how to write a speech the palinode way

When people ask me what I do for a living, I tell them I'm a speechwriter. This is partly true; what I am in full is a communications consultant, and speeches make up only a portion of my work. It's my favourite and heartiest portion, which is why I prefer to call myself a speechwriter. The rest of the shop (that's what they call it) is happy to have me, because no one really likes writing speeches, except for speechwriters. So event planning slides one way into the human resource pool, and speeches slide the other way. Into the shallow end, which is where I like to paddle.

Some of the speeches I write are long and complex pieces concerned with arts, cultural policy, social infrastructure, what have you. For those I break out the flowery-but-still-propulsive phrases that make serious people stand up and applaud. Other times, I'm writing a five-minute greeting for a Minister's appearance at a Chinese New Year celebration. Like last week. And here's how it works.

(Everybody who's anybody's somebody wants to know how to write a decent speech. Right? Because if I'm wrong, then what I'm writing doesn't matter a damn. So I'm going to assert my baseless claim and move on.)

I've worked for several different Ministers and written speeches for several more. Each has an individual style and process. Some read fluently, some stumble their way through, and some glance at the words and make it up their own damn selves. But no matter how it ends up, all speeches begin the same way, with a referral. The referral comes down from the Minister's office to my Ministry, then to the Communications branch, and invariably the trickle runs into my bucket inbox.

The referral can usually be divided into two separate tasks: speaking notes and briefing notes. Speaking notes are my business. Briefing notes are the business of the policy branch. A briefing note is an all-purpose supporting document that will give me the necessary background to write the speech, and it will give the speaker the necessary background to ignore the speech I've written. It's a win/win situation, unless you're the policy person who has to put together the briefing note.

There is a procedure for requesting a briefing note from a policy analyst, which I ignore, because remembering the procedure takes up vital space in my brain. I use that space for plotting revenge against the jerks who talked through There Will Be Blood last weekend (and believe me, they deserve an elaborate revenge). Instead, I phone the person to whom it will be assigned anyway and ask directly for a note on what to say to ring in the Chinese New Year. Because my store of knowledge about the Chinese New Year? Is understocked.

The note provides guidance to the Minister on proper etiquette (eg. don't kick over the fish maw soup, don't fire your gun at the ceiling, etc), historical context and why The Year of The Rat is a good thing. Details about the event itself are the province of the Communications shop. There is a general rule in event coordination that the degree of detail can only intensify; once a step in the plan is introduced, it can never be removed. Accumulated detail encrusts the proceedings until someone gets frustrated and brings in a new plan. From there the process repeats itself.

With a new Minister we have a new events template, and this one is detailed enough that even an electron scanning microscope couldn't capture all the questions. How is the Minister getting there? Who will greet her? Escort her? Introduce her? Who else is speaking and how should they be acknowledged? The only way to get the answers to the many questions posed by the template is to phone up the event organizer and get the entire agenda. So I phone her up, explain who I am and what I need. Then I send her a list fit to choke Nian, the monster from the mountain or possibly under the sea.

Once I have the agenda and the guest list (which is not always forthcoming), I identify the dignitaries and consult the protocol manual. Protocol tells you how to acknowledge dignitaries and the precise order in which to do so. Even at a relatively casual event, you don't want to give a shout out to all the Reeves in the house before you give props to the Councillors. Really now. This is the most tedious bit of the whole process, and the temptation is to leave it to the end. If you leave it to the end you will forget, and even though many eyes will see the text of the speech before it gets to its target, most aren't searching for protocol errors. It won't get noticed until later, and by then there will be nothing to do but bitch out the writer.

Still with me? I haven't written one word of the speech so far. Okay, I've written a few:


Thank you [emcee].

Good evening [guests].

[actual speech]

I wish you health, prosperity, happiness and good luck in the new year.

That's seventeen actual words, although the last thirteen are taken directly from the briefing note. Why does it look like that? Beside the part where I'm lazy? Because all the material I've gathered so far tells me bupkus about the core audience of the speech - the organization holding the event, the audience of Chinese-Canadians. Since there is no time to request another briefing note - we're closing in on 48 hours before the event, which means that the speech is already 24 hours overdue - I need to do my own research. I also need to find something interesting to throw in, a relevant factoid that will prick up the ears of the audience. Once that fact is in place, the rest of the speech will grow. If the fact is interesting enough, a thematic axis will develop around it and make it a speech worth listening to and worth delivering.

The first place I look is the Encyclopedia of Saskatchewan. The entry on the Chinese community tells me when they first came here (1885!), where they lived (Moose Jaw!), and how they did in the twentieth century. The answer is, um, discouraging. If laws are anything to go by, Saskatchewan held on to its Chinese population the way you or I hold on to a towel that the cat's peed on. Laws were passed to keep Chinese people from immigrating to Saskatchewan, holding jobs or hiring white women to work in their businesses (in a frank but classless turn, it was called the 1912 Anti-Asian act). In 1947 immigration laws relaxed enough to allow more Chinese people, and now - says the Encyclopedia of Saskatchewan - Chinese people make up the largest visible minority in the province!

That sounds to me like a classic story of triumph over adversity that I can condense into four paragraphs. I'm twitchy about my facts, though, so I go to Statistics Canada and look up the numbers on visible minorities in the province. Chinese-Canadians, at 8,500 souls, outnumber the second largest visible minority by a factor of two. It turns out that the largest invisible minority is made up of invisible people. Or so it's believed.

Before I go back to my computer, I dig into some economic data. After going through a couple of articles I find a brief history of trade relations between big China and little Sask. From what I can tell, we export more goods to China than we do to the States. That's mind-boggling when you consider that we're a landlocked province sitting right on top of North Dakota. Nonetheless, it clinches the story of the speech: overcoming adversity, or 'meeting challenges,' and the confirmation of a solid relationship between the old and new home of an immigrant population. Now that I have that down, it only takes twenty minutes for me blow some new words into the form. And speech!

After that, it comes down to proofreading, proofreading and then proofreading. This is particularly important for me because I am unbelievably sloppy. My capacity to get things wrong, to bury the salient points, accidentally delete the concluding paragraph, astonishes me. On the credit side of the column, I have flawless spelling.

I suppose I can boil down my speechwriting techniques into a few points:

    Research and consult. Whenever possible, find out as much as you can about what you're writing. Call around and ask questions. People like to talk about their areas of expertise, and there's a good chance that nobody listens to them. If you're writing a speech on small-town curling, call up the head of the kooky volunteer committee who works twenty hours a day to put on a bonspiel. The more you know about the speaker, the subject and the audience, the less likely you are to write something jaw-droppingly stupid. It's not a guarantee, but it's a good safeguard.

    Never write a single word that you don't have to. When you build a house, you don't grow the trees for the lumber. Similarly, when you write a speech, chances are that the right phrase is laying around in another piece of writing. Don't be afraid to recycle your words. Often I write greetings for annual events, so I pull up the previous year's speech and reupholster the ratty old thing. In this way you maintain an institutional identity and track ideological and practical changes over time.

    Find The Thread/The Nugget/The Jewel/The Cool. Throw in a fact, a phrase, a sticky bit of information that the mind snags on. As I mentioned earlier, it will make your speech interesting to listen to and interesting to deliver. Tell the audience something they may not know, something they didn't know they cared about until they heard it. Then work your speech around it.

    Find The Story. This is not always appropriate, but if you can sniff out a narrative line, then you've got your speech made. Triumph Over Adversity is a good one. Renewal is great, but so is Continuing The Tradition. My personal favourite is Everybody Wins. Maybe you can pull off the classic Waking Up With A Sex Change bit, but you really need to know the audience for that one.

    But Make An Outline First. Even if you're dashing off five minutes of warm fuzzies, make an outline first. Otherwise you end up wandering around, lost in Phraseland, a place with fewer markers than a blank page. Once you've stumbled into Phraseland it's hard to get out. It's like taking a helicopter into heavy fog.

    It's Not Your Speech. Anything you write in a communications capacity does not belong to you. I'm not talking about copyright - I mean that you are not the final arbiter of your words. Once I finish a speech for the Minister, it goes to the Communications Director, then the Branch Director and the Deputy Minister. Only then does it exit the building and land in the Minister's lap, and any one of those people can send the speech back to me for changes. Some people make gentle requests, others bluntly ask for a complete rewrite. There are forces beyond my control that dictate the key messages and nuances of any piece of writing I do for my job. One thing I do know: no matter what the edit, my first response is always murderous anger, followed by more murderous anger. Then I do it.


Next up: Plumbing the Palinode way.