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Brits, Germans, Danes, Scots, Dutch and Americans share speechwriting wisdom at Cambridge

About 70 speechwriters from the U.S., the U.K. and northern Europe assembled in a charming, red-brick 1899 Victorian pile at Cambridge University in England for three days of enlightenment, brainstorming and conviviality—April 15-17, 2015.

These events are the product of the tireless efforts and superb organizational skills of Brian Jenner, founder of the U.K. Speechwriters Guild.

Alan Leaman, a Brit who has written for politicians and business executives, kicked off the proceedings by noting that “Relations between politicians and humor can be tenuous.” To underscore his point he told a story of how Margaret Thatcher was finally persuaded to use some lines from John Cleese’s Dead Parrot Sketch in a speech. Just before she mounted the rostrum, she turned to her speechwriter and whispered, “This Monty Python—is he one of us?”

Another Brit, Anglican priest Rev. Dr. Kate Bruce, made an impassioned plea for “speech which lights up the ears.” Dr. Bruce declared, “In a digital age, I want to advocate the power and punch of the spoken word.” And she did so admirably.

German speech consultant and trainer Alexander von Reumont spoke on charisma. With Teutonic efficiency and exactitude, he laid down five tests for determining if a public speaker has charisma: (1) reputation, (2) competence, (3) motivation, (4) corporate identity (Is he one of us?), and (5) visuals and acoustics—are the speaker’s looks, voice and gestures appealing?

Dutch presenter Hanneke Kulik, who writes for the Dutch finance minister, shared a pearl of wisdom that she learned from the speechwriter to her sovereign, H.M. King Willem-Alexander of the Netherlands: “Little is lost if the audience dozes off in the middle of the speech as long as you wake them up for your fantastic conclusion.”

Nobody dozed off during her presentation. She ended with a very moving story of how a Jewish concentration camp survivor vowed never to speak German again. But by re-connecting with the German literature that he loved—particularly the novels of Thomas Mann—he was able to heal and forgive.

Jasper Langergaard, a Dane who has written for three Danish science ministers, knows from experience that in writing speeches on highly technical matters you can’t expect to draw belly laughs from the audience. His advice? Be content with getting a smile or a chuckle.

Steve Bee, another Brit, is a cartoonist. He gave the most subtle presentation of the conference. While ostensibly trying to teach the group how to draw, he was actually imparting some serious lessons in the art of communication. In the end, he said: “Don’t ever tell people what you’re going to do; they will stop you from doing it. Get your message into their heads without them realizing it.”

Lucia Hodgson, who has written for British MPs and cabinet ministers, told the group that a big part of her job is helping ministers to not be “the boring minister who does nothing but recycle clichés—like “hard-working families” or “the dream of home ownership.” She confided that she sometimes draws on Twitter responses for new material.

Tom Morissey, the Executive Communication Manager of Disney World, is a novelist as well as a speechwriter. So he was a natural to talk about the importance of stories. He said that stories matter because they are the natural way by which human beings process information. In addition, he offered some priceless advice on how to make believers out of executives who refuse to use stories. He told one executive a funny story that he could use to make a point in his next speech. When the executive demurred, Tom suggested that he try it out on his family over the dinner table. When the family liked the story, Tom said he should try it out on his golf buddies. And when that went over well, Tom said he should try it out on his colleagues at the office. In short, the story stayed in the speech, and by the time the executive gave the speech, he had practiced the story so many times that it made a big hit. Now, the first question this executive asks when he meets with his speechwriter is, “What’s the story?”

The conference had three breakout sessions. I attended one led by Rodger Evans, who works for the Scottish Parliament. His session was on the question, “How do we promote a positive culture for speechwriting.” There was quite a bit of animated discussion on this question, but one inquiry stopped us cold. A Finnish speechwriter wanted to know how he should go about promoting a positive culture for speechwriting in Finland. That Finnished us.

My own presentation on “The Man Who Made Winston Churchill” was about how an Irish-American politician from New York taught Churchill the secrets of great oratory. Nobody dozed off or threw a brick, and everybody applauded at the end, so I guess it was a success.

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