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Speechwriting, for progress

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Review of Philip Collins’ When They Go Low, We Go High (published by 4th Estate, London, 2017)

The recently-published When They Go Low, We Go High by Philip Collins, a former speechwriter for British Prime Minister Tony Blair, explores more than 2,000 years of oratorical excellence. Along the way, Collins, who also analyzes speeches for the London Times, leads the reader through a parade of famous and notorious speakers and their most notable addresses in entertaining detail, from ancient Rome and Greece through to the present day.

When analyzing extracts of speeches delivered by Pericles, Michelle Obama, Abraham Lincoln, Winston Churchill, Benjamin Franklin, Nelson Mandela, Fidel Castro or any of the other speakers covered here, Collins is learned without being pedantic, and humorous without being glib.

In sharing details such as the Roman orator Cicero’s love of using jokes in speeches, or parsing Dwight Eisenhower’s commemoration of the centennial of the Gettysburg Address, Collins does so without sounding like a know-it-all. Rather, he comes across as someone genuinely passionate about his subject matter, who wants to share that passion with fellow enthusiasts.

And while attentive readers will find a series of useful tips and insightful reflections about effective speeches scattered throughout the book, Collins’ focus here is not on providing technical guidance on what makes a memorable speech. (Collins has separately published a book of general speech advice.)

Rather, When They Go Low is an attempt, in Collins’ words, to demonstrate a long-standing connection between general societal “progress” and the expression of political arguments through speeches to influence audiences—and build a consensus for reform.

The Michelle Obama quote that serves as the book’s title is therefore not simply a complement to the First Lady; rather, the word “We” in the title signals that Collins’ work is a call to arms to everyone alarmed by the tidal wave of political populism cresting around the world. 

If populism is the result of widespread cynicism about politics, then the antidote to cynicism as prescribed by Collins involves first realizing that “[l]anguage in the public square today does not always rise to the occasion. Too little of what is said in politics is memorable. It needs to be.”

Political discussion, per Collins, is how “the voice of the people is heard.” Embracing political discussion also represents a commitment to “persuasion rather than force.” This is turn means, according to Collins, that the best and most effective political speeches “need to inspire.” The collection of speeches analyzed in his book showcases how the “greatest speeches are essays in simple language, comprehensible to a democratic audience, but works of beauty and profundity all the same.”

With characteristic humor, Collins cautions that this does not mean speechwriters or speakers, when calling for reform and progress, should channel the Robin Williams character from the film Dead Poets Society.

If you are still looking for a holiday gift for a speechwriter colleague or speech-loving friend, look no further than When They Go Low, We Go High. And if you’re feeling extra generous, you could pair it with a similarly sweeping and equally interesting book—Dennis Glover’s book The Art of Great Speeches, And Why We Remember Them.