There’s a vacancy in the Prime Minister’s Office. No, I’m not talking about the big guy himself (you haven’t missed a major bit of news about a Prime Ministerial resignation while you were at the beach). Rather, the resignation that has shaken Ottawa is that of Paul Martin’s speechwriter, Scott Feschuck.

For anyone aspiring to be a Prime Ministerial speechwriter, comedian Rick Mercer offers a few irreverent hints for prospective applicants in a posting on his brand spankin’ new blog:

    If you are applying for the gig you will have to provide a sample speech. Don’t get carried away and attempt to write a Speech from the Throne. A Throne Speech outlines the government’s priorities and its agenda. It’s not the writer’s job to decide the direction that the country is headed. That is sole responsibility of the Director of Communications.

    So, what kind of speech? My advice is to put yourself in the shoes of the people around Paul Martinâe¦ If I was serious about getting the job, in light of the poll results I think the smartest approach would be to craft a short but eloquent concession speech for the Prime Minsterâe¦

For those who are really “serious about getting the job” (or other work as a political speechwriter), more useful advice can be found in a recent article in The Vancouver Courier. Featuring interviews with veteran NDP speechwriter Rob Cottingham (who, in the interests of full disclosure, I should mention also served as the master of ceremonies at my wedding) and a long list of other politicians and speechwriters, the article is a treasure trove of advice for those interested in the craft of political speechwriting.

Rob points out that speechwriters don’t put words into the mouths of politicians. “As a speechwriter, you’ve been told by a person what it is that they want to do — often in very broad terms. But you have a sense going into it what story they want to tell. You’re not scripting them in that sense.” He adds, “You’re not writing for print. And you’re not even writing for TV or radio. Speechwriting has its own rules and deserves its own disciplineâe¦ It has far more to do with writing music than it does with writing an essay. And if you’ve ever had to sit through a speech that was written as an essayâe¦ you’ll know that there actually is a craft to speechwriting.”

In the same article, former Trudeau speechwriter Tim Porteous credits his successful working relationship to “the fact that I knew Pierre so well, that I could picture what he would say.” Still, Porteous warns that the relationship between a politician and a speechwriter can be a tense one:

    The existence of a speechwriter is kind of a rebuke to the politician. Theoretically, the politician should be writing his own material. If he isn’t, it looks like he’s either lazy or incompetentâe¦ Nevertheless, when he stands up in front of an audience, they want to believe they’re hearing him. They don’t want to believe that he’s reading something that’s been written by somebody else. So, there’s a kind of resentment from the audience if they believe the politician didn’t write his own speech. And there’s resentment from the politician himself that he has to rely on a speechwriter.

I’m obviously not in the same league as Cottingham or Porteous (or, for that matter, Mercer), but I have written, delivered and, more importantly, listened to, quite a few political speeches in my day. With that in mind, I’ll offer my own advice to applicants for the position of Prime Ministerial speechwriter. Whoever gets the job as Martin’s new speechwriter will have to remember some basic rules:

  • Clarity is easier to promise than to deliver. It is vitally important to include the phrase “Let me be clear” at least once in every speech, particularly when the Prime Minister is being even more unclear than usual.
  • Hyperbole is a good substitute for action. For example, the more that the Prime Minister seems paralyzed by the thought of actually making a decision, the more important it is that his speeches trumpet phrases such as “transformative change.” Achieving actual transformative change is not your department.
  • Amnesia is helpful. When you write speeches that talk about the importance of avoiding photo opportunities and empty promises, it’s best to forget that Martin has built his career on photo opportunities and empty promises. When the speeches emphasize the need for party unity, please do not give any hint that you remember Martin’s decade long campaign to undermine the leadership of Jean Chrétien.
  • Recycling can save time. Martin made some great promises on housing in 1990. He made some great promises on combatting global warming in 1993. He spoke bravely about fighting two-tier health care in 2003 and 2004. Since these and other promises have not been honoured, it’s completely permissible to dust them off and make them again.

There’s no question that Martin’s new speechwriter will have a challenging job ahead of them, but these hints should help them through their first week at least. After all, as challenging as their work may be, it can’t be nearly as difficult as the work of being Stephen Harper’s new image consultant.


Scott Piatkowski

Scott Piatkowski is a former columnist for He wrote a weekly column for 13 years that appeared in the Waterloo Chronicle, the Woolwich Observer and ECHO Weekly. He has also written for Straight...