By Greg Sowell - Communications Director
City of Richardson, Texas
I went to a speechwriting conference recently and heard a profound piece of information from a panel of former White House speechwriters. This group of accomplished, connected and masterful word smiths all had one amazing thing in common. None of them had ever written a speech prior to working as speechwriters at the White House or on the presidential campaign trail.
That was an eye-opening revelation for me. Up until that moment, I had always based my impression of campaign or White House speechwriters as they were portrayed in Aaron Sorkin’s The West Wing. In the show, the speechwriters were always high-level executive characters (Sam Seaborn/Rob Lowe and Josh Lyman/Bradley Whitford) with decades of experience in government or politics. Their witty banter, quick-thinking skills and overall grasp on everything from defense spending to local precinct politics had given me the impression that only those among the “best of the best” can make it to such high levels of government. I never imagined the intern from the campaign trail or the journalist covering the White House as the people who were recruited to work in one of the most dynamic and scrutinized offices in the world. They made, what seems to me to be, incredible leaps from working on a campaign or in a newsroom to working with the president in the Oval Office creating messages for a national and global platform.
Today, I know better. Now, I consider myself to be wiser. It was a reminder to me that there is more than just ability that counts in any business. It is also a lot about being in the right place at the right time.
Now, don’t get me wrong. The representatives on the panel had plenty of ability. Outside of being in the right place at the right time, they also had the skill set needed to perform their jobs. It is just that I figured there was a more comprehensive application process with presidential speechwriter selection.
For most of us, working for next to nothing for the honor of being in a place like the White House is a remote possibility, and probably impractical. Yes, the highest level position makes $172,200 per year, but that’s the top position. Move down to the assistants and they’re at $42,000 per year (these are 2017 figures). That’s not much to begin with, and it is even more challenging when you consider the average rent for a one-bedroom apartment is approximately $2,000 per month in the D.C. area. There go the spouse and kids, and a lot of other things. At least you probably get to eat at a lot of state dinners and see the world as part of working with the president.
You May Not See Yourself There, But You Can Do It
I wish I could have gotten my start on a presidential campaign or as a White House speechwriter. It would have been an incredible experience… at least in a Bush (either one), Clinton or Obama White House. I somehow think a Trump White House experience would have been more daunting. But as I reflect back, my growth as a speechwriter began much the same way as theirs. It was being in the right place at the right time.
More than a decade ago, I too was a former journalist in the role of a government communicator who suddenly had to write a speech for the mayor of a large DFW-area city. It was for a USA boxing event called “Guns and Hoses.” The event pitted firefighters against police officers from across the DFW Metroplex. At that point, I had never written a speech before, but I had a lot of experience to pull from. I had more than 15 years working in broadcast news and government communications, so writing for the ear and an audience was nothing new. I also had training in writing, knowing how to refine messages to what people want to see or hear. Basically, I had years of training on finding the story. So, I put together a speech.
As I look back on it, there are elements I would change, but the basic construct followed the core principles of speechwriting. I began with recognition points. I worked in points for common ground. I did get a little off message here and there, but it is not terribly different from what I would write today. I think that happened because speechwriting is also a natural form of communication. It is inherent to the way we speak to people. That is why I believe anyone can be a speechwriter… given the right tool set.
Where to start…
All of us have developed and given a speech at some point in time. Your first one was probably designed to persuade and provide a call to action. It likely went something like this, “Mom, I cleaned my room, put the laundry in the basket and finished my lunch. Can I please, please, please go outside and play now? I promise to be back before six.” Okay, that’s not so much a speech as a plea, but you get the point. It is all part of a process.
There are many good elements here for a speech. First, it starts with audience recognition. It’s always good to address the audience, and preferably to also add why you are overjoyed, honored or otherwise happy to be able to have the opportunity to address them. Then there’s the story or argument. You lay down the case for why you’re there to begin with and how there’s common ground between you and your audience to achieve common goals. That is typically followed by a call to action. Many speeches are designed to evoke some movement towards an end goal. And, with this particular speech, there’s also some POP, or proof of performance. It promises some follow-up action based on the audience’s support.
So, where do you start? First and foremost is the ability to find and tell the story. That’s because every speech is a story. I’ve thought about this in many ways and I’ve come to the conclusion that if you’re not telling a story, then it’s not a speech – at least not a good one. From the CEO reporting quarterly results to the valedictorian speaking at a commencement ceremony, you can expect to hear a story. Related to the examples just provided, the story will either be in the explanation and direction of the numbers, or the brief history that made up high school and the shared challenges ahead.
Remember, It’s Not About You
I would like to take this opportunity to remind you that you do not start with you. You are a speechwriter after all, so the first thing you need to do is know your principal and get accustomed to their voice. Your job is to put to words what they would have said, if they only had the time to sit down and think about it. I think my talent for this comes from my years as a former TV news journalist, my role as a producer in particular. As an on-air reporter, everything I wrote was from me and designed to be delivered by me. However, when I was a producer, I always thought about the style, form and reading speed of the anchors on the show. It got to the point where I could picture in my head their delivery of the words I was writing.
You don’t need to be a novelist to be able to tell a story. Find something interesting and relate it to your audience, and if you don’t have a connection with your speaker and the group, then look for something from them and highlight it.
I remember being asked to write a speech for my principal who was asked to speak to a not-for-profit group that donated money to people around the world to help them gain access to higher education. My mayor had no stories to tell. Sure, we could have spoken about the importance of education, but they knew that already, thus the purpose of the group. So, I reached out to the organization and asked some questions about their work. During the conversation, my contact mentioned in passing how a letter had just come in from someone in India, thanking the group for their impact on his life. I immediately identified that as the moment around which to build the speech. Few, if any in the audience would have had the time to read or even know about this one person out of the thousands helped around the world. So, I pulled quotes from the letter and built a “hero” story out of that individual to highlight the important impacts the group was making and how thankful the community was for their work in the city and around the world.
Of course, not all speeches have such wonderful material with which to work. Most are mundane, but that goes with the territory. I’ve written hundreds of speeches now for a variety of audiences on a myriad of topics, and due to my work in municipal government, most of those were designed to thank people or groups for their community support. I’ve written dozens of others designed to inspire and build enthusiasm for common community-based goals, and yet others were developed as testimony to legislative bodies on key municipal issues. But from time to time you have the opportunity to take part in creating a special message. When you do have the chance, find the story and relate it to your audience. The content should be compelling enough to help make your point.
Resources For Story Making
I think it’s important here to say that one of the most beneficial things for me as I write speeches is that I read a lot. I keep up with local politics. I keep up with major news stories. I keep up with a variety of trends. I even keep up with “thoughts of the day” and “unusual stories” e-mail lists. The point is that, I keep up. These provide great fodder for inspiration on story making.
Here’s an example. I wrote a speech once for my mayor who was asked to speak to the leadership team at the corporate headquarters of one of my city’s major employers. I had recently seen a series of posts from a woman who had blogged about her hike on a Yosemite Park trail, and she did so with a series of selfie photos and videos. There was also a new selfie song -- yes this was a while ago – and basically getting selfies of yourself doing amazing things was the hot topic of the times. So, I wrote a speech on how it was great to be in the community and where the greatest selfies could be had, and related it to the corporate campus. It was out of the norm for a political figure, and the audience loved it.
Just The Beginning
To me, speechwriters are made through a process of evolution. It takes a base of experiences and knowledge, but given the right components and writing abilities, you too could become a speechwriter. The keys are having life experience and knowledge from which to pull and create good stories. Remember, like any good movie script, every good speech sets up a story. Is it man versus nature? Is it a “Cinderella” story? No matter what it is, the key is to find the hero, topic or event that binds the audience together and find a way that makes sense for your principal to deliver and convey the message to the group. Remember, search for the voice of the person you’re writing for, and find the experience that can mobilize the emotions of the crowd.