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Letter 6: Ghost Writing

Dear K.,

I must say that never before had I discerned such urgency and desperation in your letters. You literally begged for answers to questions I was least qualified to give, even though in my long service in a university office I had been tasked with drafting a few speeches for my supervisor. It is understandable, for drafting a speech is a daunting enough undertaking, let alone drafting it as a ghost.

Have you checked out the Oxford Dictionary of Quotations, Speeches That Changed The World, etc.? Free tutorial on any conceivable subject can be found on the Youtube these days. Have you done your casual browse and/or advanced search there yet?

In your panicky quaver of tone you asked if you should begin with a joke. Think twice. The lightest touch usually takes the most effort, and leads to riskiest result. The following saying by David McKie can usually bring down the floor:

Surnames are a sexually transmitted condition.

But sometimes it is as important, if not more, not to raise the eye-brows of a few members of your audience. So let's keep things simple and stick to the mantra: Say what you're going to say; say it; and recap what you have said.

A quote or two would lend economy and respectability to your script. But please observe three rules. First, acknowledge the source, a breach of which would be tantamount to plagiarism. You don't want to consign your boss to the ignominy of intellectual sharp practice. Not only should you quote the source but you should also append a short description if he/she is not John F. Kennedy or Martin Luther King, Jr. Some examples:

Marshal McLuhan, Canadian media scholar, once remarked that, ‘Money is the poor man's credit card.'

Nancy Gibb, Chief Editor of Time, says, ‘But no war gets fought in white gloves.'

According to the physicist and contributor to the New York Review of Books, Freeman Dyson, ‘Science is a creative interaction of observation with imagination.'

You'd note that, in an oral presentation, a long train of words should not be allowed to run between the two stations ‘Quote' and ‘Unquote'.

Second, acknowledge the source correctly. The embarrassment would be unredeemable and the stigma permanent if you attribute wrongly. This is often attributed to Voltaire but in fact was first written by Evelyn Beatrice Hall:

I disapprove of what you say, but I will defend to the death your right to say it.

Lastly, do not just pull your quotes out of a hat. Make your audience see why you quote and where you're coming from. Do not treat quotes as fillers or buffers, otherwise the effect would be like asking a famous actor to come up to the stage to say your lines while you take a swig of the water on the podium. With more experience (did I hear a moan of protest?), you'd come to realize that a majority of quotable quotes come from the Bible, Shakespeare and Mark Twain.

A speech-writer can be rather single-minded in his/her pursuit, that is, to give something memorable the audience can take home—the soundbite. Who but the famous pianist and composer Leopold Godowsky, who started composing at the age of five, can leave us with this memorable saying:

When a child prodigy grows up, the prodigy vanishes and the child remains.

Speech writing is best left to practice than theory. So stop worrying and turn on your word processor. If you think it makes you more comfortable, we can discuss how to address the apparition again next time.

Yours sincerely,



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