Only when all of us can say what we really think can we hope to effect change says acclaimed speechwriter and ESU Public Speaking Competition judge Simon Lancaster
Simon Lancaster (pictured above) knows a thing or two about public speaking. He has written best-selling books on the subject and is a visiting lecturer at Cambridge University. Most challengingly perhaps, over the last 16 years he has written hundreds of speeches for top politicians and business leaders including the former Home Secretary Alan Johnson and former Cabinet Minister Patricia Hewitt, not to mention the CEOs of HSBC, Unilever and Cadbury.
At first glance then he would appear to be an expert at putting words into other people’s mouths, though he says nothing could be further from the truth. ‘When I started as a speechwriter I fell for the myth that you could shove words in someone’s mouth and act as their “puppeteer”, but I quickly came a cropper!’ he laughs. ‘I would wind up with my 3,000 words dumped in the bin. I learnt the hard way that your job is to write the speech that someone would have written themselves. My own opinions are a block. You measure your success as a speechwriter by how much of what you’ve written someone actually delivers; unless they really believe it, they’re simply not going to say it.’
And that, according to Simon, is the crux of the matter – for him, working out what his clients truly think; and, for the rest of us, figuring out our own views and perspectives and having the courage to voice them. In both cases, certain techniques can come in helpful. ‘I like to look at the metaphors people use,’ he says, ‘that really helps me get inside someone’s mind. But more often, it’s just a case of questioning, taking nothing for granted and keeping on trying to find out more.’
Questioning is of course one of the key skills we teach in our debating and public speaking programmes, and the results of this approach were evident at our recent ESU-Churchill Public Speaking Competition, where Simon was one of the judges. ‘What impressed me most about the finalists was that they all had a unique perspective. Because they hadn’t yet been in the workplace, their minds had not been conditioned. And so they were able to offer fresh thoughts and opinions on the issues that they were talking about, from Trump and climate change to social media.’
It’s a far cry from Westminster, he says, where ‘a lot of people are just following pretty much the same script’. ‘People aren’t actually speaking their truth, they’re not saying what they really believe, they’re just saying what they think people want to hear which is uncontroversial if a thousand people have said it before.’
The problem, he believes is the lack of diversity of opinion. ‘Whether it’s Westminster, The White House or in Europe, the people in power are from similar backgrounds, from similar schools, sat in the same room all nodding along with each other, with no-one to challenge them. We need people from different backgrounds, from state schools, or wherever, who have the know-how to be able to express their own views but also the confidence to challenge other people, no matter how clever they sound, because only then can we have proper reasoning.’
This is a subject close to Simon’s heart. Simon grew up on a council estate to a family where spare cash was hard to come by, but he admits he was ‘one of the lucky kids who got a break’. That break was an assisted place at a local public school at which he thrived. He realises that not all young people get the same chance, and he’s a firm believer that every child who goes to state school should be encouraged to aim high and achieve their full potential, despite the odds being clearly stacked against them.
‘I still think that the message that students at public schools hear is “you’re better than everyone else; you’re the top 0.1%,” which is what gives them the advantage,’ he says. ‘I remember having a moment of enlightenment while I was at the Department for Education and I just saw statistic after statistic that illustrated the almost unbreakable connection between where you’re born, where you go to school, and where you’ll end up in life. All of a sudden I realised there was no lottery, no luck going on, it was all utterly predictable.’
It was a wake-up call, and one of the reasons Simon decided he would do what he could to redress the balance. To this end, he is currently working on a series of pilot workshops for Gresham College, which provides free lectures in the City of London and online, to bring speechwriting and rhetoric into state schools. Much like our Discover Debating programme, this aims to ‘give pupils something which has previously been the preserve of the elite’. His dismay at the situation is also the reason why he was happy to be involved in our Public Speaking Competition. ‘We have to take away all of the “sit down and shut up” conditioning in schools and say “no, you have a voice, let’s hear it!”’
Of course he realises that the problem often comes down to resources. ‘It’s a numbers game,’ he says. ‘A teacher in a private school who has just 20 pupils can easily say, “What do you think? What does everyone think?” And they can have a discussion. “But if it’s 1:35 in a class, then the only way that teacher can manage is basically by keeping everyone quiet. But it’s only by questioning and discussing things that people can work out what they think.’
Role models – ‘people who have broken free from the state system and who have succeeded’ – are therefore all the more important, though Simon knows from experience that they’re not exactly thick on the ground. He remembers with horror his time working for the Department for Education and a particular campaign aimed at destigmatising comprehensive schools. ‘It was such a shocking indictment of the comprehensive system that we could hardly find any celebrities who had been to a comp, apart from those in very wealthy areas such as Holland Park and Hampstead.’
One notable exception is former Labour MP and Home Secretary Alan Johnson, for whom Simon worked and whom he holds up as an inspiration and mentor. We both grew up in Bayswater before Bayswater was posh,’ he says. ‘Alan left school at 15 with one O-Level, something like that, and his first job was stacking shelves in Tesco and yet he managed to make it up to the cabinet. That really opened the door for me to dream big.’ Johnson’s ascent was no doubt helped by the fact that he was an eloquent and effective speaker. ‘As his private secretary, I travelled everywhere with him, watching him deliver speeches in parliament, at select committees and debating on the floor of the house and I just used to watch him speak and think how is he doing it?’
Part of his success was in his delivery, in how he managed to make his speeches seem so informal, in a way; something Simon admires greatly. ‘There are so many problems with the word “speech”,’ he says. ‘When you hear the word you think of Churchill, if Mandela, of Ghandi, and then it’s easy for us, and for kids especially, to think “oh well I’m not Churchill”, or “I’m not a man” and therefore to think “I’m obviously excluded from this world of speeches”.’ The trick he says is to take a leaf out of Richard Branson’s book, a man so nervous about speaking he once vomited backstage, and to think about it simply as a conversation with a friend about something that you care about.
And while many of us may well be cowed by the thought of a speech per se, Simon is excited by the opportunities that social media presents in helping young people from all backgrounds to get their voices heard in other ways. ‘I remember seeing Ishmahil Blagrove talking outside the Grenfell Tower after the fire, and I thought, “Wow, this is up there with some of the best speeches I’ve heard”. He’s had no training in public speaking, he’s just practised – he speaks at Speakers’ Corner I believe – and of course, he’s speaking about something he believes in. He’s speaking his truth. And now it’s gone viral with hundreds of thousands of views and it’s brilliant – he’s making an impact.’
Article first published in Dialogue, Autumn 2017