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Aug 27, 2010

Hey Watson, first rule of speechwriting: the words aren't yours

When I read Don Watson’s comments about the Redfern speech my overwhelming feeling was embarrassment, writes speechwriter, poet and novelist Joel Deane.

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As part of our 15th birthday celebrations, we’ve trawled through the archives to bring you some of the best, weirdest and most salacious articles published on Crikey since our launch on February 14, 2000.

*This article was originally published on August 27, 2010.

I’ve never met Don Watson, but I like him. Like his books. Like his essays. Like his George Orwell-like pronouncements on the death of public language. Watson’s a public man of letters, which, in this post-literary period, makes him a rare bird, and therefore worthy of serious attention.

What I don’t like is the way in which, Galah-like, Watson has been seen squawking for public attention this week at the expense of his old boss, Paul Keating.

In case you missed the story, it was announced that Keating’s landmark speech on Reconciliation, delivered at Redfern in 1992, had been added to the National Film and Sound Archive’s collection of national significance.

The day of the announcement Watson was asked about the speech and, in a nutshell, claimed the speech as his; that he had authored it and Keating had delivered it word for word. Watson added that Keating deserved credit for having the courage and conviction to deliver the speech holus bolus.

Unsurprisingly, Keating came out swinging, sledging Watson for claiming authorship and claiming the speech as his because Watson was giving voice to his sentiments.

Some commentators — such as a fellow speechwriter Denis Glover — have made the fair call that both men deserve credit for the Redfern speech.

As for me, when I read Watson’s comments my overwhelming feeling was embarrassment.

What I was embarrassed by was an unseemly outbreak of authorial hubris.

Judging by his reported comments, Watson seems to have forgotten the first rule of speechwriting: the words you write are not yours, they belong to the speechmaker. That’s part of the deal when you sign on to be a speechwriter for a politician.

As a speechwriter, your job is to find, then write in, the voice of the person who delivers the speech. Your job is to hunt down their beliefs, convictions and ideas, then write a story that makes that person sound like an amplified version of his or herself.

In my experience, the speechwriter should share similar beliefs and convictions as the speechmaker, because they are then able to write with greater verve and passion.

Having read the Redfern speech — not to mention other Keating speeches such as the Unknown Soldier speech — it’s obvious that Watson was a brilliant match for his boss.

He wrote fabulous speeches that clarified and amplified Keating’s pungent message.

No doubt, he shared many of Keating’s beliefs and convictions.

Here’s the rub, though. A speech is not what is written by the speechwriter. A speech is spoken word.

What am I saying? That without Keating’s platform and performance there was no Redfern speech. The speech is what Keating did on that day, in that place. What Watson wrote is just words.

Or, as one politician is fond of telling me, it’s all in the delivery.

Don’t get me wrong, speechwriters are not word processing machines. They are required to give much of themselves to the speeches they write. But the point of the process is not authorial kudos, but political progress.

The reason I worked as a political speechwriter for five years was that I thought it the best way I could make a contribution to the progress of a set of beliefs and convictions I shared with Steve Bracks and John Brumby.

Yes, there are some speeches I wrote that I am proud of, but the only reason I was able to write what I wrote was because of the platform created by the leaders for whom I worked. Bracks or Brumby stood at a lectern before a room of strangers and gave those words life.

That’s why when you sign on as a speechwriter, you have to leave your ego at the door.

The trouble with Don Watson is that he seems to have forgotten that lesson.

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34 thoughts on “Hey Watson, first rule of speechwriting: the words aren’t yours

  1. freecountry

    Paul Keating seems to have been content for years to let others take the credit for his achievements. Howard reaped the success of his economic reforms while adding a few of his own. Keating became best remembered for his colourful insults and a recession some RBA directors had to have, for reasons they’ve never really explained.

    It seems as if Keating always had an optimistic faith that these things would come out in the wash. That over time, historians and contemporaries would set the record straight. A few have done so, notably economics journalist David Love, whose entertaining book on Keating’s “golden circle” to sustainable wealth makes it unsurprising that Australia weathered the 2008-9 crisis so much better than its peers. Another achievement credited entirely to the government on duty at the time.

    When Blanche D’Alpuget’s book and its soap-opera TV show cast him as a villainous thug, enough was enough. It seems to have finally dawned on Keating that there was to be no valediction for him, no setting of the record to rights, unless he did it himself.

    What did Don Watson think – that a man who’d been all but stripped of his rightful place in history wouldn’t mind relinquishing one more piece of himself, the inspiration for his greatest speech?

    It’s one of the saddest cases of tall poppy syndrome in modern Australian history, when a Prime Minister who did at least as much as any person still living to set Donald Horne’s stale, provincial “lucky country” on the road to world-class success, is left all alone to stand up for his own reputation.

    Saying a simple thank you isn’t really one of our strong points, is it.

  2. freecountry

    STIOFAN, it’s section 36(6) of the Copyright Act 1968:
    [Where a literary, dramatic or artistic work to which neither of the last two preceding subsections applies, or a musical work, is made by the author in pursuance of the terms of his or her employment by another person under a contract of service or apprenticeship, that other person is the owner of any copyright subsisting in the work by virtue of this Part.]
    And Keating was a very demanding employer. David Love’s book quotes former Treasury officer Ted Evans, who wrote some of the explanations of economic proposals that Keating took to the Labor caucus:
    [“He (Paul Keating) sent my paper back and said, ‘I don’t fully understand this myself. I know my audience, and I know this won’t go over with caucus. Try again’. I sent a second minute and he sent that back. On the third try he was happy. But he sat down and wrote it out long hand into his own words. When he went to the caucus he took me along to sit in the background. And as I listened to him present it I thought to myself, I could not have hit the mark as nicely as he did. I saw immediately what he meant by knowing his audience.”]
    Watson’s fair claim to brilliance is that he understood exactly what Keating meant – no need to send it back for a rewrite – and he and Keating between them turned those thoughts into something close to poetry.

    Isn’t that enough? Couldn’t Watson be satisfied with that?

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