The role of the speechwriter

Thursday, August 28, 2014
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Interview with James Button

headshot of James Button
James Button

James Button is a writer – a journalist, a political speechwriter for Kevin Rudd, a political memoirist. Here’s a glimpse of what he has to say on the art of speechwriting.

You’ve worked as both a feature writer and speechwriter. What are some of the key differences between the two forms?

The biggest difference between a feature writer and speechwriter is in the point of view. A feature writer tries to weigh up all sides of a story to get to the truth. A speechwriter seeks to win an argument by persuading others of the force of a politician’s case. But even then, the best speeches are founded on truth.

What’s it like when you hear your words coming out of someone else’s mouth?

Well, I worked for Kevin Rudd so it didn’t happen too often; he rewrote most speeches that people wrote for him. But listening to other politicians or public servants use speeches I had written was a satisfying, albeit strange, experience. It’s exciting to think your words can shape the debate.

As a speechwriter, did you ever have to write about something you didn’t believe in? How do you navigate those sort of sensitive situations?

Not really, but I can imagine it would be hard. You might agree to write the occasional uncongenial if you believe in the overall values and direction of your boss. If not, it’s very difficult.

In your book ‘Speechless: A Year in my Father’s Business’ you use your experience as a speechwriter to reflect on the life your father, a former Federal Government minister. Was he what drew you into the political sphere?

I think so. I was brought up to believe that politics mattered, for all its faults and cruelties. Sadly, fewer people believe this to be the case today.

In this age of three word slogans, do you think that the role of the speechwriter is diminishing (or is it more important than ever before)?

It is probably diminishing. Yet speeches remain terribly important. They are not a sound bite on a door step. They give a politician a chance to develop an argument or to show their personality. At their best they’re a mix of the head and heart together.

About James Button

James Button is a former deputy editor and Europe correspondent at ‘The Age’. He has won two Walkley Awards for feature writing. In 2009 and 2010 he wrote speeches for former Prime Minister Kevin Rudd, an experience described in ‘Speechless: A Year in my Father’s Business’. The book was shortlisted for the National Biography Award, National Book Industry Book of the Year and the Walkley Foundation Non-Fiction Book Award. He works at the Grattan Institute.