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Stephen Krupin talks to us about his
time in the Obama administration
1 BOOK REVIEW by Alan Barker

Do You Talk Funny?

Seven Comedy Habits to Become a Better (and Funnier) Public Speaker

David Nihill, BenBella Books, 2016

W ell, I don’t know. For decades, I – and

a thousand trainers like me – have
warned presenters to avoid the Bermuda
Nihill also realises that, to talk funny, we
need to write funny. Get the structure right.
Put the word the joke hinges on at the end of
Triangle of humour, made all the more the sentence. ‘K’ is a funny sound. So is ‘P’.
treacherous with international audiences ‘L’ and ‘M’ are not. (Compare ‘lingerie’ and
(see under ‘Foreigners, humour, lack of’). ‘pants’.) Above all, ‘levity is brevity’. And
And now, along comes David Nihill to that means working hard at our script. To
suggest that being funny isn’t just desirable, his considerable credit, he never makes the
but downright essential. Did he convince task seem easy.
Above all, he insists on the need to practise.
The first impression was not promising. He “Every chance you get to speak to somebody
begins by offering to refund the price of the … anybody … counts.” He understands
book, but only if I send him a video of my that every presentation is a performance,
miserably unfunny presentation. Seriously? and succeeds or fails by our ability to create
And then, in the very next paragraph, he precisely rehearsed spontaneity. He almost
explains that 10% of the royalties of the completely ignores what obsesses most
book go to a charity treating people with business presenters: ‘content’. He focuses,
extremely unfunny spinal injuries, thus over and over, on how to interact more
topping my incipient resentment with a hefty dollop of guilt. powerfully with the audience, and he demands that we
actually measure those interactions, in terms of laughs per
And that’s before the introduction. minute. He even offers a quantitative analysis of the five
funniest movies and the five most popular TED talks. He
I did, however, grow to like him. Get past the hyperbolic
quotes Steve Martin: “persistence is a great substitute for
similes (easy laughs, these), and you’ll find that Nihill argues
convincingly. Humour lowers the audience’s defences,
making them more receptive to your message. Laughter He is, in short, deadly serious.
releases dopamine, which helps us process and remember
He seems to recognise that his book risks falling between
information. Apparently, even the number of hand gestures
two stools. On one sits the would-be stand-up star; on the
a presenter makes directly correlates to a TED talk’s viewing
other, the actuary preparing a complex insurance strategy
for a corporate client. The first reader needs five minutes of
well sequenced entertainment; the second needs something
The book is packed with practical advice. That’s no tired
quite different. Every successful TED talk includes humour
cliché: his ‘tipliography’ at the end summarises 80 top
and stories; but it also, crucially, includes a compelling idea.
tips from his main chapters, which works out at one every
Nihill doesn’t quite give us what we need to find it. (His story
other page. They’re all more the more impressive for being
about a man taking a vow of silence in a monastery does,
hard won: Nihill taught himself on the stand-up circuit,
however, hint at the functional usefulness of a good joke. I
overcoming a fear of public speaking on the way.
won’t repeat it; you’ll need to buy the book.)
That’s ethos.
In fact, I’d guess that Nihill’s readership falls into four
He gathers his nuggets into a seven-part method. The first categories. 10% will carry it from club to club, squeezing
section – “Start with a Story” – immediately demonstrates every last drop of usefulness from it until the book falls apart
the depth of his insight and the breadth of its application. in their hands. 30% will try and give up, daunted by the
Not all stories, he says, need be funny; but “the more need to persist, and 30% will read with interest but run away
entertaining you can be, the more time you earn from your in fear. But a final 30% of readers will take one look at the
audience to be serious.” Marketing is no longer about the cover, shudder, and turn back to their text-laden slide decks.
stuff you make, but the stories you tell. The same goes for And that’s a pity, because it’s those presenters – the ones who
advocacy or political campaigning. “People don’t buy what misunderstand the purpose of presenting, and continue, in
you do,” he writes, “they buy why you do it.” The most glass-clad towers the world over, to bore their audiences rigid
effective stories reveal something vulnerable, and relatable, – who need this book the most.
about the presenter themselves. Alan Barker



Yes we Cam!
Seven reasons to attend the 16th Speechwriters’ & Business Communicators’ Conference at
King’s College, Cambridge 11-13 April 2018


Unshackled from their speakers, speechwriters tend to

blossom. Since, in most cases, we have no status, power or
influence, we can focus on entertaining each other with our
war stories, insights and humour.

This spring we have a rabbi, a voice coach and an improv

artist, as well as speakers who can offer sensible advice from
the perspective of the White House, the PM’s office and the
European Commission.


Martin Shovel recently described the conference as being like

going back to university, only all the lectures are brilliant.
Photo: Martin Pettitt

US Republican speechwriter, Lindsay Hayes, will be

explaining: How to sleep in your suit, know your sports teams delegates from Portugal, Poland, Germany, Belgium and
and not miss the motorcade. Dutch speechwriting trainer, the Netherlands - all the great centres of Renaissance
Renée Broekmeulen, will be teaching how to write speeches humanism.
that get a message across. And Martin Shovel and Martha
Leyton will be reprising their workshop, The Mystery 6. PROFESSIONAL DEVELOPMENT
of the Metonym - How to write great speeches using the
speechwriting tool most of us have never heard of. Stuck behind a screen week in week out writing speeches?
In Cambridge you get to size up other speechwriters. It’s a
3. KING’S COLLEGE, CAMBRIDGE humbling experience when the Dutch turn out to be more
eloquent in English than the British and the Americans. It’s
You get to stay in a room in King’s College Cambridge. You an inspiring experience to hear how others do overcome the
can swan round the quadrangle and have bacon and eggs for formidable obstacles that inhibit good speeches. Expand
breakfast on superannuated benches. Meanwhile channeling your vocational horizons and refresh your powers of
the spirits of great writers of the past, like John Maynard invention.
Keynes, E M Forster and Rupert Brooke, who all studied at
You can also visit the chapel, from where the annual service
of lessons and carols is broadcast every Christmas. It’s our 16th conference. On
average 40% of our delegates
4. EVERYONE CAN SPEAK have been before. Many
delegates have attended
To get insights into speechwriting, you’ve got to get up and half-a-dozen conferences.
speak yourself from time to time. It helps to experience Someone once described
what your boss goes through. We run an informal speaking us as, ‘gregarious loners’.
contest. Nothing to worry about. You can’t start writing until We are an unusual breed
you have the brief on the Thursday afternoon. Which leads combining a creative
us on to the next feature… imagination with interests
in politics, literature and
5. A BANQUET language.

You get to have a three-course meal with wine in King’s For programme details and ticket information, visit:
College Dining Hall. It’s the sort of thing Renaissance
rhetoricians would have done - share fantastic food and
conversation in glorious surroundings. And we have



The Smartest Soundbites

Jay Heinrichs’ book, How to Argue with a Cat comes out at the beginning of March. We pulled
out the best 10 soundbites from the text.

1 Cats and people alike frequently talk

nonsense. Both often behave illogically. 6 So here is the most useful tool to take
the anger out of a human argument:
But if you know a few tricks, you can switch to the future.
get along with even the most stubborn
and senseless cat or human.
7 Remember, persuasion starts with
agreeability. To get to an agreement,
2 An argument is not about domination.
It’s about getting another person to
at least one of you has to be
make a choice or take an action that
you want.
8 A distracted audience is much harder
to persuade. When you argue with
3 We need to learn from cats. Air your
disagreements with the aim of finding
your cat, you must entertain him.

9 In persuasion, facts and statistics
aren’t terribly important to a cat.
4 When you find yourself in a
disagreement, set your target. Decide
Or to most people for that matter.
Instead, focus on what your audience
what your goal is - what you want to believes and expects.
aim at achieving.

5 The three greatest words in argument:

wait for it.
10 As every cat knows, a dignified
posture wins respect.

Jay Heinrichs will be running a speechwriting workshop in London on Tuesday 27 February 2018.
See our website to register.

Fred Metcalf
Memorial Trophy
Last year, Fred Metcalf, David Frost’s former speechwriter
died. Fred was a keen supporter of the UK Speechwriters’
Guild. He attended three conferences and regaled us with his
one-liners every time.

In his memory we’ve invested in a trophy which will be

awarded to the winner of our informal after-dinner speaking
contest in Cambridge in April.


On how to become a good speaker: “Practise all the time. “The best way to stay awake in an after-dinner speech is
One of the best ways is to put a bunch of marbles in your to give it.”
mouth while you talk. Slowly but surely you take away
a marble. And then, when you’ve lost all your marbles, “Some couples go over their budgets very carefully every
you’re a public speaker.” month, other just go over them.”

“Good ladies, evening and gentlemen… I knew I should “Advice to speakers: if you don’t know what to talk about,
have practised this speech.” talk about three minutes.”



What can we learn about speechwriting

from reading to children?
T he Political Brain by Drew
Westen recommends that a
political narrative should have
a dog like me?” in Room on
the Broom, or “Swishy swashy,
Swishy swashy, Swishy swashy”
the simplicity of a children’s in We’re Going on a Bear Hunt.
story. By day, I write speeches, The alliteration forces me to be
but at bedtime, I read to my more expressive and my son
three-year-old son. I’m often enjoys the dramatic impact of
struck by how the wisdom I the words.
apply in my work also applies
to messages scripted for Lesson: Sonorous phrases
toddlers. repay the hard work that it
takes to create them.
Reading to a child is like
making a speech. You have to RHYME
put some expression into it, to There are dozens of children’s
make it entertaining. It only books that use rhyming
works spoken aloud and it’s couplets or quatrains. Odd
obvious when your audience is Dog Out by Rob Biddulph is
bored. a good example. The rhythm
is something to maintain
CONNECTION the interest of dad, as well as
Whenever I read a story to my son, but if the action is dull,
son, he wants to be physically it doesn’t work. Good rhymes
connected to me. He insists combined with a strong story
on snuggling up before we give the narrative pace and
start. It’s the same when we shape.
watch a DVD on the sofa. If
Lesson: It’s probably a while
I start reading before he’s in “Reading to a child is like making a before corporate speeches can
position, he’ll fidget and not
pay attention. speech. You have to put some expression be delivered in a rap format.
into it, to make it entertaining. It only But why not have rhyming
Lesson: We have to put the political slogans? It proves
audience at ease before we even works spoken aloud and it’s obvious rhythm is as important as
start. when your audience is bored.” content in communication.
There’s an awful lot of shapeless stuff that my son brings Goldilocks and the Three Bears, The Three Billy Goats Gruff,
home from the library. That’s why Julia Donaldson is The Three Little Pigs - stories with three characters can
outstanding. The Gruffalo is an ABC/CBA chiastic structure contain the thesis, antithesis, synthesis structure. The threes
with a twist in the middle leading to satisfying resolution. have stood the test of time.
All my favourites have a simple, signposted, cumulative
structure leading to a resolution. It’s a feature of Cockatoos Lesson: The best storytelling leans heavily on contrasting
by Quentin Blake and The Short-Sighted Giraffe by A H variations.
Lesson: A transparent framework to the narrative keeps the Julia Donaldson’s books make prolific use of transparent
audience interested. An obscure structure can be tedious for structures, alliteration, rhyme and the rule of three. She sells
the reader and the child. millions of books.
ALLITERATION Lesson: The bestselling children’s stories use structure,
What does my son remember from the stories I read? Lines alliteration, rhyme and the rule of three in combination.
like: “Who’s that trip-trapping over my bridge?” in the The How many of these figures can we incorporate into our next
Three Billy Goats Gruff, or, “Is there room on the broom for speech?


5 BOOK REVIEW by Alan Barker

When they go low, we go high: speeches that shape the

world – and why we need them
Philip Collins, 4th Estate, 2017

P hilip Collins’ impressive new book

seems, by its cover, to promise just
another ‘speeches that shaped the world’
And tyranny silences, with catastrophic

anthology. Thankfully, it’s much more Collins develops his thesis into five claims.
interesting: Collins uses his collection of Politics gives voice to the people, promotes
25 speeches to buttress a powerful, and peace over war, speaks nations into being,
passionately argued, polemic. improves the condition of the people, and
tames the worst human instincts. “All of
Liberal democracy relies on vibrant public these virtues,” he writes, “require poetic
speech. But our democracy is in poor shape. political speech,” so he creates five main
“If we want to attend to the good health of sections, illustrated with a clutch of speeches
our democracy,” he writes, “…then we need and bookended with essays elaborating his
to attend to the integrity of the way we speak argument.
about politics.”
These essays are the most engaging
The illness is disillusionment. A recent poll parts of the book: so much so, in fact,
suggests that 38 per cent of British people that they threaten to overshadow the
are inclined to think that “democracy isn’t speeches themselves. Collins’ rhetorical
always the best way to run a country.” This commentaries are insightful but sporadic; I
might not be exactly the cynicism that Collins takes it to be; found myself making a separate collection of his aperçus.
at any rate, he suggests that it arises, in part, from liberal
democracy’s manifold successes. And those successes mean “One of the puzzles of Hitler’s rhetoric,” he writes, “is how
that there’s less to fight for; all too often, political speech has someone whose thinking was so disordered, in every sense
become dull. In fact, he suggests, “most political speeches of that term, could be so effective on the stage.” Rhetoric
today are unnecessary.” itself, maybe, provides the solution: the order he craved
could be constructed only on the podium.
But democracy will always face new conflicts and threats.
“It is the nature of human beings to disagree. Politics is As Collins writes: “the novelty in his rhetoric was to create
the means by which that division is recognised, negotiated a bound community, a Volksgemeinschaft, just by talking
and settled.” That’s why politics demands speech: “it is it into life… This is the trick of the shaman. He has created
in the spoken word that the defence of politics has to be a need and a Weltanshauung and claimed it was what the
conducted.” A speech is a performative act: it enacts the very people thought all along.” Nothing very odd there: this
process of politics. In this argument, rhetoric and politics binding power is what makes any speech successful. Binding
become virtually synonymous. is what rhetoric does. As Collins himself admits, “it is the
pinnacle of what every speaker would like to achieve; for
Disenchantment with politics fosters the illusion that there rhetoric to be true as soon as I say it, and because I say it.”
is an alternative. The current contender is populism, which
Collins condemns but perhaps doesn’t quite pin down. Political truth has to be talked into life. It’s never
It has, he suggests, “the rhetoric of a movement but the transcendent; it always emerges from the clash of arguments.
practice of a cult.” Because “it has no ideological content And, because, as La Rochefoucauld said, “the passions
beyond its resentment of an elite”, it requires a charismatic are the only orators that convince,” Collins argues that
leader to glue it together. If democracy – he quotes his hero democratic politics must rediscover “the principle of hope.”
Camus – is the system for those who know that they don’t That’s why rhetoric matters. We need a “better, more
know everything, the populist always claims to have all the enchanted politics.” The responsible democrat must describe
answers. what has gone awry and find words to speak a better future
into existence. “The spectre of utopia is profound fear; its
Democracy demands patience – “and patience,” he writes, promise is extraordinary hope. The purpose of politics is to
“is usually in short supply. Many distinguished people have contain the fear so that the hope can thrive.”
called for a short cut to utopia.” But, from Plato to Mao,
the politics of the shining path invariably leads to tyranny. Alan Barker



An Interview with Stephen Krupin

Stephen Krupin was a senior speechwriter in the Obama White House. He will be joining us to give an address at the
16th Speechwriters’ & Business Communicators’ Conference at King’s College, Cambridge 11-13 April 2018.

Tell us the story of that African-American president at the site

photo of you with Obama… of the Civil Rights Movement’s defining
This Pete Souza photo was taken on clash, it fulfilled the highest ideal of a
October 20, 2016, not long before the speech: one that can only be given by that
election, en route to Miami. President speaker at that place and moment in time.
Obama was about to give one last It was a moving blend of history, present,
full-throated defence of his signature and future.
health care law and I had the privilege
How did you discover you had a
of working with him on the speech. The
talent for writing speeches?
assignment was particularly meaningful
for me because I’d gotten my start as As an undergraduate studying both
a speechwriter working for the Senate journalism and political science, I
Majority Leader, Harry Reid, and had was fortunate enough to enroll
written about no topic so often as the in a speechwriting course. It struck me
Affordable Care Act while it took as the perfect intersection of the interests
Congress nearly a year to debate, that had drawn me to those fields of
write, and pass it. study: research, history, writing, editing,
storytelling, and advocacy. I don’t know
The evening before the that I immediately had a talent for it, but I do know that I
speech, the president called immediately found it more fun than any other form of
me into the Oval Office writing I’d tried.
to review my draft. On a
separate sheet of paper, he What’s your favourite book?
had thoughtfully outlined a

I’d always learned American history through a mix


detailed argument about how


Pe of textbooks and trivia — broad themes punctuated
the law has made people’s lives Pho with interesting if random details. Then I read Joseph
better — but how we can still improve Ellis’s Founding Brothers, which explores America’s early
upon it if we can summon the good faith to do so. That days by examining the personal relationships between its
night I incorporated his edits into the existing draft and pivotal characters. Ellis connected history with humanity
the following morning collected his next round of hand- through beautiful storytelling – an appealing perspective for
written additions. Toward the end of the flight to Miami, an aspiring political speechwriters.
the president called me into the conference room aboard Air
Force One to discuss the final changes. Are you familiar with any speeches delivered
by European politicians?
How many speechwriters worked with you at
I hear Pericles and Cicero were pretty good on a podium.
the White House?
Vaclav Havel’s 1990 address to the U.S. Congress defined
In addition to our colleagues on the Vice President’s democracy better than most members of that body have
and First Lady’s speechwriting teams, the articulated it. After having wrestled with the challenge of
presidential speechwriting team comprised a chief solving Syria while serving at the State Department, I was
speechwriter, three primarily domestic speechwriters, two impressed by Hilary Benn’s 2015 powerful example of policy
primarily foreign-policy speechwriters, a researcher and and passion in a speech to the House of Commons.
an intern. That would add up to eight, but in truth there
were nine of us; President Obama was far and away the best What’s your tip to young aspiring
speechwriter on staff. speechwriters?
First, writing is rewriting. First drafts and final drafts are
What’s your favourite Obama speech? never the same, so give yourself permission to get it wrong.
His speech on the 50th anniversary of Bloody Sunday, in Second, don’t wait for a speechwriting job or assignment to
Selma, Alabama, took my breath away. (I had no hand in its build your portfolio. Create opportunities to practise your
writing.) America at its best is an imperfect country that is, long-form, persuasive writing, even if those drafts never
as Obama said that day, “not yet finished,” “strong enough to see the light of day. And third, never forget that writing for
be self-critical,” and a nation that we can “remake … to more the ear is a fundamentally different dialect than writing
closely align with our highest ideals.” Delivered by our first for the eye.



What is the European Speechwriter Network?

T he European Speechwriter Network, which includes
the UK Speechwriters’ Guild, is a group of professional
writers who enjoy sharing practical insights into the trade.
The function of language is
threefold: to communicate
thought, volition, and
We do this by meeting at two conferences each year (one emotion.
in the UK and one abroad) and at the occasional speaker
meeting. We also tweet, publish a bi-annual magazine and a Studying the liberal
regular e-newsletter. arts is an intransitive
activity; the effects of
We champion the study of rhetoric: the art of
studying these arts stays
communication. Rhetoric is a great European tradition.
within the individual
While our conferences are in English, we appreciate
and perfects the faculties of
that rhetoric is a feature of all languages. We like to find
the mind and spirit. The study
inspiration in unusual places. Sister Miriam Joseph was an
of liberal arts is like the blooming of a rose; it brings to
American nun and English professor 1898-1982. She wrote
fruition the possibilities of human nature. The utilitarian
a book called The Trivium, from which we can draw three
or servile arts enable one to be a servant - of another
useful quotations to guide us:
person, of the state, of a corporation, or of a business -
and to earn a living. The liberal arts, in contrast, teach
Logic is the art of thinking; grammar, the art of inventing
one how to live; they train the faculties and bring them to
symbols and combining them to express thought;
perfection; they enable a person to rise above his material
and rhetoric, the art of communicating thought from
environment to live an intellectual, a rational, and
one mind to another, the adaptation of language to
therefore a free life in gaining truth.

Membership Options Sign up at OR UKSPEECHWRITERSGUILD.CO.UK

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Keep in touch with what we’re Standard membership is for
doing without committing people who are already working We will allocate you a trainer who will
yourself to full membership. as writers. evaluate five speechwriting assignments over
• E-mail updates with details • E-mail updates with details one year. These can either be speeches that you
of conferences and training of conferences and training do in the course of your work for an employer
sessions sessions or assignments to fulfil for yourself.
• Speechwriting checklist to • A copy of Max Atkinson’s These speeches will be assessed in
use to evaluate your speeches book, Lend Me Your Ears writing by your trainer and you will get
• A copy of Eloquence - A • A copy of Trade Secrets: Jokes, recommendations on how you can improve.
Treasury of Speechwriting stories and quotations for You will also be entitled to a 30-minute phone
Advice desperate speechwriters call after each of your assignments to discuss
• Regular eight-page magazine your work.
The Speechwriter, with tips,
quotations and tricks of the • E-mail updates with details of conferences
trade for the professional and training sessions
speechwriter. (Email us for • A copy of Max Atkinson’s book, Lend Me
some sample copies) Your Ears
EUROPEAN • Discounts on training and • A copy of Trade Secrets: Jokes, stories and
SPEECHWRITER conferences
• Details of in-house jobs
quotations for desperate speechwriters
• Regular eight-page magazine The
NETWORK • Speechwriting checklist to use Speechwriter, with tips, quotations and
Copyright © 2018 European to evaluate your speeches tricks of the trade for the professional
Speechwriter Network. All rights • A copy of Eloquence - A speechwriter.
reserved. Treasury of Speechwriting • Discounts on training and conferences
Advice • Speechwriting checklist to use to evaluate
by Brian Jenner your speeches
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