Review: “Speechwriting for Leaders”

Diplomat and speech dissector Charles Crawford's new book could have been titled, "How to Really Hear a Speech."

The speechwriting world owes Charles Crawford a round of thanks for his new book, Speechwriting for Leaders: Speeches That Leave People Wanting More.

For the first time, at least my research indicates, a former diplomat has made the effort to synthesize some insights into speechwriting gathered during a long and storied career and shape these into an English-language book for sale to the general public.

Given how the small but enduring niche of books on speechwriting is currently dominated by political speechwriters, Crawford’s unique contribution to that niche, as a retired British ambassador, is most welcome.

As we learn from this book, diplomats are ferocious observers and dissectors of speeches, and much more sensitive than the average audience member to the nuances, both verbal and unstated, that elected and non-elected officials can convey while at the podium.

For this reason, Speechwriting for Leaders could have been titled How to Really Hear A Speech, given how closely Crawford guides us through excerpts from addresses by American Presidents, British Prime Ministers, Popes and others, carefully explaining for us why in his view a particular line or paragraph resonated well with audience members—or went right over their heads, or even flopped. It is the distilling of lessons from the successful and unsuccessful speeches of global leaders of the highest stature that Crawford focuses on as his main goal in this 250 page volume.

Another set of valuable insights and (as he calls them) “micro-techniques” presented in this book flows from Crawford’s expertise as a diplomat in event planning at the international level. Given that “communications advisor” is often an unstated aspect of a speechwriter’s role, every scribe can learn something from Crawford’s advice on diverse event-planning-related topics such as: how to help your speaker avoid “day-of” surprises; how to effectively work with an interpreter while delivering a speech to a foreign audience; how to get the most out of PowerPoint; and how to react when Twitter critics start lambasting your speaker mid-address. (Hint: Magnanimously and confidently tweet that you welcome their contribution to the discussion – kill ‘em with kind tweets!)

That said, the book has some glaring blemishes. For example, one wishes that Crawford would have included a more extensive, top-down view of how speeches are researched, drafted and finalized for elected officials by individuals working in government bureaucracies like the British Foreign Office. He touches on this, but readers who have never worked specifically in a public sector setting, or who are not familiar with the basic machinery of international diplomacy, would have appreciated the benefit of additional context.

As well, without intending to sound like an aesthetic snob, there are also some frustrating flaws in the book’s design that need correction in any subsequent editions – only because they reduce the book’s usefulness as a tool for speechwriters.

Unfortunately, Speechwriting for Leaders completely ignores the idea of summarizing or condensing the lessons and micro-technical advice presented into conventional aids for readers such as checklists, bulleted points, pull-quotes, call-out boxes and so on. This is out-of-step with other comparable books in the genre, such as Robert Lehrman’s excellent Political Speechwriter’s Companion. Lehrman’s book makes generous and clever use of such reader-friendly features, and the happy result is that the lessons and tips he shares can be more easily digested and later referenced as necessary. These features create a “flow” for the reader, such that Lehrman’s material is therefore made much more useful thanks to the excellence of the book’s design.

Crawford’s next book on speechwriting (which this reviewer would look forward to) will hopefully rely on more modern design touches. These would have elevated Speechwriting for Leaders into the league of reference volumes that one might keep on a nearby shelf while drafting a speech.

Another hope is that the appearance of Speechwriting for Leaders will nudge other retired diplomats to commit their speechwriting experiences to paper, so that non-diplomats can learn from them. One encouraging sign in this direction is Cambridge University’s oral history project on diplomacy. Several of the participants have highlighted memorable moments involving speechwriting.  You can read Crawford’s contribution to the project here.

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