Six things copywriters can learn from speechwriters

Brian Jenner

25 February 2016

Rhythm is as important as content

I’ve spent 20 years learning my craft as a speechwriter. When I write a wedding speech for a client, I make it really special.

Some clients will print out my manuscript and give it to their wife, husband or colleague to read. They then copy and paste what I’ve written into a new document. They rewrite and paraphrase it, taking out all the intricate structures. It comes back to me full of unintelligible references, 30-word sentences and spelling mistakes.

Why do they do that? Because they think communication is about words rather than rhythms.

When I’m discussing my drafts with clients, I don’t tell them they’re wrong. I recite their text first, then mine. There’s usually a silence. Then they grudgingly admit that my text works better because it’s easier to read out.

Rhetoric keeps people awake

Formless prose sends audiences to sleep. Use rhetorical structures and you keep them attentive. The role of the speechwriter is to translate what the client wants to say into a form that keeps the audience awake. We call this ‘the language of public speaking’– but it’s just as applicable to copywriting.

Speechwriters have a guru. Dr Max Atkinson studied political speeches in the 1970s and 80s, using newly available recording equipment. He identified verbal patterns used by the best orators, which he termed ‘the claptrap’.

While the ancient rhetoricians listed thousands of figures of speech, Dr Max discovered that just using a handful of rhetorical devices over and over again could keep audiences engaged. They are: alliteration, three part lists, contrasts and rhetorical questions.

But rhetoric is much more than a way of holding attention – or it should be. I have a dream that every young person learns something about the power of rhetoric. As Professor Richard Lanham puts it: ‘“Rhetoric” has not always been a synonym for humbug. For most of Western history, it has been the body of doctrine that teaches people how to speak and write, and thus, act effectively in public life.’

Putting yourself in the listener’s shoes is hard

Business speaker Geoff Burch says it’s almost impossible to persuade a child to eat sprouts – unless you get them to grow their own. That psychological insight may make inedible vegetables more appetising, but it’s also the reason why it’s so hard to get people to say things they haven’t written.

People are comfortable with what they want to say, but saying what people want to hear is harder. To deliver a script that everyone in the room will understand involves speaking in an unfamiliar style. It’s easier to talk in the code that close family use with each other. It’s hard to put yourself in the shoes of the girlfriend of the bride’s cousin who doesn’t know anyone else at the wedding. (It’s dispiriting for me, too. Maybe I’m not charging enough.)

Don’t fix what’s bad, improve what’s good

The best reason to give a speech is to change things. University faculties, political inquiries and market research agencies spend huge amounts of time and energy analysing problems. But what if insight and knowledge have very little impact on how we behave? What should we try to change, and how?

Chip and Dan Heath offered a priceless insight to speechwriters in their book Switch. Ask not, ’What’s broken, and how do we fix it?’ Ask, ‘What’s working, and how do we do more of it?’

Those who do things can’t always explain them

You can’t see and hear who you are. But I can.

Or as Frank Luntz, the American political advisor, puts it: ‘It’s not what you say, it’s what people hear.’

To put it another way: the person who does something is not always the best person to explain what they do.

Or another way: as a speechwriter, it would be sensible for me to employ a speechwriter if I had to make an important speech.

Or in yet another way: if you want to create a good speech, deliver it to 25 audiences, and then reflect on what works and what doesn’t work.

To frame it as a proverb: a tale improves with the telling.

We’re not supposed to keep good ideas to ourselves

Speechwriters are a bit odd. I’m no exception. I like watching rabbis preach on YouTube. I found a sermon by a rabbi that explains in a metaphysical way what a speechwriter does.

The rabbi said, ‘It’s a sin to call Abraham “Abram”.’

God made a covenant with Abram to make his descendants a great people. But Abram didn’t have children. God told him that he that before he gave him children, he would change his name. ‘No longer shall your name be Abram, but Abraham.’

Abram’s name meant ‘exalted wisdom’. But he had to take ‘the exalted wisdom’ to the rest of humanity. Communication is represented by ‘H’, because it’s the widest, highest letter. That represents the fleshing out, the expanding, the clarifying, the detailing, the expounding of an idea until it becomes understandable to a wider audience.

Abram’s ‘H’ denoted the gift of communication. He could now share the principle of monotheism with the world. The rabbi said: you may have some inspired or fascinating knowledge, but the challenge is to take the message to the world. If you keep calling Abraham ‘Abram’, you commit a sin. And in the same way, it’s a sin to retain lofty wisdom for yourself. Your job is to share it.


As a tribe we get together at the European Speechwriter Network. Our next conference is from 13–15 April 2015 at Lady Margaret Hall in Oxford. You can find details at www.europeanspeechwriters.org


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