Speechwriting

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I've always wanted to be a writer.  

The kinds of writing that made my name have not exactly been the stuff of childhood dreams, but hey, it's a living.  

When I first joined the Thai Foreign Ministry in 1992, I had no idea that I would be put to work writing speeches.  Khun Anand Panyarachun was Prime Minister at the time, and one of my first assignments was to write a keynote speech on ASEAN for him to deliver in Singapore.  I didn't have the slightest idea of what made a good speech.  I have a better idea now, but that doesn't make writing the darn things any easier. 

 

What's Here

People are always asking me "What do I need to do to be able to write a good speech?"  I don't claim to be an expert speechwriter, but on this website I hope to share with you what I've learned about writing speeches, most of which can be applied to other kinds of writing. 

What you will also find are speeches or links to speeches, some written by me and some written by others. What you won't find are "insider" stories about keynote speakers.  

Okay, so there aren't that many speeches here yet. Patience! This page is still at the experimental stage. Meanwhile, you might want to check out the very professionally written speeches over at the White House. 
 
 

 

My Personal Favorites

There are some speeches that you are proud of and some that you'd rather see buried in an abandoned mine shaft and forgotten.  I've written my share of forgettable speeches, but there were also a number that I thought were not half bad. 

Here's one on Thai foreign policy. It's a draft, but was delivered pretty much as is by Thai Foreign Minister Surin Pitsuwan. Its advocacy of the idea of "constructive intervention" generated a fair bit of controversy on whether and how ASEAN should adapt itself to the challenges of the 21st century. 

Shortly thereafter, Minister Surin renamed the idea "flexible engagement," to correct the impression that Thailand wanted to do away with the principle of non-interference entirely. He explained the rationale behind the idea in a speech at the Foreign Correspondents Club of Thailand. The opening paragraphs were replaced by extemporaneous remarks, and the draft was used only from the part on "ASEAN Vision 2020" on. The essential ideas remained intact. 

Every so often I also get to write on something interesting but substantively unrelated to the Foreign Ministry. 

In early 1998 I was assigned to write a lecture for former Thai Prime Minister Khun Anand Panyarachun on the occasion of the first anniversary of the Asia-Europe Foundation.  Mr. Anand is, of course, the man who introduced Thailand to the concept of transparency in government. For this occasion, he wanted to speak on what Thailand's economic crisis meant for the country's development strategy. After consultations with the great man himself and brilliant advisors such as former Permanent Secretary for Foreign Affairs Khun Vidhya Vejjajiva and TDRI sage Dr. Ammar Siamwalla, I came up with The Tao of Development: Economic Management and Good Governance in Asia. 

I wrote another speech on development for Khun Anand to give to a conference of South Asian leaders in February 1999. I was especially proud of this one, because he specifically wanted me to write it and called me up himself. 

Less than a week afterwards, he had to give a speech on human resource development. This time, it was a joint effort between my director at the Policy and Planning Division, Khun Sihasak Phuangketkeow, and myself. It was a rush job, but met with Khun Anand's approval.

My latest speech for Khun Anand can be found here. He had very definite ideas on what he wanted to say, so that made things a lot easier, though I had to do a bit of research to fill in my own gaps.

Essays are slightly different from speeches. Usually you don't have start off by thanking people. Here's one on the occasion of the King's 72nd Birthday.

 

Speechwriting Made Easy

Tips for the uninitiated

Did you ever have to sit through a speech that just went on and on without saying anything? 

I call these filler speeches - because they are written to fill an allotted amount of time on the program.  I suppose they are a necessary evil, but since you have a captive audience anyway, why not make the most of the opportunity and say something meaningful? 

The first thing you need to think about before starting to write a speech is: What's the point? 

Often you will find that the speaker does not really have a clear idea of what he wants to say. In that case, put yourself in his shoes and think what your message should be. The idea is to make the speaker look good in the eyes of the audience. One way of doing that is to have a clear message. 

Of course, there are times when the purpose of the speech is merely to create a general atmosphere of goodwill and friendship. In that case the point is to make the darn thing as witty and amusing as you can. 

It goes without saying (this is a phrase to avoid) that humor should be taken in careful doses. Certain audiences or speakers may be more suited to a more somber approach. In such cases, try literary quotes or profound thoughts cribbed from long-dead famous people. Chances are, people will think you're being original.


Here's another tip. Is what you're saying something your audience probably already knows? If so, don't say it.

Or if you must make the point, say it in a new, interesting way. I can't tell you what is interesting or not. You'll have to use your own judgment for that.

It helps, though, if you read a lot, so that you know the ideas floating out there, as well as their strengths and weaknesses.

And just because those ideas are in wide circulation doesn't mean that you have to agree with them. Think for yourself. All you have to do is convince the speaker, and his/her audience, that you're right, or at least on to something.

Remember that a speech is not an academic paper. Don't be pedantic, unless the speaker is of such elevated stature that the audience willingly goes along. But even so, few such speakers will consciously embrace pedantry. What they want is punch, oomph, impact. So keep your sentences short, simple and understandable.

This is not to say that the speech can do away with the standards of good scholarship that your professors knocked into your skull in grad school. On the contrary, since most of your audience will be former grad students themselves, it is even more important to ensure that your speech meets those standards.

Fortunately, since a speech is presented orally and is of limited length (unless, of course, you're writing for Fidel Castro, in which case all the tips here can be safely disregarded), you don't have to present your evidence in exhaustive detail or demonstrate your arguments mathematically. Just make it interesting enough to keep 'em from falling asleep on your watch.

The order in which you present your ideas and arguments is also extremely important. Start with broad brushstrokes, so that the audience has a sense of where you're going, then narrow it down. Or state the question or problem you want to address, then provide an answer. Don't ramble.

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