Speechwriting for Leaders
From introductory courtesies to cultural protocols, former UK Ambassador Charles Crawford discusses the key elements to smart speechwriting – with some amusing examples – in an extract from his forthcoming e-book
Cultural and associated protocol traditions play a huge part in the way international public speaking plays out. Of all my different international public speaking experiences, I have found those in Poland to be much the most noteworthy from this point of view. Serbia is not in the same league for formal protocol, but the Serbian intelligentsia does have a high tolerance for prolonged nonsense.
When I was UK Ambassador in Belgrade, I once had the misfortune to accept an invitation to a presentation of a local artist’s paintings. I arrived expecting a gallop round the exhibition followed by a bracing slug of šljivovica and polite departure.
The paintings were jejune post-communist pseudo-surrealism. Imagine my horror when I was led to a seat in the front row for a long (in fact, very long) panel discussion about these works of art. The panel threw themselves into analysing in considerable detail how such masterpieces contrasted ‘the impenetrability of paradox with the paradox of impenetrability.’ I was out of my comfort zone and trapped.
Some cultures seem content if a speaker says nothing at all, but says it in a way that ticks all the boxes of florid, long-winded local courtesies. Likewise, in many parts of the world a speaker who is verbose, condescending or aloof (or ideally all of these at once) is often considered well-educated. If the audience can’t follow or understand what is being said, that shows just how far above the audience the wise speaker is soaring. The audience is grateful merely to be in the presence of such manifest superiority.
These cultural and protocol issues come to the fore right at the start of a speech in the introductory courtesies. In Poland and many other places these can soar to what Americans, Australians and Britons might see as dizzying tedium and pretentiousness.
I recall with pain the 2005 Chopin Competition gala concert in Warsaw where the opening speeches and ceremonies dragged on and on. The rough sequence was this. The Deputy Competition Director introduced the Mayor, who introduced the Deputy Culture Minister, who introduced the Culture Minister. Self-congratulatory introductions continued at a snail’s pace until, finally, Poland’s President Kwaśniewski was introduced. He made a solid, jovial speech, saying what everyone else had already said – though with a badly needed light touch – before the concert finally started.
All this extended formality would have provoked ribald calls of ‘get on with it’ at a gala concert in London. The British public likes to see appropriate protocol politely acknowledged, but then the main business started quickly. The British royal family heartily approves of this. They send firm signals to event organisers to keep speeches short, sharp and to the point. Such national house-style, led from the top, is highly influential.
Speechwriters and speakers preparing for an event need to give hard thought to these introductory courtesies. They should include words of acknowledgement for senior or notable people present who might appreciate being acknowledged, or indeed expect it. When in doubt, err on the side of more acknowledgements rather than fewer. You don’t want anyone of some seniority to feel offended, even if they may be too self-important for your liking.
This approach might seem to people brought up in the English-speaking Anglo-Saxon culture to be unduly generous to vanity. That is not how others see it. I’ll give you a vivid example.
On one occasion when I was Ambassador in Warsaw the ambassadorial corps was invited to a diplomatic ball hosted by the foreign ministry, the first such diplomatic gala in Poland in seven decades.
The form on such occasions in Poland is for the most senior guests to be welcomed by name and title: a formal and often lengthy process. This time, the Chief of State Protocol as Master of Ceremonies duly worked his way down the list. But somehow he omitted to mention the Foreign Minister himself.
The minister of course spotted this, even though few, if any, diplomatic guests had noticed or cared about the omission. To the amazement of the assembled diplomats, the minister threw up his arms in anger, uttered an audible imprecation, and angrily walked out. Did he think that the omission was so unforgiveable as to merit this show of rage? Or did he think that the slight had been deliberate, a plot to undermine him from within his own ranks?
One way or another, this intemperate departure by the Foreign Minister from an event hosted by his own ministry spoiled the evening by sending a baffling message to the diplomatic corps audience: You’re my official guests on this famous state occasion, but my self-esteem is far more important to me than you are!
What might a British Foreign Minister do as the victim of a similar affront? Options include:
• Do nothing. In the great scheme of world disasters, this one ranks fairly low.
• Do nothing, but next day give the protocol chief a stern private talking-to, or even evict said chief from his/her job. Making an open fuss at the gala itself draws an absurd level of attention to the error, and detracts from one’s guests’ enjoyment.
• Wait for the protocol chief to finish, then walk to the front, take the microphone, and welcome the guests with a few words as if nothing had happened. Perhaps add a wry but pointed joke wondering whether the protocol chief was trying to make the minister’s presence here a surprise?
Any of these options is better than crossly and ostentatiously marching out, not to return. If you do that, the 200 senior foreign representatives hear (and see) that you are not in control of the occasion, your temper or your own ministry. A light touch never fails.
Serious protocol or cultural mistakes on the public stage are widely noticed both by locals and by the speaker’s own people back home. And by YouTube. It’s not what you say – it’s what they hear. A blatant protocol mistake by a speaker or her or his team means that people are hearing carelessness or disrespect. That obliterates all the good work invested in preparing a speech.
In fact, disaster can strike even before a keynote speech looms into view. In 2009 the then UK Foreign Secretary David Miliband had an unhappy visit to India where he reportedly upset senior Indian interlocutors by addressing them in over-familiar first-name terms, even though they were notably older than he was. He made the footling mistake of not bothering to learn about local protocol, or (far worse) learning about it then breezily ignoring it, as if mere charm would suffice to create rapport by blowing aside stuffy protocol cobwebs.
A speechwriter far removed from what is happening on the day at the venue of a speech should not over-engineer these opening passages: the leader personally owns the final responsibility for getting things right on the day. The leader can look ridiculous by relying on a text prepared well in advance that acknowledges people who obviously aren’t present, but misses some key people who obviously are. Only the leader and closest aides can confirm with the organisers or their own eyes on the day itself, just before the speech starts, who is there and what basic protocol standards by way of greeting and acknowledgement are expected.
How do I approach this as a speechwriter? I simply write ‘Introductory Courtesies’ at the top of the draft speech, with a note steering the leader and immediate team to find out who and what needs to be publicly acknowledged. These details might include how the leader behaves (and is seen by others to behave) with other senior people there on the day, or when bowing or nodding or shaking hands is required (or not).
In short, in preparing a speech for a foreign audience, both the smart speechwriter and smart leader must do their homework on local protocol and cultural forms. The world’s great protocol blunders could fill a book.
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