Review of Leading Lines by Lucinda Holdforth (HarperCollins, 2020)
If you’re going to read one book about speechwriting this year, then pick up a copy of Australian speechwriter Lucinda Holdforth’s just-published Leading Lines. Her book is part-fascinating memoir and part-treasure chest of speechwriting help. Holdforth has had the good luck to have collaborated with and written speeches for top Australian political and corporate leaders for about 25 years. She is thus one of those rare “utility player” speechwriters, comfortable in both private- and public-sector settings. Holdforth is also deeply-read when it comes to being able to draw on relevant speeches as case studies to illustrate points in her text.
Leading Lines innovatively and boldly flips the script typically followed by contemporary speechwriting manuals. When veteran scribes get around to writing books on speechwriting, the tried-and-true formula is to methodically address the various challenges that arise in the drafting and delivery of a speech by outlining corresponding tactics. The final result is a series of chapter titles along the lines of: “Jokes: Handle With Care,” “Opening Lines That Set the Stage,” “Why a Little Pre-Event Practice Will Go A Long Way,” and so on.
This is more or less the standard approach, and a perfectly logical way to produce a well-organized book for the niche speechwriting market. But one of the limitations of this approach is that it can gloss over messy issues that cannot be easily reduced to points on a checklist, or two rules, or an amusing anecdote, etc.
So rather than jump into specific problems and tactics right at the start, she dedicates about 80 pages to what she calls a speech’s “strategic positioning” before getting into tactics.
“Strategic positioning” is Holdforth’s shorthand for a discussion in Chapter 4 of those big, complex questions about speeches that sometimes get lost in the rush to meet a deadline and produce a first draft for review. Questions like—what is the “real job” of a speech? Who is the key audience? Is there an “elephant in the room” that needs to be addressed in the speech—some lurking issue regarding the speaker’s company’s long-term performance, for example? The difficulty with elephants in the room is that speechwriters have to go out on their own to identify them. Holdforth share some good tips on how to do this.
A handy analogy that Holdforth shares in this strategy chapter is what she calls the speech’s “vantage point.” If you imagine a large public or private sector organization, it’s only the top leader who can credibly invoke a truly 360 degree view of that organization, including its “past, present and future.” If leaders work with speechwriters to infuse the appropriate vantage point into their speeches, conveying a sharper, more vivid sense of the organization’s basic story and future direction, then their keynotes and presentations will be much more interesting and attention-grabbing.
The last 150 or so pages of the book cover all the usual issues and tactical questions that can come up in finalizing a speech and prepping a speaker to step up to the podium—including Holdforth’s suggestions regarding specific speech delivery strategies for female leaders.
This reviewer appreciated Holdforth’s caution around incorporating too many quotes in a speech: “Leaders don’t quote people, I’ve come to believe. People quote leaders.” Same goes for her warning against trying to build a speech around a particular slogan or tag line: “…[G]reat lines can only arise naturally as a summation of logical argument. It just doesn’t work the other way around.” As Holdforth observes, it’s a mistake to start the other way around and “write [the speech] towards” the tagline.
A great read, crammed with useful advice—Leading Lines will help you become a more effective speechwriter.