Have you always been good with words, Brian?
I was good at languages. At school, I studied French and German and I was really into obscure vocabulary and funny translations.
How did you get into speechwriting?
I actually wanted to be a politician when I left university, and I thought it would be a good idea to learn to speak in public, so I joined Toastmasters, which is a kind of alcoholics anonymous for people who are terrified of public speaking. This is a big mistake, because if you want to do well in politics, you’ve got to join a political party and keep absolutely quiet for about 10 years and then you get a nice job.
What did you learn at Toastmasters?
I got lots of practice in, and it helped to get rid of a lot of illusions that you have when you’re young and you think, ‘Oh, this is a really funny joke.’ When you deliver it in front of an audience and nobody laughs, it’s like a school of hard knocks.
Was speechwriting your first job?
No, I actually became a journalist. Humour was my thing and I did a diary column for the Daily Telegraph, and I worked on obituaries for a while. I never really made much of a success of being a journalist, and then one day at Toastmasters I met the company secretary of BP who was looking for a speechwriter for the chairman. So my first job as a speechwriter was basically one of the top jobs you can get, writing for the chairman of BP.
How did that go?
It was tricky being asked, ‘Can you write a speech about globalisation, the European Union and energy’. How do you pull those three things together? I’d go out and buy some books and then I’d try and write something that worked. It was a really good job, though, and I wrote for all the top executives at BP and I had to find humour for after-dinner speeches as well — and that’s what I really liked doing. It was only a year’s contract, so after that I advertised in Private Eye (a satirical British magazine) and I got lots of different work — speeches for birthdays, weddings, anniversaries and so on — and I became a collector of jokes for different occasions.
What have been some of your more memorable speeches?
I’ve written speeches for a UK Premiership footballer, a Dragons’ Den panellist and a Duke. I recently wrote one for a chap who was getting married at the castle featured in the Sound of Music. One particular job I was contacted by a very wealthy person who said, ‘Can you look at the groom’s speech for us?’ It was about 45 minutes long and he thanked every single person he’d ever met. I’d read in the newspaper that The Black Eyed Peas were playing at the wedding for £1.5 million (Dh7.14 million) and I thought, ‘Even if you’re marrying a billionaire’s daughter, there’s only 24 hours in the day.’ So I reduced the speech from 45 minutes to five so they could get about 400,000-pounds-worth more of The Black Eyed Peas. People often write a lot more than they should.
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What else do people get wrong?
There’s a terrible misunderstanding about what’s required on these occasions. Young men often think, ‘Oh, I’ll get up and tell some rude jokes, that’s what best men do.’ That’s often very upsetting. So I try to cut out all those traditional clichéd stories — it’s amazing how they crop up every time.
What do you like about the job?
It’s very interesting in that I get to ask very personal questions. I think being a speech writer is a bit like being a therapist — I get fathers of the bride who contact me and I ask what are their memories of their daughter, and they say they can’t really remember anything. I have to pin them down to particular moments, like how did you feel when she first went to school or went off to university. And that leads to nice stories. One dad told me that he remembered that he dropped his daughter off at university and then on the drive home he pulled over on the hard shoulder to have a cry. I try and help them remember things like that.
What’s the secret to a good speech?
Be gracious. Be grateful. Be seated. Speaking for the right length of time is so important. I once went to a wedding where (former UK prime minister) Tony Blair was there and he gave a 25-minute speech. And I know everyone was very flattered by it, but he kind of dominated the whole thing, and that’s not really what you go to a wedding for — you go to focus on the couple.
What are some of the problems you encounter?
I have 20 years of experience, and there are certain verbal constructions I use that really work. There are things like three-part lists, rhetorical questions, contrasts and so on, and it can be quite dispiriting when I write a father-of-the-bride speech with all of these things in and then the dad goes away and all my beautiful three-part lists become five-part lists, all my contrasts have been messed around with and the rhetorical questions that were fun and silly were taken out.
What else can be an issue?
I have had problems with wealthy people saying to me, ‘I want to be really, really funny,’ when, of course, to be really, really funny it helps to have had about 10 years’ experience in the clubs as a stand-up comedian.