A way with words: How this man went from Bay Roberts to speechwriting at the UN

·3 min read
Newfoundland-born speechwriter Carl Mercer in front of member-state flags at the UN General Assembly. (Submitted by Carl Mercer - image credit)
Newfoundland-born speechwriter Carl Mercer in front of member-state flags at the UN General Assembly. (Submitted by Carl Mercer - image credit)
Newfoundland-born speechwriter Carl Mercer in front of member-state flags at the UN General Assembly.
Newfoundland-born speechwriter Carl Mercer in front of member-state flags at the UN General Assembly.(Submitted by Carl Mercer)

Volkan Bozkir, the president of the United Nations General Assembly, wanted the world to know how precarious things are for global access to clean water.

"Some 2.2 billion people, almost a third of the global population, continue to lack access to safely managed drinking water," Bozkir said last week.

In a striking speech that underscored how 4.2 billion people do have have safely managed sanitation, he also said three billion people — in the midst of a pandemic — do not have proper facilities to wash their hands.

"If I may be candid," Bozkir said, it is a moral failure that we live in a world with such high levels of technical innovation and success, but we continue to allow billions of people to exist without clean drinking water, or the basic tools to wash their hands."

While Bozkir delivered the message to the the General Assembly, the stirring words he spoke were actually the work of Carl Mercer, a UN speechwriter originally from the Butlerville area of Bay Roberts.

Speaking with the St. John's Morning Show from his home in the Catskills area of New York state, Mercer said it was quite a journey from Bay Roberts to the UN.

The start of it all, he said, was an internship with the Canadian International Development Agency.

"It was a program that sent me to Ethiopia when I was just graduating from MUN, and based on that I got my first job, which lent to me spending a few years working in Africa and Asia," said Mercer.

WATCH | The United Nations also released this video of Volkan Bozkir's comments on access to clean water:

Mercer spent a few years moving around while trying to decide what it was that he wanted to do. Eventually, he settled on working with the UN.

"I decided I wanted to work for the UN and I wanted to live in New York, so I slowly made my way there professionally until it happened."

When it comes to speechwriting, less is more

Growing up in Bay Roberts, Mercer said that he didn't imagine his career would take him from Newfoundland to writing speeches for the president of the General Assembly.

A career working in communications, however, provided him the opportunity and experience needed to make an impression when the opportunity arose.

"I've spent most of my career as a communications professional, doing everything from setting up media interviews, to social media, to multimedia," Mercer said.

Carl Mercer was attracted to the United Nations for his career. 'I slowly made my way there professionally until it happened.'
Carl Mercer was attracted to the United Nations for his career. 'I slowly made my way there professionally until it happened.'(Angela Weiss/AFP/Getty Images)

Working at the UN, packaging facts and numbers was just part of the job.

"As with most people in the UN, you do have to write speeches or contribute to talking points for senior officials on a regular basis," he said. "So if one of our officials is going into a meeting with the government, we have to provide them with talking points and briefing materials."

Mercer developed that skillset over the years until an opportunity arose for him to write speeches.

"When this opportunity came along to write for the president, I had enough materials I had previously written, that I put my name forward and they liked what they saw."

When it comes to good speechwriting, Mercer said, less is more. "First off, it has to be short," he said.

Speechwriter Carl Mercer at the UN General Assembly.
Speechwriter Carl Mercer at the UN General Assembly.(Submitted by Carl Mercer)

"When it comes to the UN — and this applies to private sectors anywhere — we have a tendency to go very technical, to be speaking to a very niche audience," said Mercer.

"And we want to avoid that. You have to write a speech so that it can be understood by anybody, but also applicable to the people you want to reach."

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