My Debt to Toastmasters International

Top politicians go to Oxford. As a teenager, I wanted to be a politician. I did the exams and, after a fashion, I got a place at Brasenose College.

In my first weeks I joined the Oxford Union. Michael Gove ran the induction.

Huddled on the floor in the Gladstone Room, the young freshers were invited to come up and speak. Nobody moved. Eventually he coaxed a few. I thought of something to say, but I was in awe of the surroundings. Far too petrified to stand up in front of my peers.

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Stewart Lee’s Stagecraft

Stewart Lee has been to the ‘conurbation’ twice in the past year. I saw him at the Bournemouth Pavilion last year and the Poole Lighthouse last Thursday 2 March 2017.

As a speechwriter, comfortable with the Liberal Metropolitan elite, I enjoy watching him in action. He’d come to Brexit territory, so I admired the vehemence he used in attacking the Brexiteers. The audience seemed to love it, although there wasn’t a greyhead in evidence, (the kind of people who usually go to see the Bournemouth Symphony Orchestra in the same theatre).

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Zagazoo as a Best Man Speech

I have a two-year-old son. We get through a lot of children’s books.

I’ve found them very enriching. Most of them use the same speechwriting techniques as I do: three part lists, metaphor and rhyme – because they’re designed to be read aloud.

Young men, eager to do a good best man speech, often send me their scripts. I keep an open mind, but I nearly always have to give a long sigh when I finish reading. They describe in tedious detail their life of adventures with the groom. Anecdotes go on for paragraphs.

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Gove, Johnson & Hannan: Drinking the Potion

A few years ago, I discovered the Adam Curtis documentary The Living Dead, The Attic.

Mrs Thatcher’s former speechwriter Ronnie Millar features prominently in it.

Gove, Johnson, Hannan: I was a young Tory like them at university, and ihz6t explains to me the spell I got caught up in during the Thatcher years. It’s the mythology that they used in the Brexit campaign.

My work as a speechwriter has taught me why these ideas should be put in bottles and branded as harmful substances. I had hoped the referendum would condemn them to the oblivion they richly deserved. But I was wrong.

They have ‘subordinated reason to the heroic myth’. If you watch the Adam Curtis video, you’ll see, as Alan Clarke explains, they’ve ‘drunk the potion’.

Eloquence – A Treasury of Speechwriting Advice

EloquenceCover‘Punching your speaker should be a last resort’ – this is just one piece of advice you’ll find in my new book, Eloquence – A Treasury of Speechwriting Advice, published by the UK Speechwriters’ Guild.

To put it in a bit of further context, I talk about how being moderately abrasive as a speechwriter can be useful. When interviewing your speaker, they’re often vague about what they want to say. I don’t put it like this in the book, but piss them off and they’ll engage brain. You can always soothe them later.

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The Sad Story of the Eurosceptics


I’ve just finished compiling a new book, Eloquence – A Treasury of Speechwriting Advice.

We have the UK referendum on our continued membership of the European Union this year. I’m in favour of staying in. But it’s up to us ‘inners’ to make the case. So I’ve been mulling over Drew Westen’s Elements of Creating a Compelling Political Narrative which is summarised on p55.

‘it should be a story…that could be illustrated in a children’s book’

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Invitation to Oxford for a conference for speechwriters

It’s an important year for political wordsmiths – we’ll have the American Presidential elections and the British referendum on Europe.Lady-Margaret-Hall

You are invited to the 12th conference of the European Speechwriter Network at Lady Margaret Hall, Oxford from 13 -15 April 2016.

Our conferences offer a unique way to understand the challenges of writing speeches by spending three days in the company of some of the top speechwriters in the world.

Pre-conference training will take place on the Wednesday. There are three options:

Rob Friedman, the former Senior Director of Executive Communications for the American-based pharmaceutical company, Eli Lilly & Co will be running a workshop on Soup to nuts: craft speeches that persuade, motivate and inspire any audience – and get results.

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Your Own Electronic Speechwriting Coach

Good presentation of manuscripts is a vital part of being a speechwriter. An immaculate manuscript deters meddlers.

You want to impose upon your speaker that to make a change is like pulling a brick out of a delicate Jenga tower.

The whole performance could be put in jeopardy.

A few spelling mistakes and grammatical errors have the opposite effect. The speaker gets above himself and starts telling you how to do your job.

So when you’ve finished drafting your masterpiece, it helps to have a rest for ten minutes. And then go to ‘Tools’ in Word (assuming you use Microsoft Word) and click on the ‘Spelling & Grammar’ option.

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My Worst Speechwriting Experience

This was my after-dinner speech made at the European Speechwriter Network conference banquet at Westminster College, Cambridge on 16 April 2015

I’m afraid to say that my worst speechwriting experience happens on a regular basis.

I’m a member of Toastmasters International – I don’t know if you’re familiar with the organisation. It’s a programme where people can practise making speeches in front of a sympathetic audience – it started in America and now there are branches all over Europe.

We meet twice a month. It’s an organisation that promotes competition – every meeting they hand out awards for best speaker – and although I’m supposed to be the professional speechwriter – they’re all amateurs – every time I make a speech I always lose.

A few weeks ago I entered the international speech competition – winners go through to the final in America.

I wanted to win. My speech title was What I learnt in the Great Recession.

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Do they work?

As speechwriters we’re obsessed by our theories of communication, but in practice hardly anyone ever follows them.

Most politicians out campaigning just do the best they can in the time they’ve got.

Candidates write their own leaflets. They put in them what the party tells them to or what they think is attractive about themselves.

The party leaders use speechwriters, but their approach seems to be to repeat words and phrases until they stick. Since they’re in charge, that’s the way it is.

I’ve been a member of the Liberal Democrats for two-and-a-half years now. In Bournemouth, nobody wanted to stand in my ward for the council elections. So I volunteered.

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