The Speechwriter’s Life: Jean-Marc Coicaud
January 08, 2017
His speechwriting stint at the United Nations was "a great human and professional experience."
“A great human and professional experience” — that is how Professor Jean-Marc Coicaud of Rutgers University describes the four years (1992-1996) he spent as a speechwriter for the late UN Secretary-General Boutros-Boutros Ghali. During this time, Coicaud gained insights into leadership communications at the global level, while observing “how people conduct themselves towards one another in situations of power,” as he put it in a recent conversation with Vital Speeches. He recalled Boutros-Ghali as “a classy, old fashioned gentleman – a professional of great quality, working hard to deal with substantive questions.”
“In those days, the Secretary-General would travel with folders of speeches packed in his luggage. Ideally, he was to have all his speeches written ahead of his trips, so that everything was in fine shape at least a week before delivery – that way, he would face no last-minute stress, with all the preparations for his speeches already complete,” Coicaud said.
Rather than joining Boutros-Ghali on the road, his speechwriters “would have to be in the office, preparing the next round of speeches [while he delivered the previous set]. To write at the pace necessary to support a Secretary-General, you cannot be on the run all the time. You need to be calm and have the mental space to concentrate on the drafts,” Coicaud said.
For Coicaud, two particularly memorable occasions when Boutros-Ghali spoke are the 1993 World Conference on Human Rights (held in Vienna) and the 1995 Fourth World Conference on Women (held in Beijing). These two events stand out to Coicaud as “important for the tenure of Boutros-Ghali as Secretary General” in part because they demonstrate how “human rights issues were gaining greater significance at the time.”
The pace of the Secretary-General’s job can be crushing. Observed Coicaud: “He has to meet people all the time, and people want to meet him all the time. On top of this, he has to constantly deal with various crises. It’s been said that one of the most difficult things about serving in a role like this is that you must all the time be making decisions about tough questions.”
He continued: “So you have little time to deliberate – and you need advisors and speechwriters and others to help, so you are not finishing a draft speech yourself on the plane. You need calmness and mental space in your daily life. Having these will definitely help you at the podium when you rise to speak,” Coicaud said.
And if calmness benefits leaders, then it’s doubly true for their speechwriters. “Writing is a physical action, as much as a psychological or intellectual exercise. To best fulfill the requirements of writing and thinking when assembling a speech, one needs to be physically fit, calm and serene,” he said.
Coicaud came to his speechwriting position with two doctorates, as well as prior work experience with the French Ministry of Foreign Affairs and the European Parliament.
As impressive as this background, Coicaud approached his initial months on the job with no illusions. “Even though I had two doctorates, I did not know how to write speeches. Writing speeches and writing books are two different things. A speech is intended to be addressed to people, touching on issues in a straightforward, simple fashion,” Coucaud said.
“I had always been interested in writing and thinking. I was never very good at taking exams, but I was better at writing on issues, because I wanted to clarify difficult problems,” he added.
“I was trained initially in philosophy in France. You have, of course, many philosophers who write in a very clear fashion. You also have a tradition of European philosophy that is about writing in a complex and even obscure fashion. I have to say that I was a bit like that when I started writing for Dr. Boutros-Ghali,” Coicaud said.
“I was informed after a while that, in fact, a speech is not a book of philosophy – it should be simple, clear and self-contained, without being simplistic. I had prior experience in terms of thinking and writing on a variety of topics, but I learned on the job while at the UN how to ensure a speech achieves clarity, while connecting with people,” he added.
In a lecture he delivered in 1997 entitled “On Good Leadership and Communication,” Coicaud distilled his experiences with leadership communication at the global level. His remarks included the following cautionary observation for any leader expected to take positions on issues of the day through speeches:
A common mistake in the field of leadership communication is for the leader to state a position in such a rigid way that there is no room to maneuver when changed circumstances call for an adjustment of position. Short of room for negotiations or alternatives, it becomes a no-win situation. This does not mean that the argument presented has to be so vague that it can accommodate all positions. When it is the case, it runs the opposite risk –that of being everything to everybody, with the ensuing possibility of being unable to satisfy all and to please none.
Note: Jean-Marc Coicaud is the author of, among many other books, Beyond the National Interest: The Future of UN Peacekeeping and Multilateralism in an Era of U.S. Primacy; the book includes some reflections on his work alongside Secretary-General Boutros-Ghali.