The Speechwriter’s Life: Edward Mortimer

Longtime journalist calls speechwriting stint "the most interesting job that I've had in my life."

“You had a column in the Financial Times – what are you doing here?” When people asked Edward Mortimer this question, they were referring to his mid-career switch from print journalism to working at the United Nations as Chief Speechwriter and Communications Director to Secretary-General Kofi Annan.

Mortimer would sometimes reply with tongue-in-cheek by quoting from The Communist Manifesto by Marx & Engels about how “philosophers have tried to understand the world: our problem is to change it.”

In an interview with Vital Speeches, Mortimer described his UN speechwriting role (1998-2006) as “the most interesting job that I’ve had in my life. I am very glad and feel privileged that I had the chance to do it. Kofi Annan was a really great guy to work for, and I feel quite proud to be associated with him.”

“And it was exhilarating to be at the UN and part of a cosmopolitan group of people working together. We were often in the middle of some crisis, quite often in the public eye, at the center of world events – or at least under the illusion we were at the center,” he added.

In 2014, a selection of Annan’s speeches was published under the title We The Peoples – the result of further collaboration between Annan and Mortimer. 

Mortimer shared the following speechwriting tips during his talk with Vital Speeches:

1. There are many different ways to write a speech – so adjust your approach, according to your principal’s needs.

“I’ve talked to a lot of people who have written for public figures. The approach varies enormously, according to the kind of person for whom you are writing. Some public figures read speeches very closely and are likely to re-write them, for example,” Mortimer said.

In the case of Annan, Mortimer described a high-trust work environment where the principal empowered his speechwriters: “Kofi Annan and I worked very well together, because he knew in general terms what he wanted to say, and was happy to leave it to me to find the phrases and words to convey it. In reviewing a draft, very often he would ask you to shorten a speech, or lighten it, or cross out something – or perhaps add a fact he recalled through his extraordinary memory,” Mortimer said.

It is no surprise that the UN, like other large, complex organizations, has an extensive draft speech approval process – but Annan’s empowerment of his staff shines through there, as well.  As Mortimer noted, “Kofi was very anxious that everyone who needed to should have a chance to see the draft and comment on it. Sometimes, this involved tracking people down on the other side of the world, and receiving suggestions that may have been unusable under the circumstances.”

“But Kofi left it to the speechwriting team to determine how far to take the comments, in terms of further edits. He felt that we should listen to the changes suggested, and make a judgment. He allowed us to more or less decide what the final form of the draft would be, which he would review and then decide how he felt about it. So it turns out that while speechwriting is supposed to be about form, you end up having a great deal of influence on the content.”

While working for Annan, Mortimer also wrote speeches for Louise Fr├ęchette, the Deputy Secretary-General. That task required a different approach. “With Louise, you would have a discussion, write a draft corresponding to what she said, and she would then tear it to pieces and you would have to go and do it again. This was bruising initially, but I soon realized that she found it easier to determine what she wanted to say after looking at something which turned out to be what she did not want to say – a dialectical process of thesis, antithesis and synthesis.  Again, you have to adjust your approach based on the person,” Mortimer said.

As with Mortimer’s editorial writing for the London Times and Financial Times, “in the last resort, you are writing speeches for someone else, and you have to assume their point of view and not feel too sensitive if they make changes or want something different,” he observed.

2. A speech can sometimes go over too well.

“The year 2004 was a particularly difficult one – it was the year after the Iraq War and also a US presidential election year. Many people were gunning for Kofi Annan over the oil-for-food program. He was scheduled to give a commencement speech at Harvard. While we knew this would be a fairly friendly audience, we did not want him to say anything that would be too upsetting to the Bush Administration,” Mortimer recalled. 

“So we prepared this motherhood-and-apple-pie type commencement speech – but these very anodyne remarks included some lines referring to consultation amongst members of the global community, and so on, that the audience applauded, perhaps comparing these ideas in their minds to the Bush record. I remember thinking: ‘this speech has gone over too well.’”

3. Respect the speaker’s style at the podium, and make sure it’s reflected in draft speeches.

“In 1986, I worked briefly in television. It was quite a culture shock to move from newspapers. Everything seemed to have to be rewritten an extraordinary number of times, to make it shorter and simpler. An aphorism I heard at the time was “when writing for TV, first simplify and then exaggerate”. I hope we did not over-exaggerate when writing his speeches – but simplification was important with Kofi Annan,” Mortimer said.

“It was no good to write long sentences with subordinate clauses – that would not work for him. He wanted short, simple sentences that were easy to get across. He once said to me that ‘I don’t like to listen to long speeches, and I don’t see why I should inflict them on others.’ He felt 20 minutes was the longest he should speak to an audience,” Mortimer said.

4. A speechwriter’s role is about more than helping the speaker find the right words. It can also mean helping identify the right occasions to speak.

“I can recall a painful weekly meeting where Annan’s staff would review a grid that showed all the possible speaking engagements over the coming weeks and months. The Secretary-General receives a tremendous number of invitations to speak. I had to advise on whether an invitation should be accepted or not, and had to draft letters on why he should not attend or could not attend. I remember one colleague, during a discussion of a particular invitation, remarking dryly about how ‘we have to draw the line somewhere’ due to the volume of invitations received,” Mortimer said.

“When an invitation to speak in person was declined, the organizers would ask, ‘Can we have a video message?’ I spent a lot of time dissuading people from asking for a video message. These were very time-consuming to create, for one thing. While Kofi was good during TV interviews, he did not come over as well in taped messages. When reading from a Teleprompter in the UN studio, he would squint slightly and the camera would invariably pick that up.”

“I would try to steer people instead to accepting to a written message, which they could then read aloud at their event, or include in the event program.”

5. Be careful with jokes.

“You learn to be careful about the jokes you use. In 2003, Kofi spoke to the Los Angeles World Affairs Council. Arnold Schwarzenegger was Governor of California at the time, so for some humor, we put a line in the speech where Kofi would say: ‘Every time I come to California I leave refreshed and reinvigorated.  I find myself saying:  ‘I'll be back!’” Mortimer said.

But this nod to Schwarzenegger’s role in the Terminator movie did not quite go over as intended. Recalled Mortimer: “When Kofi spoke, the line came out something more like: ‘I will be back.’”

Annan sounded less like Arnie, and perhaps more like Douglas MacArthur’s solemn “I shall return.”

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