Now to business. Over the past few weeks I have had the pleasure of sharing my experiences in speechwriting with the communications teams of some major Australian companies. One question always pops up: how do you protect your draft from the interfering red pen?
Indeed. As a speechwriter there are three things you have to manage – the changes your speaker makes, the changes your colleagues make, and the changes you make yourself.
I have been lucky enough to work with strong leaders who have a strong sense of what will work for them in a speech, but are also prepared to entertain my suggestions around language and narrative. Both sides make their case, learn things, give way a little, and get pretty good results. And in the end, of course, the speaker owns the speech and his or her wishes must be respected.
But not always. There was one particular Chairman who decided that my style didn’t suit him at all. He once rang me with a numerous draft changes to a short speech that had been carefully crafted to avoid inflaming various tensions with the unions and the government. I would have automatically incorporated his edits, except that they fundamentally changed the meaning of the speech and rendered it potentially inflammatory.
I went to see the communications manager who looked at the original, looked at the Chairman’s revised version, and then went back to the original. He incorporated five of the Chairman’s most minor edits and then printed the document off. He then put the yellow highlighter pen through swathes of it so it looked as though much had changed. “There,” he said, as he scanned and emailed his handiwork. “The Chairman can see that he has proved his point. And now he won’t even notice.” He was quite right. Back came the feedback, a gruff but satisfied, “Much better.”
Then there are the peers, colleagues, consultants and other secondary parties to the speech drafting process. I confess some rather unfortunate aspects of my personality have been on display when I’ve been pushed to the very limits of tolerance by silly pointless edits on a tight deadline. Shouting may have happened. Also rudeness. I may have actually said, loudly, “GO AWAY”. I can only say in my defence that part of my post-speech routine is to figure out who I need to thank for their help, and to whom I may need to offer an apology.
There is always the possibility, remote but real, that the critics have a point. So I try to encourage people not to undertake any redrafting themselves, but rather to explain their problem to me, and leave me to make the appropriate corrections. Sometimes a change in one part of a speech can change the balance of the whole text.
Finally, there is the most annoying, critical and pernickety judge of all – me. One of the perverse problems that arises once you become a trusted speechwriter is that people no longer challenge your second-class efforts. They think it’s probably fine, when it’s not. So I have been known to break all rules of corporate self-promotion and, after winning approval from all the right people, I have gone back to them explain that they should ignore the previous effort because now I needed to do another draft. A better one.
Passions and proprietary feelings run high in speechwriting, and nowhere more so than in the West Wing of the White House. In White House Ghosts Robert Schlesinger tracks the sneaky lengths that US Presidential speechwriters have resorted to in order to get their ideas to the forefront, and keep them there:
- Such as hanging onto their draft until the last possible minute so the enemy did not have time to make major changes.
- Or creating an entire dummy draft to circulate to the bureaucrats to keep them distracted while the real speech was worked on in private.
- Sometimes key lines were inserted over and over again into a draft, on the basis that at least one iteration would not get the red pen. (I have found that to be a very useful tip).
- Others just leaked advance copies to the media to make changes impossible.
- When all else failed, speechwriters would use their superior writing skills to send witty and derisive memos arguing against the dullards' changes. Ronald Reagan’s speechwriter Peggy Noonan wasn’t averse to this tactic of inspired intellectual bullying.
Inspiring stuff! Serious speechwriters never stop working on the speech until it is delivered. (And sometimes even after: back in 100 BC Cicero assiduously polished up his own courtroom speeches before publication. This was wise, given that we are still reading them 2000 years later).
And I think Michelle Payne had been writing and rehearsing that marvellous speech in her head for a very long time. There was something so exhilarating about watching her have her say at last. Uncensored, and uninterrupted.
I'd love to hear any tips you may have on how you manage your own drafting wars...