Trick of the Tongue – The Art of the Speechwriter

‘Few love to hear the sins they love to act’

In Season Four of that sublime Machievellian feast House of Cards, there is an episode where a new speechwriter criticizes the work of the Underwoods’ writing team. Reading their latest offering he says “There [is] no imagination to it. No rhythm.” The established team take offence (of course they do): “We’ve been writing their speeches since they took office. We know what we’re doing.” The new speechwriter shrugs: “Well, do you want it to be good, or do you want it to be yours?’.

Finding the right voice for a great speech is an art; it is a tricky art, born of rhythm, cadence, inflection and reflection. A speechwriter must know the subject (of course); pretenders to the crown of authority will always be found wanting. But the writer must also know the tricks of the trade. The human ear is easy to fool, and as everyone knows, the heart is all too easily led by that most biddable of orifices.


We can look to the best speeches in history and literature in order to spot those tricks. Antony’s magnificent sarcasm, by repeatedly intoning within his famous ‘Friends, Romans, Countrymen’ speech that Brutus is ‘an honourable man’ (III.ii) is one of the best examples of speech-trickery. Ever. Brutus has spoken first and has made it clear that Antony may speak whatever good he wishes of Caesar so long as he speaks no ill of the conspirators. So Antony does speak no ill: but in his repeated benediction of Brutus and his coterie of cronies (alliteration is a speechwriter’s friend), he serves a rotten surfeit of praise and the audience chokes (descriptions of hyperbolic violence are always memorable… care to remember Powell’s Rivers of Blood speech).

In his February 2016 speech announcing that he was backing Brexit, Michael Gove used the ‘Antony trick’ (ultimate irony surely, as June would see him taking the role of Brutus to Johnson’s Caesar!). When Gove referenced David Cameron, the accolades piled up; Cameron was ‘an outstanding prime minister’, he had led a ‘great reforming government’ and it ‘pain[ed] him to disagree [with Dave]’. Oh stop it Michael! Put down that giant knife…In his Inferno, Dante confined Brutus to the lowest circle of hell for betraying Caesar; at least now he has company.


Of course, a speechgiver wants to sound geniune whilst also learnéd (note the Chaucerian inflection of that word can make one sound pompous, but certainly draws the ear). Of course, you don’t want to over egg the pudding and too many clichés will make you sound as honest as the day is long (and can be confusing; is a day really that long?). Equally, avoid the use of foreign languages in speeches. If you can’t say it in English, then find another way to phrase it; afterall, a speechgiver using foreign words is just bacati kajmak u oči[1] of their audience, and they may just be about sauter du coq à l’âne[2]. Remember, quem não se comunica se trumbica[3].

You don’t want to bombard any audience with facts, although there must be a few. In the modern era of on-demand TV, the tone is set within the first paragraph and a single joke is worth a thousand statistics (Cicero that Roman master of rhetoric, integrity and proof is turning in his grave). Boris Johnson, a rare speciment of a politician who writes his own speeches, is certainly a master of the gag. Talking to the 2015 Conservative Party Conference (a stony-faced crowd generally), he said of the future of the Party, ‘We’re not done yet. We come now to what we in City Hall call Operation Juddering Climax…’ Johnson knows that the British will always be party to a little twinge of smut. When the politics thing doesn’t work out Boris, there’s an opening at the Christmas cracker factory…

The other tricks of speechwriting are numerous: Repetition (Education, Education, Education anyone?). Brevity. Use of elipsis and well-timed pauses (see paragraph above) and of course the old Grecian logos, ethos, pathos – the classical modes of persuasion from Aristotle’s Poetics.

 An audience loves a personal anecdote. Michelle Obama (U.S President 2024), recently exemplified the art of pathos in modern day speech-giving. ‘My father,’ she said to the Democratic National Convention in September 2016, ‘was a pump operator at the city water plant, and he was diagnosed with Multiple Sclerosis when my brother and I were young. And even as a kid, I knew there were plenty of days when he was in pain.’

Key words to end paragraphs (see above, ‘pain’), resonate. Yet the end to any speech should always be positive. Never leave an audience glaring into the gloom. The rhythm of those last words is vital; an iambic inflection to the final sentences gives a steadying heartbeat, a lulling music to the crowd. No one wants the meter they remember to have the panic of a butterfly furiously beating its wings against a window; the final tone should always sing of sun.

[1] Croation: throwing cream into the eyes (i.e lying to)

[2] French: to jump from the cock to the donkey (i.e changing topics without logic)

[3] Portuguese: He who doesn’t communicate, gets his fingers burnt.

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