The single, brilliant idea

Great oratory is the mark of a great leader. Sophie Elmhirst asks politicians, historians and the wr

Around the oval table at the National Liberal Club, an old gentleman's club in Westminster, sits a group of men and women. In front of them, on a small television, perform an array of politicians. The films skate back through time: Blair, Thatcher, Churchill.

We are here to learn about speeches - how to write them, how to give them. We have been guided through the verbal tricks that make a speech fly: contradictions (Blair: "September 11 was not an isolated event, but a tragic prologue"), opposites (Napoleon: "Glory is fleeting, but obscurity is for ever"), phrase reversals (Obama: "There is not a liberal America and a conservative America - there is the United States of America"). We learn about surfing applause, about talking over the roar of adulation in order to fuel it (quite literally, claptrap). We learn how to be funny, how to paint pictures with our words, the secret of the perfect anecdote. On a break mid-morning, our teacher Max Atkinson, a former speechwriter to Paddy Ashdown, goes down to the garden next to the club for a cigarette. His students - professionals from FTSE-100 companies, quangos, communications teams in multinationals - discuss the morning's work over coffee. Atkinson has condensed the art of speechmaking into a day-long workshop, a 12-page handout ("Winning with words") and a stream of 32 films, snapshots of the speakers in action. But as we walk, he seems deflated about the reduction of his craft. "Rhetoric used to be part of the standard educational curriculum, but it has died out," he says.

For the ancient Greeks, rhetoric was one of the three central pillars of learning, along with grammar and logic. Aristotle established the three dimensions of rhetoric: ethos, the credibility of the speaker; pathos, their emotional connection; and logos, the logical argument. Rhetoric was an art, a complex expression of self. The historian Simon Schama, talking to me on the phone from Columbia University in New York, recalls the Roman orator Cicero: "It was thought by the great classical writers that in the formal set-piece rhetoric you discover not the mischief of the man, not the Machiavellian wiles, but the true, transparent integrity."

But today, says Schama, it is "highly allergic in our British culture to be extravagantly rhetorical". To turn a fine phrase suggests duplicity. Our suspicion dates back centuries - in 1664, the Royal Society set up a committee to improve the English language. One member, Thomas Sprat, regarded "fine speaking" as a disease, and argued that a proper style should "reject all amplifications, digressions and swellings of style" and instead adopt "a primitive purity and shortness". Other thinkers of that century shared Sprat's disdain for convolution - Thomas Hobbes and Francis Bacon both wrote on the subject, Bacon belittling those fixated with style over "the weight of matter, worth of subject, soundness of argument".

Today, the ultimate accusation you can hurl at your political opponent (Hillary Clinton did it to Barack Obama; Gordon Brown does it to David Cameron) is that of being insubstantial, preoccupied by the style and surface of politics, with no grasp of the "weight". A fine orator is nothing more than an untrustworthy magician. In consequence, Atkinson says, "the speech has become less important in British politics than it used to be". He believes it will hardly feature in the coming ("completely tedious") election campaign: stump speeches will be dropped in favour of TV debates and Twitter tactics. "If I were still active in advising a political leader," he says, "I'd be urging him to get back on the road. And I don't mean just walking around a few schools, hospitals and shopping centres. I mean holding proper rallies, making inspiring speeches, creating some excitement."

The idea

A great speech, says Jeff Shesol, a partner at the West Wing Writers speechwriting agency and a former speechwriter to Bill Clinton, is the "right kind of speech by the right speaker at the right moment". Simon Lancaster, who worked for Alan Johnson in various government departments and is now a professional speechwriter, says that "good oratory is a sign of being a great leader" and that a great speech has "a single, brilliant idea". "Great speeches need great causes," says Phil Collins, a former speechwriter to Tony Blair, now a leader writer for the Times.

The typical British political speech of today, Collins says, has none of the prerequisites for greatness. We don't have the right causes, he thinks, the urgent fights to correct injustice. A minister's speech will usually be one of two types - the political or the policy-driven. The former can afford to be lively, although they are less frequent. The latter are often motivated by pragmatism. A minister will use a speech to hurry along ponderous civil servants, to drive a policy through his or her slow-moving department. It is an internal procedure rather than an external flourish.

The modern politician also has to make more speeches than ever before. It is "the tyranny of the diary", according to Collins - where ministers will make hundreds of speeches a year, to conferences, pressure groups, openings of doctors' surgeries. "The vast majority of these speeches are dates in the diary rather than things you've got to say. It's no wonder speeches are boring if you're doing that many. None of us has got novel things to say every week." Lancaster agrees, remembering times working for Johnson when he'd be "churning out 10,000 words" a week. He sounded tired at the thought. "That's not the best way to do it."

Atkinson blames the media. He believes we are obsessed with personality, with "endless bloody interviews". In his eyes, the devaluing of politics at the hands of journalists is encapsulated by the decline of the speech. Broadcasters, he suspects, have conspired against the form, convinced that it makes bad television. The media no longer have the time or interest to engage with the issues. Instead, they demand the soundbite, the personality and, best of all, the gaffe.

There are, however, some memorable moments in recent British political speechmaking. Robin Cook's resignation from the cabinet on the eve of the Iraq war in 2003, Tony Blair's speech on humanitarian intervention in Chicago in 1999, David Cameron's pitch for the leadership of the Conservative Party at the Tories' October 2005 conference, have all been etched into oratorical history. The last, especially, is cited by observers of all political stripes as a rare example of a modern speech that actually made something happen. The single, brilliant idea was to win the leadership of the party; it was the right speech at the right time.

Cameron's speech was a weapon, able to propel him beyond his known sphere and create - in one 20-minute, no-notes swoop - a new political career. It was also a rhetorical "beauty parade", as Atkinson puts it, in which Cameron's youthful energy was helpfully offset by David Davis's turgid flatness. But the speech was the thing: it changed the course of events and inspired a new generation of Tories. As Clare Foges, Cameron's speechwriter since 2008, threatened in an article on the ConservativeHome website (published a year before she started the job): "It was a speech that won David Cameron the leadership. It will be a speech that wins him - us - the next election."

The writing

One evening in February 2007, just as Barack Obama was announcing his candidacy for the presidency, the phone rang at Atkinson's home in Somerset. It was a reporter from Chicago magazine, asking for his analysis of a speech Obama had made at the Kerry Democratic National Convention in July 2004. "Who?" asked Atkinson. "I hadn't heard of him," he explains. Five minutes later he'd downloaded the speech. "I was completely gobsmacked. At the first sight I thought, this guy's in the Martin Luther King league. He was doing everything. Everything you could possibly suggest would be a good thing to do, he was doing. It was mind-boggling. I hadn't seen a speech like that for a very long time."

The speeches Obama gave during his campaign to become president are now legendary. Like Cameron, he launched himself with a speech - the one at the Kerry convention thrilled. Behind Obama's natural facility with words - the preacherly tone that sometimes reduced audiences from Chicago to Iowa to tears - was a small team of young men. They were led by Jon Favreau, a speechwriter who possessed an uncanny ability to write speeches pitched to the distinctive cadences of his master's voice. He was, in the president's own words, his "mind reader".

In a documentary about Obama's campaign, By the People, Favreau is seen sitting around a table with his writing team, throwing around ideas for a speech. "OK," he says, slipping into the speech itself: "'What began as a whisper in Springfield . . .'" He pauses and leans back in his chair. "Can we say something like 'found its way somewhere in Iowa'?" It became the speech Obama made to cheering supporters on Super Tuesday in February 2008: "What began as a whisper in Springfield soon carried across the cornfields of Iowa, where farmers and factory workers, students and seniors stood up in numbers we have never seen before."

These were words, among the thousands Favreau wrote during Obama's campaign, that inspired a country to vote for its first African-American president. But Favreau didn't just craft lofty poetry, he was also master of the catchphrase. Millions of Americans voted as much for Obama's soundbite as for the man himself - for a single word that pinned his oratory together: "change".

Favreau is now chief speechwriter at the White House. He has a celebrity of his own, because of his youth (he is 28), a TV star girlfriend (Rashida Jones) and the popular image of him dashing off iconic speeches in Starbucks. As Obama's approval ratings have dropped, so has the public's desire to hear the grand campaign rhetoric. The speechwriters have had to adapt to a more challenging political climate (the president's first State of the Union speech, with its focus on jobs, typified this). Shesol, Bill Clinton's former speechwriter, says that the Obama speechwriting operation's success turns on how well its members know "their guy". He describes the importance of being able to sit down with the man, of a "real connection" between writer and speaker. "Writing a speech for someone is in many ways a very intimate act, as you're trying to get inside their head. You've got to have a really good sense of how they think. I think that President Obama absolutely understands this and is deeply invested in the speechwriting process. They all think, as we all thought about Bill Clinton, that the president is the best speechwriter in the room, so it is a real collaboration."

Shesol was plucked by Clinton himself. He had just written Mutual Contempt, a historical analysis of the feud between Lyndon B Johnson and Robert Kennedy. One day, picking up his post, he found a handwritten note from the president congratulating him on the book. He framed it. And then, two weeks later, he got a call from Clinton's chief speechwriter, Michael Waldman. In early 1998, the day after the Monica Lewinsky scandal broke, he was offered a job as speechwriter to the president.

“Of course we weren't really writing the scandal-related speeches," he says. "We were focused on the business of the country; that was our mantra at the time." The White House Office of Speechwriting, under Clinton, consisted of between four and six people. A writer would be assigned to a speech and would call in relevant people from across the White House to feed in content. For the major speeches, they worked in pairs; and for the biggest of all, the State of the Union, it was "all hands on deck". For these, they would be working weeks in advance, drawing together the threads. But there were also the "scramble" moments, familiar to West Wing watchers, where Shesol would "literally run around the West Wing and try to catch people in the hallway to get the information". Throughout, he would discuss progress with the president ("he would often have a very different idea of what he wanted to do") and the team would refine the text until the last moment, Clinton often querying and redrafting on his way to making the speech. Obama's operation works in a similar way, Shesol says, with the president at the heart of the speechwriting process.

That relationship, and the intellectual and physical proximity of the writers to the president, give the White House speechwriting office an extraordinary status. From JFK's Ted Sorensen to George W Bush's Michael Gerson, White House speechwriters have attracted intense curiosity. Gerson - celebrated for giving an inarticulate president a poetic script following 11 September 2001 ("We are here in the middle hour of our grief") - was profiled by Bob Woodward in the Washington Post, by the New Yorker and by ABC News Nightline ("Up close: Michael Gerson"), among many others.

But Gerson's burgeoning celebrity became too much for one of his colleagues, Matthew Scully, who in September 2007 decided to set the record straight in an 8,000-word article for the Atlantic magazine. Gerson, Scully wrote, gave the impression that he was Bush's confidant and sole author of his words when, in reality, they were a team of three (Scully, Gerson and John McConnell). Scully recalled the trio drafting a State of the Union address in their usual way, hunched around a single computer. Gerson mysteriously disappeared and it later emerged he had gone to Starbucks (where else) with a notepad, tailed by a journalist. "At the precise moment when the State of the Union address was being drafted at the White House by John and me, Mike was off pretending to craft the State of the Union in longhand for the benefit of a reporter."

In the US, the act of speechwriting has gained an almost mythical status. As keepers of the president's words, the speechwriters are at the centre of government and are objects of fascination. It is a little different in Westminster. There are no "speechwriting offices". There is no official Downing Street speechwriting team. Interview requests to Brown's and Cameron's speechwriters (Kirsty McNeill and Clare Foges, respectively, with others contributing) were refused. Others would only speak off the record. They pleaded modesty, the importance of anonymity in their role. But cabinet-level speechwriters who did talk to me depicted not just a low-key approach to speechwriting in Westminster, but an often dysfunctional pro­cess. The minister is frequently completely disengaged from the drafting of a speech. A low-ranking civil servant hands it over at the last minute, and the speech is read out, divorced from the personality of the speaker, because it has not filtered through his or her own mind, or pen. There is none of the collaboration and, as a result, little of the powerful effect.

There are exceptions. Simon Lancaster describes a close working relationship with Johnson, born of their shared love of Elvis Costello. Phil Collins is respectful of Blair, calling him a "first-class writer" and adding that he liked him personally. He shared the sense that Shesol had about Clinton - that his boss was the best speechwriter in the room: "He could easily have done the job himself, and very often did." Typically, Collins would discuss an initial structure with Blair before going away to source his content from officials in Whitehall. He would then present Blair with the meat of the speech, the facts and policy, and Blair would write around these, framing the narrative and sculpting the argument. It wasn't always that way, though. "Sometimes he'd take a speech and write it entirely on his own, usually a one-draft." One example of this was the speech of 18 March 2003, on the eve of the Iraq war. During questioning at the Chilcot inquiry, Alastair Campbell revealed that it was "very much" in the "prime minister's hand", and as a speech it encapsulated Blair's style - powerful rhetoric taking precedence over substance, and fact.

Both writers, Lancaster and Collins, have few kind things to say about Brown's oratory. It's "clause after clause after clause after clause. You never get to the end," Lancaster says. Collins thinks Brown's relentless speechmaking style is a product of his political approach: "He tends to see politics as the art of blocking off options. There will be a bit in the speech that's designed for you to listen to, a bit in the speech designed for me, a bit for the trade unions, a bit for the middle class, a bit for the working class." For the sake of the politics, he sacrifices the speech. "You can't construct any coherent speech like that . . . they have to have a thread and an argument."

Brown's speeches end up being a barrage of lists, facts, achievements, statistics. And announcements. The Prime Minister, says Collins, "feels naked without announcements". Instead of an idea, you have an initiative. The speeches are designed less to inspire, more to impress. Another problem lies in the writing, which he does mostly himself, according to insiders. "Brown writes in the way he speaks," Collins says, "so what you end up with is this incredibly gloomy, saturnine script, delivered by this lugubrious man."

Collins describes how almost anything he wrote for Blair would transform under the prime minister's "lightness of touch" - sometimes unhelpfully, when a subject demanded sincerity. His greatest successes were the jokes, because Blair could tell them so easily. ("At least I don't have to worry about her running off with the bloke next door," quipped Blair about Cherie at the 2006 Labour party conference - one of Collins's gags.) Brown, by contrast, could speak "the lyrics to a John and Edward song and make it sound incredibly serious, weighty and boring".

At the heart of Brown's trip to America in March 2009, his first official trip to visit President Obama in office, was a speech to Congress. It was an opportunity for the beleaguered Prime Minister to shine on the global stage, and the speech was a success. Brown's words carried grand messages of hope, mentioned John F Kennedy, remembered his father ("a minister of the Church") and used the phrase "faith in the future" 12 times.

It was a speech clearly tailored to his audience. Later it emerged that the tailoring hadn't come about by chance - Brown had employed West Wing Writers (co-founded by Shesol) and had paid $7,000 for its help.

The money - indeed, the very existence of such a service - appeared to come as a shock to us in Britain. It exposed the stark differences between the two countries' oratorical cultures. In Washington, speechwriting is a professional undertaking; the speechwriter is a known quantity. Here, the idea that time or money has been spent crafting a politician's presentation arouses suspicion. The realisation that the words are not his own only adds to the sense that they are false.

But Brown clearly needed Shesol's assistance. A British speech in all its "primitive purity" (and a Brown speech in particular) would have made little impression in Washington. He needed to raise its ambition. Partly, Collins says, that is to do with power. "They're more important than we are, and therefore you can get away with bigger subjects in the States."

It is also to do with differences in culture, particularly the potency of religion in the United States, which speakers (King and Obama especially) exploit to rouse crowds, echoing the power of call and response from the pulpit. Brown needed to incorporate these cultural references - faith, a global perspective, a grander sense of one's place in history. But it was also important not to go too far. As Collins observes, a British prime minister trying to mimic the rhetorical flamboyance of Obama "would struggle not to sound preposterous".

The delivery

Collections of speeches fill the shelves in bookshops, packed with Lincoln, Roosevelt, Ken­nedy, Churchill. These are the speeches that stretch beyond their time, or, as Shesol puts it, "transcend". We read them, he says, to learn about their experience, but also to understand our present: "They say something to us now about who we are and what we must do." Missing, however, is the vital part of the speech: the performance.

In the Chicago article on Obama's speech, John Kerry's press secretary describes his delivery: "I remember standing behind him and watching his feet move. It was like he was dancing at the podium. His feet were moving to the rhythm of the speech." Shesol watched Clinton: "You could give him a solid policy speech of 3,000 words and he would not only deliver every one of the words as if they were his own, but he could segue seamlessly off the page, riff off it and then find his way back, such that no one in the audience would have any idea."

Clinton improvised; Obama danced; Cam­eron gave his by heart; Blair could tell a joke. Delivery was all. But, for any performance, the stage matters. In the US, the grand set pieces - the State of the Union and the inaugural address in particular - offer an appropriate platform
for vaulting rhetoric. The House of Commons, some argue, has lost its power as a setting for great oratory. Commons debates, once scrutinised by the media, are often ignored. Speeches to the House pass unnoticed. The one event in parliament that attracts regular attention is Prime Minister's Questions, the weekly scrap between the parties, an event preoccupied by jeering, accusations and point-scoring.

Simon Schama observes the British rhetorical style as being still steeped in the school or university debating society. It is, as he puts it, "the ancient public school boy tradition of classically educated eloquence". But we relish the spectacle of a bunfight in Britain; our politics is built around adversarial conflict. As a result, the set-piece speech is often ignored - reserved nowadays in its grandest form for the party conference, where it is declaimed to the party faithful. We lack a stage.

The effect

Geoffrey Howe - now Lord Howe of Aberavon, who in his time delivered one of parliament's more memorable speeches - meets me at the Peers' Entrance to the House of Lords early one morning in December. We climb up to a tiny, ornate chamber. He says we're lucky to get the room and we spend a minute admiring its elaborate wallpaper and carved wood. Howe speaks in hushed, steady tones and his recollections are those that come from a life lived long (he is 83) - anecdotes fixed in their beginnings, middles and ends. He relishes talking about his speech of 13 November 1990, which precipitated the fall of Margaret Thatcher.

Howe's speech is a good example of Shesol's trinity: the right kind of speech, by the right speaker, at the right moment. He wasn't ever known as a great speaker; it wasn't his natural art (his friend Denis Healey once described an attack by Howe in the Commons as similar to being "savaged by a dead sheep"). Yet the speech itself - the combination of his calm delivery and the quietly murderous content - was perfect. He spoke from a premise of service and loyalty, and the result was like hearing a heart break after years of striving to keep it intact.

Then there was the extended cricket metaphor. Howe had watched Thatcher's speech at the Guildhall the previous day on the television at home. She had referred to her leadership in cricketing terms, defiantly saying that she was still "at the crease, though the bowling has been pretty rough of late". Howe remembers going next door to where his wife and friends were gathered. "I said, 'Did you see the speech?' They said yes. I said, 'I've got quite a good idea from that.'"

Howe turned Thatcher into a cricket captain: "It is rather like sending your opening batsmen to the crease, only for them to find, as the first balls are being bowled, that their bats have been broken before the game by the team captain." The lines became so famous that some time afterwards, as he walked round his local shopping centre in Banbury, a man spotted him and asked: "Is he that chap who attacked MargaretThatcher with a cricket bat?"

Looking back, Howe says that the speech was never intended as a direct challenge to That­cher's leadership, more as a way of expressing his doubts over a particular issue - Europe. He was more concerned, he says, that the speech shouldn't be "a flop, but should make an impact. And I didn't visualise an impact of that kind." His aim with speeches was always just to "get the thing across as it was". He is keen to remind me that he remained friends with Thatcher, that they went to each other's 80th birthday parties. And the speech? "We never discussed that."

Sophie Elmhirst is features editor of the New Statesman

This article first appeared in the 08 February 2010 issue of the New Statesman, Nightmare on Cameron Street