On a chilly November evening in 2011, Poland’s foreign minister, Radoslaw Sikorski, stood before the German Society of Foreign Affairs in Berlin and delivered one of the best speeches of his career.
At the time, the eurozone appeared on the brink of an existential crisis. Sikorski, no stranger to controversy, ventured an idea his more staid colleagues never would have dreamed of suggesting. He called upon Germany, Poland’s traditional antagonist, to awaken from its slumber and lead Europe out of decline. “There is nothing inevitable about Europe’s decline,” Sikorski said:
But we are standing on the edge of a precipice. This is the scariest moment of my ministerial life but therefore also the most sublime. I demand of Germany that, for your own sake and for ours, you help [the eurozone] survive and prosper. You know full well that nobody else can do it. I will probably be the first Polish foreign minister in history to say so, but here it is: I fear German power less than I am beginning to fear German inactivity.
The speech made headlines around the world. The Financial Times newspaper ran excerpts as an op-ed article, and Edward Lucas, an editor with the Economist magazine and one of the foremost experts on Central and Eastern Europe, went even so far as to say that it “marked a crucial turning point in European history.”
What was it that made Sikorski’s speech so impactful? John Richardson, a senior fellow with the German Marshall Fund in Brussels, explained it in these words: “This was the speech of a politician who knows his history, does not want to repeat its mistakes, and has the strength and the clarity of mind to formulate a convincing message of hope for the future based on mutual trust between the European nations, which the crisis has so far called into question.”
But there was more to it than this. As Richardson pointed out, Sikorski’s speech also displayed something painfully absent amid the deepening troubles crippling the eurozone: it was “a demonstration of authority, personality, and charisma.” In other words, it showed leadership.
Leadership is at the heart of effective speechwriting, and it is the subject of this book. The reader should not be surprised to learn that Sikorski, in crafting his speech, consulted Charles Crawford, a fellow Oxonian and Britain’s former ambassador to Poland (2003-07), on matters of style. While Crawford is quick to acknowledge that the final speech was “very much Sikorski’s own work,” it is clear that the principles it embodies and exemplifies are those described in the pages that follow.
Crawford himself is no stranger to an unconventional but highly effective diplomatic style. During his tenure as Britain’s ambassador to Belgrade, for example, he once borrowed a kangaroo to enliven a commercial reception. But he is also an accomplished master who understands that the key to good speechwriting for leaders lies in a simple maxim—that it is “not what the speaker says, but what the audience hears” that matters.
This book belongs to a long and rich tradition. From the earliest beginnings of civilization, humankind has placed a high value on public speaking. At first learned by practice and example, the art of public speaking (oratory, as the ancients called it) emerged and flourished as a formal discipline in classical Greece as early as Homer in the eighth century B.C. But it was not until the fifth century that the craft of speechwriting began to develop, possibly after Antiphon, an Athenian statesman and one of the ten Attic orators, started writing out speeches for others to memorize and deliver. Since then, countless books on rhetoric have been written to help guide public speakers (and writers) in finding the most effective ways to express themselves and persuade or motivate their audience.
The present work differs from the long list of academic books on the subject. In the first place, it is not simply another guide to rhetorical devices, dryly rehearsing the patterns and figures of speech identified and studied by the Greeks and Romans. This should be evident from the general title Crawford chose for the book: Speeches for Leaders. “Leader” is the operative word, and Crawford examines “how speechwriters help leaders convey (or fail to convey) engaging, memorable messages, and to avoid mistakes that sometimes can be very subtle.” Crawford illustrates his theme with examples drawn from personal experience, and by observations sharpened by three decades in the practice of diplomacy and high-level public speaking.
In the second place, this book was written with a view to trends in the new millennium toward brevity, personal interchange, and global connectedness. It explores the new challenges (and opportunities) for public speakers that have emerged with the advent of Twitter and social media networking.
The result is a lively, shrewd, and, above all, engrossing practical guide to speechwriting for today’s top-level leaders in all fields—from politics and diplomacy to business and academia. This book is based on the first guide to speechwriting prepared for internal use in the British Foreign and Commonwealth Office. That guide, of course, was authored by Charles Crawford in the late 1980s. Also for the first time, this book makes public numerous Foreign Office cables, obtained under the U.K. Freedom of Information Act, which not only help to illustrate the book’s theme but also shed light on Western diplomacy in Eastern Europe after the Cold War.
It is with pleasure that Diplomatic Courier is able to present to you with Speeches for Leaders as part of its diplomatic books series. While this short volume is intended to reward those who read it from start to finish, it is also designed to be used as a reference afterwards. We hope you find the pages that follow as helpful and enjoyable as we do.