What's it really like being a government speechwriter?
Words don’t come easily to everyone, but speechwriters have a head start. Department for Work and Pensions wordsmith James Doughty shares some trade secrets
Speechwriting is a job quite unlike any other in the civil service. It’s a job of contradictions. You work alone and with everyone, you’re a specialist but also a generalist, you’re creative and constrained, you’re in the thick of it and standing back.
It’s a straight-talking job title. Yet, the lid on the speechwriter’s world is very rarely lifted. For speechwriters, like spies, anonymity is the name of the game. Spies work in the shadows. Speechwriters, more specifically, work in the shadow of their master. Their words are often in the spotlight, but they are not.
Here are five insights into the world of a speechwriter and the speechwriting profession and how they add value to organisations and the wider civil service.
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What is speechwriting anyway?
When many people think speechwriter, they think Sam Seaborn from The West Wing. The reality is somewhat different. Think less fast-paced corridor walking and talking, more painstaking research and midnight-oil-burning writing and rewriting.
In essence, a government speechwriter helps ministers communicate their vision, policies and objectives. In a world of short-burst social media, delivering a single speech from a lectern to a room full of real people is still the vehicle of choice to do this. A speech affords the space and time to develop his or her ideas, to take the audience on a journey, to tell a story – something you simply can’t do in 140 characters.
What goes into writing a speech?
It often starts with an initial meeting with the minister to get a broad understanding of the main points they want to make. Then, it’s about having detailed conversations with policy teams – often multiple teams, analysts, political special advisers and press officers. During this process, the speechwriter is the conduit through which the ideas flow. They are the lightning rod, capturing every thought, every angle and every idea offered up. It is through the speechwriter that those ideas are then distilled, ordered, reordered, refined and woven into a narrative that makes sense and fits together.
To do that, a speechwriter needs to be able to convey complex information simply and compellingly. They need to bring it all together into a coherent whole that, like a piece of music, ebbs and flows to hold interest and create contrasts – quiet bits and loud bits, long flowing passages and short staccato points, poetry and policy prose. After the extensive collaboration, this is the part where the speechwriter needs quiet solitude, which can be in short supply in a government department. I hear one department has plans for a “speech bubble” – a pod dedicated for speechwriters.
How do you keep hold of the pen and your nerve?
For any one speech, there will have been an army of people involved in some way, from fact-checking to policy advice to analytical input, No. 10 steers and engaging those who have a powerful story to tell that will bring a speech alive. The speechwriter has to manage all of these different actors and ensure they are all happy and the speech beats with a single pulse and purpose.
"A speechwriter can often find themselves at the centre of a kind of frenzied scrum"
In doing this, a speechwriter can often find themselves at the centre of a kind of frenzied scrum, particularly as the date of the speech approaches. This can, ironically, be one of the loneliest, most difficult and skilful parts of being a speechwriter – keeping a tight hold of the pen whilst surrounded by persuasive and often quite senior officials making their case for a line to be included – or more often than not – excluded.
It’s an interesting place to be and a test of nerve. I think it’s always important to remember whose speech it is: it’s the boss’s speech – the person who actually has to stand up and deliver it, whose mouth the words will come out of and the person whose name and reputation hangs on them. They are always the best speechwriter, we just play a supporting role.
Because they are the boss, it can feel like a brutal and bruising profession at times. You need to be prepared for your carefully crafted lines to be crossed out or rewritten. That’s a healthy part of the process, if a little hair-depleting. A speechwriter colleague of mine had all but two words taken out of an initial draft of a speech. The two surviving words came at the end: “Thank you”.
What does speechwriting look like in the civil service?
Speechwriters are a firm fixture of the Whitehall furniture. Every department has a speechwriter-shaped hole to fill, but how they are deployed and from where they are recruited varies enormously across departments.
Some are based within the press office, some work from home, many work within the ministerial private office – from where you actually get much better access to ministers. Some are brought in because they have a history of working with a minister. Others have worked in the same department for successive ministers. Some are career civil servants who occupy the role for a period of time before moving on. Some have come from outside the civil service, mainly journalism. Whatever their background, many become career speechwriters, choosing to specialise in speechwriting as a vocation.
The numbers between departments also vary. Some have one, others have whole teams. Some double up the speechwriting role with being a private secretary to a minister. Others have experimented with relatively new approaches that merge functions together. For example, in the Department for Work and Pensions, alongside my speechwriting duties, I also head up a team of communication officers who provide dedicated support to ministers on briefing and communications.
Increasingly, speechwriters are diversifying and becoming generalist copywriters too, alongside writing speeches. They are turning their hand to writing and editing key departmental products that require strong, compelling prose, such as green papers or annual reports. In the past, I have known of departments commissioning external copywriters to do this. Departments are increasingly looking in-house to the existing talent of their speechwriters.
I like the sound of this. How do I become a speechwriter?
No formal qualifications are required. A flair for writing, an interest in politics and public affairs are important, as is emotional intelligence and the ability to completely absorb the language and tone of another person. I have acted in the past, so being able to become someone else is a real advantage! Resilience and a thick skin are also needed to withstand the never-ending deadlines and pressure that are brought to bear on a speechwriter.
In terms of training, there are some excellent short courses out there for aspiring speechwriters. One of the best is a course run out of the Groucho Club in Soho by ex-Whitehall speechwriter Simon Lancaster, who now writes speeches for some of the world’s top CEOs. Simon has also written a book on writing speeches, Speechwriting: The Expert Guide. It is my bible. Whilst it is hard to teach someone how to write well (in my view it is something innate that comes from deep within), there are rules and recipes you can follow to ensure a speech is as good as it can be. I’d recommend it as a good read for anyone wanting to make their writing have more impact.
Speechwriting jobs are like gold dust, but it’s worth sounding out departments about any future positions in the offing and to register your interest. I also run a Whitehall Speechwriters’ Network and we are always happy to talk to budding speechwriters about opportunities. Many of the big companies now count a speechwriter as an essential part of their corporate entourage, so it’s worth looking into those too.
A final word
Speechwriters add enormous value to an organisation. They write with a birds-eye view of the organisation and the wider horizon. They bring perspective, clarity and purpose, cutting through the complexity of policy and making it resonate with the outside world.
Speechwriting is a job of contradictions, but that’s what makes it one of the most interesting, challenging and rewarding jobs in the civil service.
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