Words are like pillows: if put correctly they ease pain.
In 2008, aged 40, I started thinking more systematically about my job as a speechwriter.
Rather than relying on ‘inspiration’, I started collecting jokes, one-liners and pithy phrases which I organised under headings. This enabled me to find them again quickly if I had to write a speech on those subjects. For example, if someone wanted a joke for their best man speech, I had this in my collection:
The perfect man is the wind beneath her wings not the wind beneath the duvet.
If someone was going to Washington DC and they wanted a self-deprecating joke about Anglo-American relations, I could give them this:
Americans believe that life is serious but not hopeless.
The British believe life is hopeless but not serious.
What started off as an exercise to help my business, has become more of a way of life. And over the years I have found the habit has become progressively more rigorous and rewarding.
And the ideas I write down are not just for speeches, but to help me deal with the problems of every day life. Take this passage I found in this month’s copy of The Oldie magazine:
Do you know how Michael O’Leary first had the brain wave for his business model? He started a corner shop in Dublin and kept it open on Christmas and Boxing Day, selling wildly overpriced boxes of chocolates and batteries.
O’Leary said that he had to waddle home on Boxing Night, so great was the amount of cash. It gave him the idea of exploiting human unpreparedness.
Consequently, Ryanair sold cheap flights. But if you didn’t plan ahead and print out your boarding card before going to the airport, then you could obviously afford £40. And you deserved to pay it.
This anecdote, recounted by the journalist Mary Killen, is a business book in a paragraph.
It set my mind whirring. I’d been having problems renewing my broadband. We tend to think the companies should be customer-obsessed, because that’s what they tell us they are. But contacting their support departments, is pure hell. It can take an hour to report a basic fault. However, that’s usually because I have terrible trouble remembering my pin, or my password, which means I have to go through security.
But the art of commonplacing: collecting striking ideas and thinking about them helps me to reframe problems.
Do big corporations want you to resolve your problems quickly? Maybe not. If Government regulation means they have to offer certain discounts, they probably take a leaf out of Michael O’Leary’s book.
If you don’t remember your password, we don’t mind, we’ll keep you on that more expensive rollover contract…
Like many people, I spend far too much time reading things on the internet. But the practice of recording all the best things I find, redeems things a little.
In 2019, I discovered that a grand British literary figure, John Julius Norwich, used his own collection of quotations to produce a Christmas book for his friends every year. Because he was an aristocrat, he had a lot more friends than I do, but I thought I could copy his idea.
Five years later, I’ve published my own collection every year. Each year I’ve refined the concept to end up with what I now call A Speechwriter’s Notebook – a collection of quotations that reflect my preoccupations and current affairs.
Now you may say, why would anyone want to read the spiritual, political and subversive ideas of an opinionated former journalist reflected through one-liners and jokes?
And, believe me, I ask myself the same question. But the reason for publishing is because I think as a speechwriter and neurotic creative, I need to do it. And in an era when it’s incredibly hard to hold on to your mental health, you probably should do it, too.
The entire internet is created to control our minds. An exercise like commonplacing, helps you work out what you really think. Or hold on to what you want to believe.
You can buy a copy of A Speechwriter’s Notebook 2024 here