Why truth and care triumph over theft and sloppiness in speechmaking

Why truth and care triumph over theft and sloppiness in speechmaking

By Natasha Ndlebe

In our hyper-connected world, remembering the basics is essential to delivering a good speech. Stick to the facts, treat words with care and present your own work. A speech that reeks of sloppiness, falsehood or plagiarism is likely to get noticed in the worst possible way.

On sloppiness and the facts, we have a recent example from South Africa’s Minister in the Presidency for Planning, Monitoring and Evaluation. During the 2017/18 Presidency budget vote, Minister Jeff Radebe went off script. His department’s report asserted that, “by 2050, it is projected that Africa will have the same population as China and India combined today”.

The Minister failed to include “today” in his speech, which set off alarm bells among observers. But even if Radebe had chosen his words more carefully, the claim that in 2050 Africa will have the same population as China and India combined today looked suspect.  After reviewing a series of United Nations population projections, Africa Check calculated that the combined population of China and India in 2015 was 2.7 billion, against 1.2 billion Africans. In 2050, the United Nation predicts that Africa’s population will reach 2.5 billion, which is lower than the combined total of China and India today. Incidentally, the combined total of the latter two in 2050 is projected at 3.1 billion people.

Plagiarism has been around since there were considerably fewer people on the planet. Way back in the 1st century, the Roman poet Martial found that another poet was using his work without attribution. He decried this outrage with the Latin word plagiarius, meaning kidnapper. Someone had kidnapped his verses.

A more recent case of kidnapping arose at the 2016 national convention of the Republican Party. Melania Trump delivered a speech that borrowed heavily from Michelle Obama’s address at the Democratic National Convention in 2008. In true Trumpian style, the campaign first denied it, and then deflected, with the speechwriter offering up the lame excuse: “No harm was meant.”


Plagiarism is not only an act of theft that can lead to criminal charges. It’s also an act of laziness that can cost the offender dearly in the public eye.

Some politicians have seemingly mastered the “skill” of plagiarism and get away with it. U.S. Senator Rand Paul faces multiple accusations of plagiarism, but has slithered through each episode unscathed.  Former U.S. Senator John Walsh was not so lucky. In 2007, after the U.S. Army War College proved that he plagiarised a portion of his thesis, they revoked his master’s degree.

A final thought: we can’t all be Jeff Radebe, Melania Trump or Rand Paul. In fact, we probably don’t want to be.

A good speech involves producing your own work, building on your own ideas, choosing your words carefully, and checking your facts. Your audience deserves no less.