Diplomatic Speech Writing

Back in 1984, as a callow First Secretary I was summoned to the FCO’s Personnel Operations Department. Did I want to be the new speechwriter for Foreign Secretary Sir Geoffrey Howe?

I pointed out that I had never drafted a speech in my life. This detail was brushed aside: ‘No problem – just get on with it’. Which is what I did.

Sir Geoffrey taught me the speechwriter’s craft. As a distinguished lawyer he knew all about words and their subtleties. He insisted that his speeches have real intellectual substance, combining rigorous consistency of argument with as few words as possible.

Back in those prehistoric times – long before word processors and Google – honing a draft speech was laborious. Any 20-minute speech would end up with many short sentences, ideally eight to ten words long. I calculated that by the time the speech was delivered I had spent 20 minutes drafting each short sentence.

One test of a good speech is subsequent media coverage: speechwriters love to see their hard-won phrases reaching a wide audience. These days, armies of spin-doctors are paid to make sure that happens. Sir Geoffrey was the anti-spin-doctor. He was less interested in achieving good press reports of a speech than in tightening the flow of argument until it was perfect. This often meant missing the press deadlines for sending out advance media copies of the speech.

Sir Geoffrey’s 1986 speech about the Global Politics of Food did attract good media interest. He pointed to the paradox that the European Union’s agricultural policies were creating ‘butter mountains’. It made no sense for Western Europe to spend heavily on defence to counter the Soviet threat, while at the same time selling Moscow cheap, subsidised butter.

Poring over the draft speech I coined a catchy phrase for this zany situation: the Diet of Detente. Sir Geoffrey said it made no sense and kept deleting the phrase from my drafts. I thought it worked and kept slipping it back in, including into the final version. Sure enough, that phrase caught the newspapers’ attention.

I was FCO Speechwriter  for two full years. Before leaving the job I wrote the first-ever FCO Guide to Speechwriting, a pamphlet guiding desk-officers through speechwriting basics with ghastly real-life examples of how not to do it. The Guide is
still in use, nearly 25 years later. One key point I made was that speechwriters must not show off their own cleverness, forgetting that any speaker can quickly make a weird impression. I threw away one draft speech written by a distinguished colleague as it had nine clunky classical allusions: St Simon Stylites, Virgil, Avernus, the Vestal Virgins, the Sabine Women, Oedipus, Cassandra, Horace and, last but not least, Cassius.

The first speech any Ambassador makes in her/his own right is the formal address to the Head of State in presenting his or her credentials. Tone is everything. The Head of State will be alert to any nuance suggesting that the new Ambassador represents a national leadership unhappy with the state of bilateral relations.

A fascinating early example of messing this up was given by the youthful Duke of Finland when he arrived as the new Ambassador from the King of Poland to the Court of Queen Elizabeth I. The Ambassador used the occasion to express the unhappiness of the King of Poland at disruption to Poland’s trade caused by disputes between Queen Elizabeth and the King of Spain. The Queen responded angrily in fluent Latin, saying that the Ambassador did not know what he was talking about: ‘How I have been deceived! I was expecting a diplomatic mission, but you have brought me a quarrel! … Never in my life have I heard such audacity. I marvel, indeed I marvel at so great and such unprecedented impertinence in public.’

My own first experience in presenting my credentials passed off more positively. I arrived in post-war Sarajevo late on Friday evening in mid-1996, to be told that President Izetbegovic would receive me the following day. I quickly drafted a short speech containing one bold proposition: that London’s relations with Serbia and Croatia would be shaped by Serbia’s and Croatia’s relations with Bosnia and Herzegovina. That went down well with President Izetbegovic and indeed was picked up by the Sarajevo newspapers.

Let’s be honest. Speeches given by Ambassadors can be bland. Rather than risk any controversy, diplomats retreat into cliché and platitude: ‘friends’ and ‘partners’; ‘dialogue’, ‘cooperation’ and ‘collaboration’; ‘values’, especially if ‘mutual’; outcomes have to be ‘sustainable’, just as talks are invariably ‘open’, preferably leading to ‘commitment’ to ‘work together’ for ‘global solutions’. Zzzzzz.

In 2007, the journal International Political Sociology published a learned analysis by Iver B Neumann on this very subject. He studied speechwriting in the Norwegian Ministry of Foreign Affairs and reached firm conclusions: ‘Speeches are treated first and foremost as instantiations of the ministry… Diplomatic working routines secure invariance by actively relegating innovative moves in order to repeat an already existing form.’

This, I think, is how the academic world describes the phrase ‘steady as you go’.

Why such caution? Well, attempts at diplomatic informality – and especially humour – can backfire. In a speech in 2009, Deborah Jones, US Ambassador to Kuwait, picked up a local joke referring to some women members of the Kuwaiti parliament as ‘cats’. The Ambassador suggested that if women MPs were cats, maybe male MPs were dogs. This was not, ahem, well received.

Some Ambassadors like to share publicly some impressions of their host country at the end of a posting. Earlier this year China’s Ambassador Madame Fu Ying deftly reminded a British audience that other countries have their own ways of doing things. She described China’s unfolding profound process of change: ‘We know we are not perfect, but we also understand that this will be an incremental process; we must explore and forge our own path instead of copying other models. While Westminster Hall roof might be magnificent, it wouldn’t fit all the other buildings in the world.’

In 2003, US Ambassador to India Robert Blackwill made a graceful speech summing up his appreciation of India. He recalled many special moments: ‘Visiting Humayun’s tomb with US Secretary of the Treasury Paul O’Neill who commented that when it was erected those living on my continent had built no structure higher than twenty feet. So you see, we Americans fell behind you Indians very early on in the architectural sweepstakes. It seems doubtful that we will ever catch up.’

These days, London expects British envoys not only to convey key messages privately to their host governments, but also to achieve specific policy objectives. If that means communicating directly with the general public in the country concerned to explain and promote British policy, so be it.

This is a far cry from the situation in communist Yugoslavia in the 1960s, when a press law forbade foreign diplomats from having any communication with the Yugoslav people. An exasperated US Ambassador was told by the smug authorities that this law was intended to stop the Embassy of the Soviet Union spreading anti-Tito propaganda. He did not believe it.

It is one thing to talk to the wider public, quite another to convey messages which an Ambassador knows will be unwelcome in some quarters. Above all, any Ambassador who publicly criticises a host government can expect trouble.

A magnificent example came in 2004 in a speech given in Nairobi by Sir Edward Clay, HM High Commissioner to Kenya. Sir Edward believed that corruption in Kenya had reached unacceptable proportions, and expressed his views on this phenomenon with a striking metaphor:
‘… the practitioners now in government have the arrogance, greed and perhaps a sense of panic to lead them to eat like gluttons. They may expect we shall not see, or will forgive them, a bit of gluttony because they profess to like Oxfam lunches. But they can hardly expect us not to care when their gluttony causes them to vomit all over our shoes.’

This speech attracted the attention of the then Kenyan government. Yet his bold approach paid off, at least insofar as he was not expelled from the country.

In 2007, British High Commissioner to Sri Lanka Dominic Chilcott also annoyed his host government when he made a speech suggesting that many Sri Lanka MPs had been made Minister simply to ‘buy’ their loyalty. He was summoned to the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and warned that such language was unacceptable, to the point of interfering in Sri Lanka’s internal affairs.

My 1987 FCO Speechwriting Guide opened with this quote from the Bible: ‘A word fitly spoken is like apples of gold in pictures of silver’ (Proverbs 25:11)

If I was writing it now, I’d start with the astute words of top US speechwriter Frank Luntz: ‘It’s not what you say – it’s what they hear’


The first speech any Ambassador makes in her/his own right is the formal address to the Head of State. Tone is everything. [They ] will be alert to any nuance suggesting that the new Ambassador represents a national leadership unhappy with the state of bilateral relations.