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How to write a speech like a queen

Jackie Bischof
By Jackie Bischof

Deputy membership editor

It must be nice to be a royal. Access to a mountain of jewels, staff on hand to attend to your every whim, and a portfolio of castles to call home. You might occasionally be called on to muster up national unity, but for the most part you’re largely expected to look the part and be reasonably well-spoken.

Your words carry weight, which is why shrewd royals master the art of not saying much. Perhaps that’s why Queen Elizabeth’s speech this week during Donald Trump’s state visit was so remarkably similar to the 2011 speech she delivered to then-US president Barack Obama, and also the 2003 speech she gave to then-president George W. Bush. Comparing the three shows how to deliver a reliably uncontroversial speech like a monarch, beat by beat.

1. Start with how happy you are to be giving the speech

Another state dinner at the palace? Even if you’re dying of boredom, your guests are probably awed by the experience, so make them feel special. The Queen was “delighted” to host the Obamas in 2011. Ditto the Trumps in 2019. And it was a “great pleasure” to welcome the Bushes. Was it, though? Doesn’t matter!

2. Get nostalgic

This helps to reinforces your ties to the person, institution, or event you’re addressing. “Prince Philip and I are so glad that you are visiting the United Kingdom again,” she told Obama. “We have fond memories of our first meeting during the G20 Conference in London in 2009.” What a pleasure to host the Trumps, she said, “just 12 months after our first meeting at Windsor Castle.” In 2003, she reminisced with Bush about the first US president to stay at Buckingham Palace, Woodrow Wilson, in December 1918.

3. Reinforce your common bonds

Not only do you have a history with whoever you’re addressing, but that history is bound to be special (to them, not to you, but keep that to yourself). The Queen has expressed a particular affinity for US presidents, telling Bush that visits from the seven she’d hosted up until that point were “memorable landmarks in my reign.” Obama’s visit, meanwhile, was a reminder of “our shared history, our common language, and our strong intellectual and cultural links,” she said.

Whether the “special relationship” between the US and UK still exists is the subject of much debate. Name-checked in the Queen’s speeches to Bush and Obama, it morphed into a “close and longstanding friendship” in the address to Trump. Good enough.

4. Acknowledge challenges

Get real with your audience—life is hard, even for you—but avoid going into too much detail. This is another way to establish those bonds you’ve mentioned before; remind your subjects and guests that you’re all in it together. We’re all just trying to create a “more prosperous, a safer and, above all, a freer world” (2003). It’s such a shame, though, that “there are so many troubles facing the world today” (2011). Still, “while the world has changed, we are forever mindful of the original purpose of these structures: nations working together to safeguard a hard won peace” (2019). 

5. Get in an innocent dig

The Queen, while prim, is not above making the occasional joke. In 2003 she quipped to Bush: “Unlike in the United States, the British head of state is not limited to two terms of four years.” To Obama, she joked about an “exchange of people and projects has enlarged and invigorated our common language—although I think you will agree we do not always use it in quite the same way!” Hilarious! Read the room, though: she had no quips for Trump, probably considering his position on jokes at dinner.

6. Raise a glass

It’s always a crowd-pleaser to end a speech with a toast, which also helps take the edge off for the hours of small talk that loom during dinner. The Queen’s tried-and-tested formula for visiting Americans is some variation of toasting “to the health, prosperity and happiness of the people of the United States.” 

If this template is good enough for the Queen when she hosts various leaders of the free world, it’s good enough for your next public speaking engagement. She’s given variations of these remarks for 152 leaders over 67 years, after all.

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