A write up of what went down at ESN Cambridge

Last week Cambridge hosted what was the largest gathering of speechwriters Europe has ever seen. Traveling from all over world speechwriters came to King’s College for a two and a half day conference which was organised by the European Speechwriter Network.

As well as attracting the largest number of delegates the conference also attracted the best line up of speakers I’ve ever seen at such a gathering. On the first day delegates could choose from one of three day long training workshops. One of the workshops was delivered by Lindsay Hayes who worked on two US Presidential campaigns writing for Sarah Palin. The second option was to learn about the mysteries of the metonymy with Martha Leyton and Martin Shovel from creativity works. I went on the third workshop which was called ‘Speeches with impact’ and was delivered by Renée Broekmeulen. Renée is well known for having trained most of the speechwriters in the Netherlands and following my recent visit to The Hague I was curious to find out why all of my Dutch colleagues were just so good. Well, let’s just say I found out!

The first day of the conference opened with three Prime Ministerial Speechwriters. Jessica Cunniffe spoke about what it was like to work with David Cameron in No. 10 Downing Street. We then heard from Anders Thor who spoke about his experience writing for the Swedish Prime Minister following a devastating terrorist attack in Stockholm. The third was Jan Walravens who spoke about how he ended up writing for the Prime Minister of the Netherlands.

As Speechwriters we often have to offer an instant response to a recent development leaving us with little to no time to prepare. To help deal with that the next speaker (Kelly Agathos from the European Commission) spoke about what Speechwriters can learn from improvisational theatre. In improvisational theatre a performance doesn’t have to be perfect, it just has to keep going. As part of her talk Kelly even gave us a little performance along with her colleague Ben.

Next up was Mette Pedersen from the Danish Agriculture and Food Council who spoke to us about how speechwriters can work to improve their relationship with their speaker, something which can be very beneficial for teh speechwriting process.

We then heard from Pacelle van Goethem who spoke about her research into the psychology behind charisma and persuasion. Pacelle’s talk got many of us thinking, where does charisma come from? Does it come from the speaker? Does it come from the words we write for them? Or is it a combination of the two? Whenever I write for a speaker I have to take into account their natural charisma and from that I have to estimate how charismatic I can get with my writing.

Next up was Rabbi Shais Taub. At most conferences there is always a religious speaker and Shais was probably the best we’ve ever had. He got our attention at the beginning of his speech with a humorous opening and then when he had his audience hooked he went straight into the heavy theory behind parables in speeches.

After the first day of talks we had a wonderful banquet dinner in King’s College’s magnificent dining hall. As well as the dinner we had an after dinner speaking contest in which delegates had to write a short speech using random words which were selected earlier throughout the day. While it can be good fun it is also a very difficult exercise. Unfortunately I wasn’t able to enter this year as I was chairing the conference. Though this was my winning entry from last year!

On the final day of the conference we heard from Professor Alan Finlayson. Alan is a Professor at the University of East Anglia and a key figure in the Network of Oratory and Politics which is one of the driving forces behind the academic revival of rhetoric. Having myself studied at the Centre for Oratory and Rhetoric I was particularly interested in Alan’s views on what Speechwriters need to know about their role in the political system.

We then heard a brilliant talk by Jeremy Gardner about the linguistic future of the European Union. Jeremy spoke about what the role of English will be in the European Parliament following Brexit. He argued that as English is the second language of most of the other EU nation states it will likely remain the main spoken language of the EU. He also noted that Ireland wouldn’t let it go without a fight!

The closing keynote was inspirational from the outset. Stephen Krupin who used to write speeches for Barack Obama as well as John Kerry wowed us with his tales from the White House. Stephen provided us with a strong finish to what was an absolutely wonderful conference.

It was an honour to chair such a prestigious conference and a real pleasure to meet all of the speakers and delegates. Since everyone left Cambridge has felt a lot quieter…

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