speech writing and 'the vision thing'

So, what happens when you need to write a speech? For someone else? And your words can help win the day... or lose it? Here are some tips.

by Will Mapplebeck

It's 1987 and then vice president George H.W Bush is starting to think about the possibility of taking over from Ronald Reagan as the occupant of the White House. 

There's an election to get through, but most analysts agree he's a shoo-in for the big job.

Only one problem, he's not sure what his presidency might look like.

Is he ‘Reagan-lite’, or does he have a new vision for the states as it enters the 1990s?

So an advisor tells him it might be a good idea to spend a few days at Camp David coming up with a bigger picture that could define his presidency.

Bush is said to have dismissively replied: 'Oh, the vision thing'.

The lack of that 'vision thing' - a compelling narrative that told America and the World what he believed - has been given as why Bush only lasted one turn before being beaten by Bill Clinton - a man who had buckets of vision and was allowed to portray Bush as an incompetent, ageing administrator.

Bush was actually a highly effective president both at home and abroad, but history sees him as a failure and rather grey, compared to his colourful and media savvy successor. Clinton was the man who grasped the need to paint a picture, portraying himself as the 'man from Hope'.

The Vision Thing is a phrase that's always interested me. I like to look for it in even the dullest statistic. How does this piece of information fit into the big picture, into what we're trying to do for a city, a region or a country?

I like the big picture and I like to put that detail together to sketch a narrative and tell a story.

For me there's no better place to do this than a speech, the most underrated of communications channels.

It is a great way of setting out what you believe, what you're going to do and why the audience needs to get on board.

And it's the simplicity of a speech that I like, no power point, no visuals. Just two sides - the shorter, the better - of A4 featuring a beginning, a middle and an end.

It's also the captive audience. Let's face it, unless you are mind- blowingly bad, people will stay and listen to what you have to say. You'll probably not be interrupted either.

So it's a great chance to get a message across to a targeted audience. An opportunity to persuade and put over some killer lines.

I'm not going to add to the countless literature on speech writing. There's a lot of snake oil out there, but here's a few tips.


  • There are few things more boring than a statistic filled speech cobbled together by a cast of thousands. Try to keep hold of the pen, but listen to advice from the right people.
  • Get to know the person who is speaking. Chat to them first, if you can match their 'voice' you're half way there.
  • Don't do power point. It's for middle manager away days and school presentations.
  • Keep it short. Remember, the greatest political speech in history - made by Lincoln at Gettysburg, was two minutes long.
  • Remember, speeches can easily be recycled into other communication materials. For example press materials and blogs.
  • And finally don't forget the big picture, the 'vision thing'. Once you have that, then everything else will flow. How does what you're saying today fit into the big picture? 


You can see an example of a speech I helped to write for our council leader at a recent Core Cities conference here.

Will Mapplebeck is senior communications manager at Newcastle City Council.

Picture credit