Linguistic Change and Politics

"Speech is about Leadership, and Leadership is always about the Battle for Hearts and Minds"


How much influence do political speech-writers exert? We talked to Dr. Thilo von Trotha, a former speech-writer for Helmut Schmidt, to find the answer.

You wrote political speeches for years – notably for Helmut Schmidt. How would you describe the relationship between yourself and the Chancellor during that time?

Helmut Schmidt is a typical Hamburger. He keeps other people at arms' length, and that was his style while I was writing his speeches. I may have been his speech-writer for six years but we weren't close friends. On the other hand, I was involved in the preparation of many of his speeches, so we spent many hours together working on them every month.

How does the speaker's personality flow into a speech if someone else is writing it for them?


Beginners try to immerse themselves in, and express, the speaker's personality. I don't think that's a particularly good approach because it distorts the speech-writer's own character after a while. When I write a speech, I slip into the role of speaker. I bring in my personality and my view of things – fully aware of the speaker's position and drawing on what I know about them. But in general, I write what I would say myself if I were in the speaker's position.

Various studies have been carried out to assess the impact of speeches – some of them by the Association of German Language Speech-Writers. They all seem to agree that the delivery is the real key to an effective speech. So naturally, the speaker's personality is very important.

No speaker with any sense would let themselves be manipulated by their speech-writer. When I was young and working for Helmut Schmidt, he would ask me for ideas; I would also collate information and prepare the speech. But he would deliver the speech that I had written as if it were his own. The speech is the speaker's, even if all or parts of it have been written by someone else. The speaker reads the speech through. If he likes any of it, it's simply because those sections reflect his opinion. He will cut out or rewrite any passages that he doesn't like. That's how the speaker's personality flows into the speech.

As the Chancellor's speech-writer, did you sense that you could exert influence through the ideas or advice that you provided?

To a limited extent, yes.


For example, Helmut Schmidt found it quite difficult to communicate with young people. When he was Chancellor, from 1974 to 1982, young people's influence on politics and on society as a whole was very considerable. But he had real problems dealing with these hotheads – that description is something of an exaggeration, by the way. Their ideas didn't fit in with his logical and dispassionate way of thinking, which was very typical of someone from Hamburg. I always tried to open up a channel of communication between Schmidt and young people, their ideas and sensitivities.

How can you tell if a political speech is good? When it helps the speaker to achieve or maintain power?

A speech is good if it makes clear to the public what the speaker wants. Speech is about leadership. Leadership always looks to the future. Leadership is always about the battle for hearts and minds – in other words, it's about gaining power. A politician who can convince his public that his aims and objectives are right and thus persuade his audience to support him has, firstly, delivered a good speech and secondly, increased his influence – in other words, his power.

In his book Die politische Zunge. Eine kurze Kritik der öffentlichen Rede (i.e., The Political Tongue. A Short Critique of Public Speaking), Uwe Pörksen, the linguist and literary theorist, says that great political speeches are able to change the political situation because they change the perception of political challenges. Do you agree?

Hm, I don't know. From a historical perspective, that happens very, very, very rarely. Speeches make a contribution to the public debate in a democracy, but they don't fundamentally change the situation.
Let's take the famous example of the Agenda 2010 speech that Chancellor Gerhard Schröder delivered on 14 March 2003. This speech was utterly incomprehensible, full of details that no one could possibly understand. And yet it launched a set of policies which the public regarded as reforms. It wasn't the speech which brought this about; the speech was just a signal. The same applies to Federal President Roman Herzog's famous speech Looking Ahead to the 21st Century at the Hotel Adlon in April 1997, when he talked about how things had to change in Germany. My God, how often has that been quoted! But it didn't change anything. The point is that in normal times, a speech cannot change the world. And the reverse is also true: a situation which could be radically changed by a single speech isn't positive or stable.

In an interview with the Sunday edition of the Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung in May 2006, the philosopher Hermann Lübbe criticised Angela Merkel over the use of the term "Kopfpauschale" – which means "capitation fee". She was talking about the proposals for a flat rate for public health fund contributions that is not linked to income . "She should never have used the term", he said. He argued that it has massively damaged her very commendable concept to introduce this universal arrangement for citizens. It was a serious error, he said, not to include the word "citizen" in the title, as this always has positive connotations. Does it work the other way round too, do you think? do bad concepts prevail because of brilliant terminology?

In our language, nebulous and mendacious phrases – euphemisms, in other words – are very widespread. "Rubber bullet" is a good example; I fell for this one for years. I always thought they were like little rubber balls. Actually, they are made of metal with a thin plastic coating. Soft words take the sting out of unpleasant facts. Our language is full of euphemisms. But "Kopfpauschale" was the opposite. It makes you think of a price on people's heads and its criminal connotations. It was a very unfortunate choice of word, and it really did undermine what was actually quite a sensible approach to health reform.

Has the importance of the spoken word in politicians' self-presentation diminished in recent decades with the rise of visual images?


Television has certainly increased the power of visual images. But I don't believe that the meaning of the spoken word has been completely lost. In essence, people are rational beings, and words are essential to build up an argument so that they can make rational choices. Clever words – and ill-considered ones too – create realities; visual images can only play a part.

As a speech-writer, are you relaxed about listening to public speakers? Or to put it another way, does your profession affect the way you listen to speeches?

I am quite relaxed about it. I have learned that there are hundreds of ways to make a speech interesting and effective.
For example, I don't mind a few "ums" and "ahs" in a speech at all. I have heard magnificent speeches which are full of "ums" and "ahs", and dreadful speeches without any at all. And it doesn't matter if the speaker trips over his words once in a while – as long as he doesn't say the opposite of what he means.
There are very many ways to give a good speech. I listen with the greatest pleasure, but not as a professional. I am always delighted to experience a new approach – and I say to myself, look at that, that works too. To be a speech-writer, you have to put vanity aside, for it is generally the speaker who gets all the credit.

What are the attributes of a good speech-writer?

Discretion, insight, a lack of vanity, integrity, delight in language and literature, creativity, vitality, flexibility – those are probably the main ones.

Dr. Thilo von Trotha, born in Gera in 1940, is a lawyer and speech-writer. After taking the second state examination in law, he was the personal assistant to a state secretary in a ministry in Bonn. In 1974, he began working for the Federal Chancellery and wrote speeches for the then Chancellor Helmut Schmidt for six years. He has worked as a freelance speech-writer since 1980 and is the author of more than 2000 speeches for key figures in industry and business. He is the Honorary President of the Association of German Language Speech-Writers, which aims to enhance the culture of public speaking and develop a market for professional speech-writing in the German language area. In 1998, Dr. von Trotha founded the Academy of Speech-Writing in Weimar. He also established a foundation to promote the culture of public speaking in 2005.
Dagmar Giersberg
conducted the interview. She is a freelance journalist in Bonn.

Translation: Jonathan Uhlaner

Copyright: Goethe-Institut, Online-Redaktion

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August 2006

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