need to figure out who we’re really talking to.”

7. When it isn’t working, go up a level.

Find your overarching message—something Holdforth contends Gillard’s speech failed to do.

“When it isn’t working, when I can’t find the message, it’s because I need to go up a level,” Holdforth says. “I need to find the higher thought, the overarching message, that tries to build up all of the set elements of the speech.”

@r_working

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