Speechwriting – The Heightening Alleghenies

Of all the pieces of work I am given and of all the assignments I take on, speechwriting is one job that I always enjoy. It is challenging and rewarding.


Very many people are uncomfortable with the very thought of speaking in public and if that isn’t terrifying enough, the additional weight of having to say something coherent in a public arena can turn the most confident person into a nervous wreck.


I have written speeches for all sorts of events, prize giving ceremonies, graduations, honorary graduation citations, product launches, fundraisers, charity events, awards ceremonies, weddings, you name it. I cannot disclose the names of any clients for whom I write speeches, the fact that someone may have a person like myself to write their remarks can be a matter they don’t like to discuss publicly. To me it is logical, if I can help them express their view in a better way then why have them subject themselves to the trauma. It is a service I provide, I enjoy and I am happy to do.


During my time at the University I was involved in graduation speeches at a secondary level. My then boss drafted and crafted the main speech by the Chancellor or Vice Chancellor depending on who was the presiding officer. The one amusing part of this task was his penchant for obscure erudite quotes. He would have to explain to the particular Orator, for example who Primo Levi was in case the attributed quotation used might provoke a question or two. So, the use of quotes has to be managed carefully and pitched to the occasion, the audience and the speaker.


In my role at the University I introduced the concept of the student speaker replying formally at graduation on behalf of the student body. I was also responsible for drafting the speech the student speakers delivered. Surprisingly most student valedictorians (as they are known as in the States and elsewhere) did not take up the opportunity to write their own address. A few did but in the main they ran with what we provided. I remember one ceremony where between myself and my boss we had written the entire content of the speeches, the main address, the provost’s remarks, the honorary graduate’s citations, and the valedictorian’s address. The exception was the honorary graduate, and I had spoken to him to give him a steer on what to say. So we even had an input on this. The general public was none the wiser. But that’s the way things were done. And the message was consistent.


During my time there and since, I have written numerous addresses. In preparation I will typically find out a bit about the audience, the venue, the time of the speech (after dinner etc), the preferred duration. I will also try to gauge the way in which the person speaks and have in the past listened to a recording of a speaker to understand the way they actually talk before I put pen to paper. I will also have various ideas rattling around in my head, these I write down in a notebook, type into iPhone notes or dictate to myself.


When it comes to writing the speech, having let the whole thing ferment and stew for a while, I will sit down and write it in one go, before leaving it overnight to set. The second edit normally involves a fair bit of copy removal, proving Dr Johnson’s maxim:


Read over your compositions, and where ever you meet with a passage which you think is particularly fine, strike it out.’


Again in the case of a recent submission, I was required to write to specific time duration and I listened to several recordings of the likely speaker, working out the average number of words he spoke in a minute to establish the word count for the time required.


In business, a formal speech may be a central part of the proceedings, whether to raise funds, launch a product or a campaign/initiative. I have written material where the theme is consistent for the entire event so the people involved receive the same message. That backfired at a fundraising function once when one of the organisation’s officials took my carefully drafted words somewhat grudgingly and opened his remarks by saying ‘They told me to read this out’. Which of course he duly did.


In terms of famous speeches Dr Martin Luther King’s ‘I Have a Dream’ address delivered at Washington has many lessons for speechwriter and speaker alike. The use of repetition of phrases at the start of sentences and again at the end powerfully reinforces the themes he touches upon. Also the alliteration used for effect. The biblical references and inflection. The use of the Negro spiritual lyric. The combination of sermon and civil rights themes. It is a heady, infectious and overwhelmingly engaging mixture that rewards listening for the full seventeen minutes.


That Dr King went off script at the end of the speech was no hardship to him as an experienced and inspirational preacher, but it demonstrates the value of injecting personal passion and experience into an otherwise brilliantly crafted piece of rhetoric.


The effects are most noticeable in the rising cadence and repetition as the address reaches its climax:

So let freedom ring from the prodigious hilltops of New Hampshire.

Let freedom ring from the mighty mountains of New York.

Let freedom ring from the heightening Alleghenies of Pennsylvania!

Let freedom ring from the snowcapped Rockies of Colorado!

Let freedom ring from the curvaceous slopes of California!

But not only that; let freedom ring from Stone Mountain of Georgia!

Let freedom ring from Lookout Mountain of Tennessee!

Let freedom ring from every hill and molehill of Mississippi. From every mountainside, let freedom ring.

And when this happens, when we allow freedom to ring, when we let it ring from every village and every hamlet, from every state and every city, we will be able to speed up that day when all of God’s children, black men and white men, Jews and Gentiles, Protestants and Catholics, will be able to join hands and sing in the words of the old Negro spiritual, “Free at last! free at last! thank God Almighty, we are free at last!”

It is a supremely inspiring piece and one to which any would be public speaker should listen as an example of the art of Rhetoric. We may not be able to speak like that or indeed write like that, but we can learn from it.

In the teaching of Rhetoric there are five Canons: Invention; Arrangement; Style; Memory; and Delivery.

From my perspective as a writer, I generally have control over the first three of these as often for obvious reasons I won’t even be present when the piece is delivered.


For those curious as to the meaning of the five Canons, I will return to this topic if and when the spirits move me.


But for now, the end is near, and the fog is rising. Let us go in.