I wrote True Pleasures while occasionally renting the head of Nancy Mitford, and Why Manners Matter channelling essayists Clive Bell and Harold Nicolson. It was fun to write like this. It gave me a break from own style and a way to say things I wanted to say but didn’t quite know how. I used these (and other writers) not so much to copy the exact way they wrote, but rather to embrace something of their spirit – the aristocrat lightness of Nicholson, or the dash and dare of Nancy Mitford.
Renting a head can also be a way to break through an impasse in speechwriting. Whenever you feel fatigue at the limitations of your own style you might want to try it. It’s a fast way to give the piece a change of energy.
By the way, renting a head is not at all the same thing as quoting someone’s words. Sure, you can drop a quote from Shakespeare or Churchill into a speech and it will certainly create some kind of change of mood. But in my experience (and perhaps it’s because I am so often looking at my own pedestrian drafting) rather than lifting the piece, it only serves to emphasise the limitations of one’s own style (which is another of the many reasons why I am very dubious about the merits of quotes in my own speeches – who wants to see how much better someone else said it?) So when I am talking about renting a head it is not at all about using their exact words. It’s deeper than that.
You might imagine I would recommend that any speechwriter or leader looking to rent a head should automatically turn to the great leaders and their speeches for inspiration. And many people have most definitely tried to rent the heads of Winston Churchill and Shakespeare and Dr Martin Luther King, and more recently, Aaron Sorkin.
But I would not suggest turning to one of the many compilations of great speeches for inspiration, unless you know the backstory to each speech. A speech read in isolation won't make a lot of sense. You need to know a bit about the political and social context, the aims of the speech, the points of resistance in the audience, its immediate impact and longer term effects. That’s one of the many reasons why speechwriters tend to be avid readers of history – it helps them understand the role key speeches have played in world events.
In any case, there are many other, and often more effective, sources of inspiration. If I am mounting a difficult argument I like to read the words of writers with wickedly independent minds like Voltaire, Edmund Burke, Theodore Dalrymple, and Christopher Hitchens. Their writing reminds me that it’s possible to hold and express politically incorrect views and get away with it. (Or at least most of the time. Voltaire was bashed, imprisoned and effectively exiled for some of his more exuberant writings against royal tyranny and the church. I seem to recall Christopher Hitchens made many enemies for his views on Mother Theresa and the war in Iraq. It’s perhaps a useful reminder that writing – and speaking – can be a dangerous and courageous act.)
On other occasions I might decide to adopt something of a teaching mode, and then I turn to tremendous communicators like Michael Lewis on finance and Wall Street, Howard Goodall on music, and Bill Bryson on just about anything; people who take dense technical information and make it extremely accessible and entertaining without losing any quality.
Then there’s always George Orwell, the touchstone of plain and moral English at its best. And though the political positioning of The Economist magazine feels a bit out of date nowadays, the clarity and style of language remains marvellous. A shot of The Economist is always good for a speechwriter trying to escape from the fog of jargon.
Often it’s simply about the inspiration you get from reading really good writing. Renting a head is not so much about the words as it is about the feeling. Perhaps it’s about renting a spirit too.