Unspun: How and why to write a speech

Many of us have no time for long-form oration, but there are good reasons why political speeches are still important


It’s late afternoon in Downing Street, and the prime minister is due to give a major speech to the CBI the next day. Someone in the private office decides to check that Boris, who writes all his own speeches, has penned one for this occasion. Obviously, he hasn’t. Instead he’s been writing another speech for an evening event the next day, an extended journalistic riff on his recent visit to Peppa Pig World, at ‘the UK’s favourite family theme park’. So an official gives him a draft. Boris reads it and concludes, correctly, that it’s very dull. So he decides late at night to insert some of his more amusing Peppa Pig paragraphs into the CBI speech. He writes all over the draft, which he then takes to the CBI the next day. He loses his place, then his cool, and finally part of his authority, as he performs a rare triple apology.

On one level, it’s possible to feel sorry for Boris. He’s allergic to boring, so he finds it almost impossible to deliver a really dull official speech. But then again, he’s the prime minister now, he’s going to have to get over that, learn how to give speeches, and perhaps more importantly, how to write them. 

My first job was in politics, and it involved writing, and helping to write, speeches for politicians. I learnt that there were three kinds of political speech. First, the official speech, written by officials, containing carefully phrased paragraphs, very dull. Second, the political speech, written by special advisers, containing bad jokes about the opposition, and carefully designed political messages, quite dull. Third, the strategic speech, written by ministers and advisers, often over weeks or months, redefining the political agenda, still with some plodding jokes but sometimes not dull.

Boris doesn’t want to write or deliver any of these. He is still writing his newspaper column, in speech form. Some would argue that this doesn’t matter, that the speech as a political delivery mechanism is old-fashioned and pointless. Donald Trump was a terrible speechmaker, but brilliant on soundbites and Twitter. Isn’t that the future? The long-form speech, they would say, is irrelevant in an era when our attention spans have diminished and all meaningful ideas must be reduced to a catchword or a phrase. 

There is obviously some truth in this analysis. I love listening to defining speeches from the past. Kennedy in Berlin. Nehru as India gained its independence – “At the stroke of the midnight hour, when the world sleeps, India will awake to life and freedom.” Reagan speaking the words written by Peggy Noonan, hours after the Shuttle Challenger exploded. Thatcher declaring in 1980 to the Conservative Party Conference that “the lady’s not for turning”. But these epoch-defining speeches are mostly in the past. I struggle to think of a single speech in the past decade that has had anything like that kind of impact. 

And yet, somehow, speeches still matter. They matter because they force leaders, in whatever area of life, to think carefully through their arguments, to explain where they want to take us, and why. 

For a decade I helped my friend George Osborne write his conference speeches, first in opposition and then in government. The process began usually in someone’s kitchen weeks or even months before the conference. It began with a discussion of where the party or the government needed to go over the coming year, and why. The speech then became an explanation of that journey, crafted to encourage others to understand and to support the route taken, spiced with policy proposals that acted as catalysts or signposts to the destination. The long-form process, fuelled by poor food and much banter, ruthlessly exposed logical weaknesses and evidential gaps. The speech, when it was given, was important, but not as important as the process undertaken to get there. 

Which is why Boris’s Peppa Pig speech-making system matters. It matters because it is quite clear to anyone observing the UK government right now that not enough thought is being given to key decisions. That choices are made in a hurry and repented at leisure. Of course, not all of this can be corrected by a more efficient speech-making process, but it would be a good start on imposing order on a Downing Street operation that is not even remotely working. Of course, I feel for Boris as an intelligent and amusing person condemned to deliver dull lines written by others – but he is the one who wanted to be prime minister, and there are some obligations that come with the job. 

18th December 2022