MEET THE MAN BEHIND PRESIDENT UHURU’S BRILLIANT SPEECHES
From doing ‘kazi ya mkono’ for the future Deputy President, lawyer Eric Ng’eno ended up being the speech writer for the president. He spoke to THE NAIROBIAN about how he chooses appropriate words, the length of the speech and whether Uhuru Kenyatta reads the drafts before delivery
It must be quite something to be the president’s speech writer. How did it all start?
It is a long, winding, eventful story. I will summarize it this way: Once upon a time, I was the Deputy President’s personal assistant. At first, I conducted research and secretarial services for him during the Serena negotiations that yielded the National Accord after the 2007/2008 post-election violence. At the time, he had asked for someone with a legal background and who has excellent communication and writing skills.
Initially, I didn’t understand why communication skills were that important for him. But he was clearly farsighted. When the Grand Coalition Government was formed, he was appointed Minister for Agriculture. As a minister, Hon Ruto wanted technical materials to be packaged in a language that could be used to successfully engage a national audience. He is rather good at it, and we spent lots of time going through a lot of documents and prepping him for presentations at various levels.
One day, out of the blue, he called me and asked for a speech for an event at Moi University. I passed the instructions on to his other PA, who duly provided a draft. When I met the minister, he threw it away and said that he had asked me to personally prepare a speech.
Since we were on our way to Wilson Airport, and I had less than an hour to put something together. I found a computer and produced a brief speech. When he returned, he told me that he liked it. So, I became his messaging resource person for Press statements, speeches, briefs, presentations and other communication.
In preparation for the last general elections, we needed to write the UDM (United Democratic Movement) and later URP (United Republican Party) manifesto. This is how I met the president. Without any formalities, I was soon doing kazi ya mkono for both of them. There were many of us, and as the alliance solidified and formalized, I found myself specializing in messaging.
Do you sit down with the president and discuss what he wants to communicate?
Various assignments are delivered using different formats. Some speeches are products of quick one-on-one consultations. Others are instructions transmitted through official channels. Others are put together over a period of time by large teams of high-level technical people.
Messaging is not necessarily substantive technical material development. It is simply reducing all those things into a language that the president is accustomed to in terms of cadence, rhetorical quality, and key message projection and so on.
There are words and expressions that he likes to use. He has his personality and mannerism. He is a formidable messaging machine on his own right. One of the things you need is the personal and political intuition to anticipate what the occasion and mood demands. So, hanging around him is important as it enables me to observe and internalize the person.
How many drafts do you often develop and how long do they take?
I usually work with one draft, sometimes two or three, not more. When a large team is involved, it is not uncommon to see more than five drafts. My legal training helps. I take my instructions the way advocates are trained to take their clients’ briefs. Usually, we reduce these instructions into research assignments, opinions, pleadings, affidavits, contracts and so on.
In my present job, I take down what needs to be said, and then use my accumulated experience to craft an appropriate message. The first draft is the most important, because it is the source of feedback that refines the final draft. So, it is better to do more than less, because the final draft will then be comfortable for both the writer and deliverer of the message.
How do you treat the different speeches – Parliament, AU, summits etc?
The president has a very clear idea of what he wants to say at any given time. His guidance is paramount. He is a statesman, pan-African, dynamic modern leader. He loves results, and has made a habit of delivering successfully. He wants his speeches to capture his words, wishes and energy as much as possible.
He also has an incredible instinct for audiences. Very often, he departs significantly from the written script, or customizes it to suit the moment. He manages the speech. The speech does not manage him.
Technical input is important. Ministries have substantive influence in what is said. They are the custodians of data and technical material. They have institutional memory. They have experts. These people usually generate first drafts of every speech. Often, they also exclusively draft purely technical presentations, especially for technical bilateral discussions which do not involve wide audiences.
Sometimes the president’s speech is laced with trending terminologies like ‘hotbed’ etc. Whose decision is it to include such words?
The president is involved in the crafting of his messages. He either dictates or approves. No funny games are allowed. The ‘hotbed’ was his input. It just demonstrates his phenomenal instincts.
Do you work on the speeches alone, lead or have a team?
There is a team – many brilliant, capable people dispersed throughout government. The PSCU (Presidential Strategic Communication Unit) departments make a lot of input to give every speech the required texture and depth. The Spokesperson likes to ensure that key government messages are embedded in every speech, subject to relevance. Speech writing is an industry, not a factory floor.
Does the president go through the speech or he just reads it on the material day?
He goes through it sentence by sentence and makes copious notes. Every speech must bear his thoughts as he conceived them and his language as he and the nation are accustomed.
How do you decide the length of a speech?
It depends on the occasion as well as the subject or number of subjects to be covered. The State of the Nation address, for instance, can never be a 10-minute affair because there are critical constitutional and political expectations to be canvassed. Contrast this with, say, the laying of a foundation stone for a sub county library.
Do you draw from other presidential speech writers?
I read other speeches of course. Everyone does. I also read a lot about other speech writers. Because of context, you cannot develop a template for speech-making, or speech writing. My job is to enable the president to speak successfully to our context: speak to Kenyans and speak for Kenyans. I also write speeches for the Deputy President as well.