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Former Ambassador and Communication Expert Charles Crawford: Diplomacy Hates Taking Risks

Political Leaders These Days Have a Horribly Difficult Job

Charles Crawford

by Nadia Turki

Charles Crawford is a former British Ambassador, award-winning speechwriter, negotiation expert and founder member of The Ambassador Partnership. He qualified as a barrister before joining the Foreign and Commonwealth Office in 1979 and worked for 28 years in the U.K. Diplomatic Service. He served as the Ambassador to Sarajevo, Belgrade and Warsaw, and as a senior diplomat in Moscow where he worked on the policy issues arising from the collapse of the Soviet Union.

During his time as a speechwriter with the Foreign and Commonwealth Office, Charles wrote the FCO’s first Guide to Speechwriting; 25 years later it remains the basis for the FCO’s speechwriting training. He contributed to speeches by members of the British Royal Family and successive U.K. Prime Ministers and Foreign Ministers, and started a private consulting career delivering acclaimed learning programmes in communication technique. In 2015, Charles published a book titled Speech Writing for Leaders: Speeches that leave people wanting more.

In his interview with Majalla, Charles draws on decades of experience in world diplomacy to offer a fascinating insight into the arts of diplomacy and compelling speechwriting.

What skills do diplomats need to be effective and avoid making embarrassing mistakes?

A subtle question. Diplomacy hates taking risks! The ideas of ‘stability’ and ‘predictability’ are right at the heart of the way countries deal with each other. Any good diplomatic service puts a lot of emphasis on correct process and attention to detail. Avoid nasty surprises.

Leaders themselves also make simple mistakes from sheer tiredness, so for example when planning a senior visit make sure that the programme is sensibly paced.

When I give webinars on protocol for United Nations colleagues, I emphasise stupidity as a force in international affairs. When things go wrong in a publicly embarrassing way, it’s often through unnecessary ‘improvisation’ over points of detail. Someone has failed to understand where their own work fits into the big picture.

Key idea? It’s not what’s important, it’s what matters! Grasp that, and you’ll usually avoid calamity.

What are your thoughts on your experiences in Poland and Russia? Is Russian diplomacy like Western diplomacy?

It’s hard to describe if you haven’t been there, but Russian cities like Moscow and St Petersburg just project bigness – something on another impossible scale of size. By contrast, Polish cities such as Warsaw, Krakow and Gdansk each have their own elegance and historical authority, but they’re on a much more manageable scale.

Russian diplomacy is in a league of its own for sheer professionalism. Russian diplomats are formidable specialists, supported by highly disciplined information-management systems. They are unrelentingly well briefed and focused on ‘Russian interests’ as defined by the Kremlin.

This has advantages – they have a strong position on more or less any issue – but also disadvantages. They’re good at blocking. Much less good at building and exploring creative ideas. They befriend and encourage some of the world’s most useless regimes, regardless of the human cost, only to spite Western capitals. See Syria, Cuba and Zimbabwe.

Smart diplomats do not mean smart policies. Moscow’s over-centralised and untransparent foreign policy machinery makes its fair share of horrible mistakes. Russia’s illegal violent interventions in Ukraine have cost Russia trillions of dollars. For what?

You published a book recently about speechwriting. How important are speeches to leaders wanting to project a desired image?

That depends on the leader concerned. The latest US presidential elections were interesting. Donald Trump projected erratic bold optimism. Hillary Clinton came across as a defensive pessimist, and duly lost.

My book compares the speeches of Barack Obama and Vladimir Putin. Vladimir Putin’s speeches are full of ripe, chewy, raw political meat. President Obama’s speeches are soufflés, impressive to behold but oddly insubstantial and unsatisfying when examined closely.

Political leaders these days have a horribly difficult job thanks to new technology. Social media outlets dissect and pass judgement on speeches before they’re even finished! The slightest slip in words or delivery can be taken wildly out of context and come across as ruinous. A good speechwriter needs to think about all of that.

What goes into making a good speech?

It depends. Are you writing the speech for yourself, or are you writing it for someone else? The words of a speech are easy! It’s identifying the core ideas and the right tone, and linking them to the occasion and the audience on the day that’s tricky.

A speech given through simultaneous interpreting needs to be written and delivered very differently to a speech without interpreters. A speech to an audience of 400 people needs to sound BIG. A speech to an audience of 20 people needs an intimate tone.

Then there are familiar cultural issues. In some parts of the world – maybe the Middle East too? – a speaker usually wants to project authority and not sound too informal or close to the audience. In the US/UK tradition, informality and humour are vital. So getting a smart balance is important. Aim for a sense of conversation. What we British call a ‘light touch’.

A big point – speeches and presentations are bad at conveying information. People just can’t take in lots of facts and figures. Focus on explaining why such information is important. Fewer facts. A lot more wisdom.

Could you share a public speaking tip with us?

Use surprise. Get the audience intrigued. What’s going to happen next? And a good part of surprise is silence. It’s strange but true. A central idea of public speaking is not in fact speaking!

Write pauses/breaks into the speech. Then deliver it more slowly. Give your words weight. If you want to give the utterly amazing speech that everyone is talking about after the conference, that’s likely to be a strong part of it.

That opens the scary idea of taking risks! Do you dare to give an amazing speech?

You are also a mediator. Tell us about this profession and how important it is in the modern world. Does it solve real issues?

It’s madness that all diplomats and other professional people are not given basic mediation training.

Mediation is simply the skill of helping people settle differences and solve shared problems. To do it well you need to train yourself to listen carefully – and show that you’re listening. Listen to what they say. Listen to what they don’t say.

Unfortunately, many international problems drag on at a huge human cost because it suits powerful people that they’re not solved peacefully and fairly. Ukraine. Syria. North Korea.

Once things get stuck there’s ‘safety in failure.’ If you’re a bad but tough leader presiding over a poor oppressed country, what’s your interest in stepping down from power and letting someone else have a go? Not much!

Almost any international problem you choose could be solved or at least hugely improved by subtle sensitive mediation, IF the leaders concerned wanted to solve it. But they don’t!

You had a long diplomatic career with the Foreign and Commonwealth Office. What were some of the most interesting lessons you learned?

For me, the greatest diplomatic discipline is Accuracy. Never assume! You either know or you’re guessing. If you’re guessing, you’ve lost control.

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