Chairman of Demos and Chief Speech Writer to Tony Blair speaks with LSST about the art of speech writing
Philip Collins is the chairman of the board of trustees at the independent think tank Demos and a lead writer for The Times. He was the chief speech writer for the prime minister, Tony Blair, and was responsible for writing Blair’s famous last speech as Leader of the Labour Party.
Incontestably, Philip has explored how history’s most notable speeches have worked to intensely shape today’s world. Through his publications and speech writing experiences, it is little wonder why Philip is regarded as one of the best speech writers of modern times for senior politicians and business leaders around the world.
As the academic-society focuses on sound bites, fake news and ‘sloganeering’, LSST’s Deputy CEO, Mr Mohammed Zaidi, and a selection of LSST students add to the debate and body-of-knowledge by questioning Philip about his influential and world-renowned speechwriting work:
1 How did you get into politics and, in turn, speech writing?
Originally I answered an advertisement in The Guardian newspaper from Frank Field MP. I turned up for the interview and we talked about the Anglican church and the prayer book – not exactly what I expected but at least a subject I knew something about. I then had to do a test which involved me writing a speech for Mrs Thatcher – who was Labour’s great enemy at that time. It was a good test because it showed whether or not you were prepared to give credit to your opponents. I came from a Conservative supporting family, so I understood the attraction of Mrs Thatcher. I think there is a good lesson here – try to understand those you disagree with rather than assume they are fools. It got me a job anyway.
2 As Tony Blair’s speech writer, you left Downing Street with your reputation very much intact. Can you single out the one speech you found most challenging to write?
The toughest speech of the year was always the annual party conference speech. It was the longest and the most wide-ranging as the conference speech has to cover all the policy areas and also the political situation. It is the defining speech of the year and there is a lot of attention on it, so it has to be right. The biggest challenge of that speech is to find a theme that unites all the very different areas of policy.
3 Your highly acclaimed booked, When They Go Low, We Go High, focuses on an alluring myriad of hidden gems in speech writing – who would you say is the best speaker in living memory and why?
My own favourite is Martin Luther King’s “I Have A Dream”. The last few minutes are so moving and so beautifully written. A lot of the language comes from the bible and its cadences are really astonishing. Read it out loud for yourself and you will notice how moving it is. It also names a very terrible injustice which was the ill-treatment of black Americans. It does so with passion and dignity and it is one of those speeches that changed the world for the better.
4 It is without doubt that you are well versed in understanding what it is that makes a speech great. Can you summarise this?
I think there are three things. First, you need a clear argument – something definite and emphatic to say. Second, I think you need an important moment. The great speeches are not just fine writing and delivery; they are great words spoken on big topics. Nelson Mandela made many speeches but the one that is best remembered was when he was pleading for his life in court. Then, third, a speech needs to pass the test of time. Many fine speeches are not remembered because the cause for which they spoke fades from the memory. The verdict on what makes a great speech cannot be settled until long after the speech has been made. It has to pass into history first.
5 Do you cringe – shout at the television – when hearing today’s global leaders speak? Are there any politicians you would single out?
I do, sometimes. The dominant personality at the moment is, of course, President Trump. I do not much like his politics but I have to admit he has proved to be an effective communicator. He does have a style and a personality that are all his own and that is one of the attributes that you trying to create when you are turning yourself into a good orator.
6 What are you doing at present?
I am writing speeches for a number of chief executives of big companies and I am preparing the paperback edition of my book on speeches. So I have been reading the speeches of Edmund Burke about the responsibilities of being a member of parliament so that I can add an extra chapter to the book.
7 What motivational advice do you have for our students?
Read. Read words that are beautiful and that you find moving and inspiring. It’s not for me to tell you what they are – you will be moved and inspired by different writers to me. But try to find writers who you love for their language – for how they say what they say as well as what they say. Read as widely as you can because that is the way a writing style forms. Gradually you absorb what you have read and your own style emerges.
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