Journalism in the service of society

The Speechwriter, speechwriting and the need for professionalism

“Speechwriters must be aware and sensitive to these and come up with a package which will satisfy the greatest number. “

ANOTHER administrative cycle kicked off on 29th May 2023 all through Nigeria. Several new faces will emerge to replace old faces which have either been pernicious or good for ordinary citizens of Nigeria. For the moment the controversial ones such as Lai Mohammed will withdraw, or at least we hope he will, for some of these persons cannot survive without being at the front of cameras.

One of the areas Nigerians pay minor attention to has been speeches presented at various fora by political office holders. Few Nigerians realize and appreciate the power of speeches in public administration. Such lines as “Ask not what your country can do for you – ask what you can do for your country” by United States President John F. Kennedy on his Inauguration on 20th January 1961 set the tone for his presidency but has continued to find relevance all over the world today. 

Professionals handle speechwriting in developed countries given the sensitive nature of public speeches. Although people know a speech may be a case of hand of Esau but voice of Jacob, the presenter or the person whose name appears on the speech takes the credit where the speech turns out well or call it the debit or knocks in the case of a bad speech. For this reason the ‘owner’ of a speech has to read, accept, and own what has been written.  The professionals may be full time employees or consultants and age of the speechwriter has little significance in the art. 

Although a celebrated public speaker, President Barack Obama recruited a youth to work with him in his Senate office. The young man, Jonathan Favreau, recommended by a former Presidential candidate Mr. John Kerry later joined the Obama campaign organization and became the Director of Speechwriting between 2009 and 2013. At the tender age of twenty seven he anchored Obama’s  Inaugural Speech critical to generate hope for a country which faced the Great Recession, a near equivalent of the Great Depression of the 1930s. An average of 800, 000 jobs were lost per month as President George W. Bush’s tenure wound down. Businesses closed down about every minute, America’s international image stood at its lowest point in history, and no one knew what would happen next. Permit me to take a quote from the 20th January 2009 edition of The Guardian in an article by Ed Pilkington.

“The inaugural speech (of President Obama) has shuttled between them [Obama and Favreau] four or five times, following an initial hour-long meeting in which the President-elect spoke about his vision for the address, and Favreau took notes on his computer. Favreau then went away and spent weeks on research. His team interviewed historians and speechwriters, studied periods of crises, and listened to past inaugural orations. When ready, he took up residence in a Starbucks in Washington and wrote the first draft.”

The ingredients of the successful speech included the vision of the President, research by the speechwriter’s team, consultation with several people, sustained input by the President, and a draft copy to the President. Obama’s speech faced the truth but gave limitless hope to the American people. Who knows the role the speech played which has made the The Economist to designate Barack Obama  as America’s best President in history (the research announced Donald Trump as America’s worst). 

Imagine few lines of the Inaugural Speech scripted by a youth Obama described as his mind reader: “On this day, we come to proclaim an end to the petty grievances and false promises, the recriminations and worn out dogmas that for far too long have strangled our politics …Today I say to you that the challenges we face are real. They are serious and they are many. They will not be met easily or in a short span of time. But know this, America – they will be met! On this day, we gather because we have chosen hope over fear, unity of purpose over conflict and discord …” 

The speechwriter to Nigeria’s current President must have been schooled by youths of the post-Solomonic administration. The writer told citizens in simple words, brace for harder times and regard the hardship of the immediate past administration as child’s play or toss for start. To tell Nigerians in an inaugural address to accept the pain of subsidy removal spoke volumes of the orientation of the person of the President and the direction of his presidency.

President Joseph Biden during his Inauguration borrowed a sentence from former President Bill Clinton a fellow Democrat.  The sentence, “We shall not lead by example of our power but by the power of our example” told Americans and the world the direction of the President and the thrust for soft rather than hard power. On the flip side Donald Trump trumpeted the phrase, “America first” in his inaugural address and used it without let or hindrance all through his tenure.  He employed strong arm tactics throughout his four years and attempted to dislocate every good thing Barack Obama did but failed and in the days ahead may end in prison. President Biden’s speechwriter for the Inaugural bears the name Vinay Reddy, a naturalized Indian. President Tinubu should look for the best hands for hyper sensitive roles despite the need to reward folks from his Yoruba tribe. If President Tinubu’s speechwriter had quoted JFK as a prelude to the terrible ‘era of subsidy is gone’ it would have reduced the angst of citizens. 

And who would want to ignore what some people regard as one of the greatest speeches of all time which resulted from the “March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom” by the Reverend Martin Luther King Jr. on August 28, 1963? History believes the phrase “I have a dream” took center stage when a songstress Mahalia Jackson shouted from the crowd to King, “Tell them about the dream, Martin!” The Reverend King abandoned the written speech and with a vibrating voice reeled out the eternal words which changed America, “I have a dream.” The speech took place outside the conventional soap box but it hit more and earned a place in history.

In general, readers and listeners pick things or lines or phrases which are of particular interest to them. Speechwriters must be aware and sensitive to these and come up with a package which will satisfy the greatest number. Extra sensitive issues should be handled with extra care or avoided if possible. For instance in a country where electricity should play a pivotal role as driver of socio-economic development, the place of gasoline (petrol) becomes key and in fact overwhelming. Several drycleaners use generators to iron clothes as hairdressers, radio/television technicians, mobile phone repairers, welders, barbers, and several others at the micro, sole proprietor level do. Where the multi-state electricity distribution companies are more excited about office-generated bills than provision of service, small generators and by extension gasoline become indispensable. The Buhari administration should have graduated the withdrawal of subsidy which begs the question, why did it hold back for eight years and leave the burden for a new administration? Nigerians may want to see a sleight of hand in it. 

Imagine if the President spoke to Nigerians about the most sensitive and far-reaching aspect of national life this way – fellow Nigerians we know you have suffered from shortage of gasoline which you need for almost every aspect of life. But our economy has groaned under the weight of subsidy for decades which have stifled growth of several sectors. We are aware of the provision made for subsidy till June this year but we assure you we shall do our best to ensure easier life for everyone because Nigerians elected us into office to make life easier for them. We are glad the Dangote refinery has been commissioned. This will have strong impact because cost of freight and handling which arise from imported petroleum products will be reduced. We shall work with the company and distributors to ensure end of shortages.

Although the government knows by July 2023 little will be done Nigerians would at least have hope. The President would have avoided lies but instilled hope in a people battered by the economic missteps of the immediate past administration epitomized by the last blow – the currency change policy.

The speechwriter rather decided to tell Nigerians the government will take the bull by the horns, tell the truth all the time, and act with best practices in mind whether half of the population starve or pass on. Few hours after the ‘tear-rubber’ President went to Aso Rock we believe for the post-inauguration party, filling stations were shuttered while the alternative market (black or red) sold one liter of gasoline at ₦1,000.00. It marked the first misstep of the speechwriter to the new President. One will say the President should have read it but in any system while the Chief Executive Officer takes the knocks for every wrong act, the direct persons in charge have to be identified and highlighted. If the President insisted and in the future insists on acts against the good conscience of his staff, such person(s) should take the path of honor. Today the young Jon Favreau and his successor Cody Keegan continue to receive accolades for their services as speechwriters to President Obama. Jon Favreau received an honorary doctorate degree from College of the Holy Cross and TIME magazine listed him as one of the 100 most influential people in the world in 2009. Accolades are rewards and should result from duty soaked in due diligence, risk taking, and responsibility.

President Tinubu’s Inaugural Speech if it were in developed countries would have been subjected to intense study and analyses from dozens of angles. This informs the need for speechwriters to take the speeches of public officers with utmost seriousness.  Among several angles speeches reveal the thinking and direction of the office holders, their policy thrusts, and their personal orientations. Some speeches have marred office holders while some have gone into history books – the positive pages – for posterity.

However, Nigerians should show some measure of sympathy to the speechwriter based on the memorandum from NNPC Limited.  Gasoline prices went up by 184% from 31st May 2023. The immediate past government should be regarded as wicked to the extreme. This should have been done in the past eight years. To plant a time bomb to detonate two days into the life of a new administration leaves much to be desired. The Nigeria Labour Congress has signaled intention to go on nationwide strike from 7th June 2023 but as I wrote in an earlier post, workers’ unions have no business with pricing of petroleum products. Gasoline price has gone up close to 200% and other items will follow but pensioners live on fixed incomes while retirees wait for fourteen months to be paid anything. Such should occupy TUC and NLC rather than price of gasoline. 

All the same to have included the dark line of total withdrawal of subsidy in the Inaugural Speech has no justification. Such should have come up after the President sits on two buttocks (post-validation by the Presidential Election Petitions Court) and during presentation of the supplementary budget to the National Assembly. At this moment most Nigerians will lose confidence in the new government and may regard it as one which will increase burdens the way Rehoboam the son of Solomon did in his inaugural speech. 

We have read and listened to some spirited defences of the policy by Nigerians who look forward to slots in the massive group of cake sharers.  They have used their crystal balls and have seen private bright futures of luxury cars, xanadus at Banana Island and abroad, birthday parties in Dubai for themselves and their mothers, among many goodies. Nigeria as usual will have no place in their dreams after all the leader gave them the mantra of the administration – emi lokan

Comments are closed.

Naija Times