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People & Ideas

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.

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 comments

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

  1. Gavin Moodie

    I disagree. The issue is not egoism but accurate ascription of authorship.

    The source of ideas and text should be acknowledged in all statements that seek to be taken seriously, whether they be speeches by politicians or anyone else, books, government reports, columns or articles for Crikey.

  2. Trevor

    I can understand Watsons pride in his work and wanting some acknowledgment for what has been recognised as on of the great political speeches of this country. Unfortunately by commenting he has sparked an unedifying spat that we could have done without.

    What he probably should have realised is that people who take an interest in these things would be aware of the author and that it was indeed a collaboration.

    Nothing though will ever take away that it was Keating’s speech.

  3. Socratease

    Shades of Hollywood here, where screen a credit (which attracts residuals) gets down to a union agreed formula of percentages of contribution to the shooting script.

    So, here we go:

    STORY: P Keating
    SCRIPT: D Watson

  4. Harvey Tarvydas

    Dr Harvey M Tarvydas

    Joel Deane you have convinced me, well done.
    Watson gets recognition by publically being acknowledged as Keating’s speech writer.

  5. redroger

    Don Watson should understand how odd it would seem if Keating said “…when I gave Don Watson’s famous speech at Redfern…”. Joel Deane is right – a political speech belongs to the speaker and the speaker, not the speech writer, will reap the consequences of the words.

    This is quite unlike the big playwrights (of whom Shakespeare alone will suffice) who are remembered by name after their most famous leads have long been forgotten.

  6. Joel Brooks

    There’s a pungent smell of irrelevancy permeating this spat. Why can’t old politicos and their minions decompose gracefully?

  7. redroger

    I thought rhetorical questions were excised by the mediator.

  8. kebab shop pizza

    The speaker gives his/her name to the speech by delivering it, so I agree, they own it. After all, they are the ones who cop the credit/flak. The speaker signs off on it as they would the letters that are 100% of the time written by someone else (usually a low level minion). A high level minion is still a minion.

  9. Carolyn Hirsh

    Well said Joel. Both you and Don Watson have plenty of personal writing success. The Redfern speech is Keatings. Don should enjoy the success of his books.

  10. CHRISTOPHER DUNNE

    Well, er…hmmm, yes, you say it in the first sentence: you’ve clearly never met Don Watson.

    Enough said.

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