This time last year, I couldn’t quite believe my eyes. I had got to know Liz Truss before she became an MP.
And now she was about to become Prime Minister.
We shared a secret. Back then, I’d started working as a professional speechwriter and she asked me how to improve her public speaking.
I advised her to attend Toastmasters International, a terribly unhip American self-help group which helped people overcome their fear of public speaking.
To her credit, she went and did the basic qualification. It involved going to long meetings upstairs in pubs on dark wintery evenings and giving speeches, impromptu and prepared, and then submitting oneself to evaluation by fellow members.
I like to tell people that Liz’s election as PM was a significant moment. Unlike doing debating at a private school, signing up to the Oxford Union or taking the Bar, joining Toastmasters is open to everyone.
There’s no excuse.
Liz may not be a great public speaker, but she was good enough. And she had the humility to see she had to work at her speaking.
If we want to have the concept of a ‘professional politician’, there needs to be a county circuit where they learn to become Test calibre.
If we want lively adversarial debate in the House of Commons, we’ve got to agree that the ability to stand up and move a live audience of over 500 people without notes is the absolute basic qualification for anyone who wants to become a Member of Parliament.
Last weekend I went to my first political meeting for years: the Academy of Ideas Festival in Church House.
It was uplifting to hear Lord Frost, Tim Montgomerie and Freddie Sayers make the case for populism in front of a live audience.
It underlined to me that digital politics doesn’t work.
It’s got to be done in the here and now, on a pitch, with opportunities for the audience to challenge or agree. That way all kinds of unexpected energy is released.
My Toastmasters experience gave me a career. I trained as a journalist, but four years of making speeches at clubs taught me what looks great on the page, usually falls flat in the room. That insight gave me the confidence to advertise my services as a speechwriter.
In 2008 I was invited to a conference of speechwriters in America. I’d never met another speechwriter in person before that. I was suddenly in the company of over 200 in the Mayflower Hotel in Washington.
I was struck by the way the American speakers didn’t talk about the substance of politics, but how it was done. How emotion was important, why storytelling was important and how to use memorable images to motivate your audience.
I’d never heard a British political commentator speak like that. The delegates asked me whether there were any conferences for speechwriters in Europe. I said I’d never heard of any.
I set to work creating a conference in the UK. By my second conference, I realised I had a market, but not among British speechwriters, (even though we have many brilliant exponents of the craft, usually living in provincial obscurity).
No, the market was speechwriters in international institutions and foreign Governments. You see the Dutch speechwriters, for example, will write in Dutch and English, and they look to us or the White House as models.
We’ve now had 22 conferences over 14 years. We have an annual three-day get-together in an Oxford or Cambridge college. We invite speechwriters from all over the world. You can watch a former university professor talk about what we can learn from the Gettysburg Address here.
Working politicians seem to have absolutely no interest in what we do. Ironically that underlines our value.
They live such busy lives, overwhelmed by meetings and responsibilities, they need someone back at base to research the organisations they have to speak to, to craft some meaningful comments and to read the occasional book.
I was heartened by Keir Starmer’s announcement to teach ‘oracy’ this year. It inspired us to organise a speechwriters’ conference which is accessible to people not working as professional speechwriters.
But to me oracy is just a rather poor reinvention of the ancient art of rhetoric, which used to be at the heart of the curriculum.
We threw out Classics. And now we’ve lost many of the basic skills that are not just necessary for MPs, but everyone in public life: the ability to consider arguments on both sides of the question, to arrange those arguments using appropriate language, then memorise those arguments and having the physical presence to deliver them powerfully in a speech.
The late Labour MP Tony Banks once said, ‘You go into politics to solve people’s problems. Then you realise you can’t solve them.’
Politicians devote huge amounts of time to policy: but the true value of their trade is finding language to connect with people. The great literary model, Shakespeare’s Henry V, mixed humility with poetry.
We need to inspire people to see problems differently and to persuade them to make their own efforts to shape a better world. We must hope that the next generation of leaders will be better at this.
The London Brilliant Communicators’ conference is on Saturday 18 November at Westbourne Baptist Church in Bayswater, London. Tickets are available here.