The real art of spinning: writing an on-message speech for the boss

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The Independent Online

Much has been made of the new American President’s use of Facebook and MySpace to raise more than two million donations and mobilise grass-roots activism, but it’s his speeches that really inspired Obamania and are now proving popular as MP3 and mobile-phone downloads.

Obama owes much to his chief speechwriter, Jon Favreau. A mid-ranking staffer on John Kerry’s 2004 campaign, and at 27, the youngest ever presidential speechwriter, Favreau memorised vast tracts of Obama’s memoir, Dreams from My Father, in order to harmonise his prose with the tone of Obama’s own narrative voice. Indeed, if Obama’s meteoric rise is principally down to his skilled oratory, the man he calls his “mind-reader” might justifiably lay claim to be the most vital member on the White House communications team.

In the UK, it is often the televised speech at conference that can make or break careers. Get it right and it can define your time in office. Margaret Thatcher’s speech at conference in 1980, renowned for the famous line “Turn if you want to, this lady’s not for turning” (written by her speechwriter Ronald Millar), assuaged any doubts within the party that a reversal of counter-inflationary monetary policy was imminent, and is her most quoted sound bite. Conversely, Michael Portillo’s infamous SAS speech at conference in 1995 ensured he was cast as an irrational arms-lover for the rest of his ministerial career, and when Iain Duncan Smith declared at conference in 2003 that “the quiet man is here to stay and he’s turning up the volume”, it gave off a strong whiff of desperation, and he was ousted as leader months later.

Under Tony Blair, the policy wonks and speechwriters in the press office soon became kingmakers. It was Peter Hyman, Blair’s chief speechwriter for more than a decade, who wrote the most memorable section of the re-drafting of Clause IV – “power, wealth and opportunity in the hands of the many and not the few” – and it was also Hyman who was responsible for devising the weekly “grid” of announcements that co-ordinated ministerial speeches. With the advent of 24-hour rolling news and online reporting, news cycles shortened, and Millbank Tower in effect converted into a PR factory. In his memoir, The Spin Doctor’s Diary, Lance Price, director of Labour’s Strategic Communications unit, bridles at the length of one meeting attended by Hyman, Alastair Campbell, and four other ministers, revealing that it “was almost all about whether Tony should be pictured with Westlife”.

The phrase “on message” is a peculiarly modern phenomenon, and originates from central government’s desire to restrict interpretative analysis by the media and the electorate. Familiar government idioms such as “equality’”and “social justice” are often meshed with phrases such as “dynamic marketplace” and “flexible workforce”. Some of it’s impressively inventive: “Social exclusion” regularly does a decent job in standing in for “unemployment” and “failing schools”.

“Ministers were encouraged to repeat mantras like certain sound bites. ‘Hard-working families’ was the most common one,” Price tells The Independent. The impact of sound bites was gauged in the media ahead of a major speech, he says.

So much of course, is about delivery, and speechwriters are only as good as the orators they write for. Blair was a consummate actor, reeling off his lines with a commanding sincerity. In contrast, Gordon Brown doesn’t do empathy. And it’s doubtful he’d be able to pull off a joke about his wife “running off with the bloke next door”, as Blair did at the 2006 conference, without it actually sounding scripted (the joke was actually penned by Blair speechwriter Phil Collins).

Obama shows the way, thanks to Favreau, who might just have had the West Wing theme tune ringing in his ears when he wrote: “The time has come to reaffirm our enduring spirit, to choose our better history, to carry forward that precious gift, that noble idea, passed on from generation to generation: the God-given promise that all are equal, all are free, and all deserve a chance to pursue their full measure of happiness.”

A speech above anything else has to chime with the prevailing political wind. As Blair proved in the early years, and Thatcher after Falklands, where there is a Goldilocks scenario: when politics is being celebrated and approval ratings go through the roof, a memorable sound bite, or a clever turn of phrase, can elevate politics above its everyday certainties. In the good times at least, a speechwriter is writing a soundtrack to a narrative that everyone wants to listen to.

An audience of 1.5 billion is estimated to have watched Obama deliver one of the great political speeches of recent times, a piece of towering rhetoric crafted by Jon Favreau, who is not merely a speechwriter but a screenwriter, a poet, and, in his own way, a maker of history.