Philip Collins is a columnist and leader writer for The Times. He is Chair of the board of trustees of the cross party think tank Demos. Before joining The Times he was the chief speech writer for the Prime Minister, Tony Blair, the director of the Social Market Foundation think tank and an equity strategist at two investment banks. Philip joins Deputy Chairman Anthony Julius in conversation to discuss his new book, When They Go Low, We Go High: Speeches that shape the world – and why we need them.
In Conversation with Philip Collins
I am Philip Collins, I am the author of When They Go Low, We Go High, a book about speeches. Interest in speeches comes because I’ve been a speech writer. Mostly for Tony Blair when he was Prime Minister and ever since I got that job I have been fascinated by the practice and the history of political speeches. So, it’s the story of persuasion from ancient Greece through to the present day and that’s a really uplifting story.
A good speech has to be well practiced, it has to be well rehearsed, it has to be well crafted and well written but the really crucial thing that makes a difference between a speech which is remembered and one which is forgotten is what is your cause and is this a big historical moment. The crucial thing, and you can’t manufacture this, is not something you can supply yourself, it is are you talking about a war, are you talking about a huge cause, if you are you’ve got a chance of making it into the history books.
Rhetoric can be a really fine thing, it can tell the story all about justice and about progress but it also has a dark side and we shouldn’t shy away from that. There are some terrible practitioners of rhetoric down the ages who have been very successful. In order to understand it we can then start to understand when it’s turning to that effect.
If you don’t know exactly what you are trying to say then you are not ready to start writing so, if you can’t tell me in one sentence what your speech is about then you don’t know. All the good speeches – I have a dream; their finest hour – they all can be described by their title and that’s no accident, that’s because the writer knew what they were trying to get at. If you don’t have a central idea of something you are trying to get across you’ve no chance of connecting with your audience so the final thing is go all the way back to the start of rhetoric is, work out what it is you are trying to tell me and then tell me.