Guest Posting: The Five Roles of a Speechwriter, by Brian Jenner

Brian Jenner runs the European Speechwriters Network, an association that brings together international communicators to promote the craft and profession of speechwriting. The Network hosts conferences and organizes training; supporting like-minded individuals, working as freelancers, or within international organizations, to share expertise, exchange ideas and make new contacts. This is a transcript of a talk Brian gave to Toastmasters International on Wednesday 11 April 2012.

Brian JennerMy name is Brian Jenner and I’ve brought a photograph to show you today. It’s me, with the tool of my trade.

It cost me £600 and it stands in my study.

It’s a lectern.

When I finish writing a speech, I print it off, go to the lectern and read it out. The lectern doubles up as a desk and I can make amendments in the margin as I go along.

Woody Allen said that 90% of being a success was turning up.

I’d say that you’re 50% on the way to becoming a professional speechwriter if you read out every speech you write.

You’d be surprised how many people don’t.

I spend quite a lot of time searching for the text of speeches on the internet. They publish the ones made by corporate CEO’s in banks, international organizations and insurance companies.

You soon realize that no-one could possibly have tried to read them out before they’re delivered – they’re so verbose and dreary.

I had quite a struggle before I decided it was my vocation to become a speechwriter. We all have natural abilities. Things that come easily to us. Ideally we need a job that uses all our talents to the maximum.

I’ve given it careful thought and I’ve come to the conclusion that I play five different roles as a speechwriter.

The first is that of a JOURNALIST

I trained as a journalist. I worked on The Guardian and The Daily Telegraph.

The most important skill of a journalist is to be able to research a story. My clients don’t usually have the time to spend five hours looking deeply into a subject.

A newspaper has the resources to support a journalist.

I have reference books – and the equivalent of a cuttings library – a large collection of jokes and stories, which work well in speeches.

It means experience counts for something.

Most jobs require a little bit of madness, and a speechwriter needs to be a FANTASIST

I’m always puzzled by the number of people who accept reality as it is.

The Italian sociologist Pareto said you could divide the world into two types, people who are routine, steady going, unimaginative and conservative and those who are constantly preoccupied with the possibilities of new combinations.

My local councillors worry about pavements and parking.

When I moved down to Bournemouth in 2004, I thought I’d moved to a backwater for senior citizens. Then I realised the area’s potential.

If it linked up together with Poole and Christchurch, I see how it could become a great city like San Francisco on the South Coast.

It’s the job of the speechwriter, with a brooding and creative temperament, to manipulate the steady going, because we’re in the business of reconstructing the world with ideas.

The third skill you need is HUMORIST

I studied French at university. One of my favorite quotations comes from the French writer Rabelais.

Mieux est de ris que de larmes escrire
Pour ce que rire est le propre de l’homme.

It’s better to write laughs than tears because laughter is what being human is all about.

What’s the point of being boring?

What’s the point of complaining?

If you want to persuade people to do something new, it helps if you can make them laugh.

The fourth skillset is PSYCHOTHERAPIST

Speechwriting is a very intimate process.

You’ve got to get under your client’s skin.

When we speak in public we reveal a lot more about ourselves than we realize.

When a best man wants to go to a wedding and tell obscene jokes. That tells you something about his psychological problems. I help him conceal them.

However, when a father of the bride says he hasn’t got a clue what to say, it’s my job to probe, and encourage him to express feelings that he may have been too shy to admit to, but will give great significance to the day.

Lastly, a speechwriter is a FUNAMBULIST

For many the prospect of giving a speech is like a wire walk.

It fills them with dread.

The speechwriter has to walk their walk for them.

We can’t deviate from the path they set.

One of my heroes is Philippe Petit, the French funambulist.

He was inspired to begin his great project when he saw something in a magazine in the dentists in 1968 – a picture of the Twin Towers which were going to be built in New York.

Then he decided he was going to put a wire across the gap between the towers and do the tightrope walk.

The story of how he did it, which made a great book and film, epitomizes for me how an idea becomes a vision and a vision a reality.

If you want an image to express how the speechwriter supports the speaker, we’re like the balancing pole to the wire walker.

We’re there to add stability and improve co-ordination.

So I’m lucky. I don’t get to do just one job, I do five.

Journalist, fantasist, humorist, psychotherapist and funambulist.

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