What do TV news hosts/commentators Chris Matthews and David Frum; authors Arthur M. Schlesinger, Jr., and Ted Sorenson; and actor Ben Stein have in common? They were all, at one time in their lives, presidential speechwriters.
All five are renowned for being whip-smart, and that’s no accident. Speechwriting is an art. Think of the challenge; you’re writing in someone else’s voice, trying to communicate a specific message to a specific audience, and using language that should both soar and yet be plainly understandable. The best speeches—think “I Have a Dream,” or the inaugural addresses of FDR or JFK—not only feature memorable lines (e.g., “We have nothing to fear but fear itself,” or “Ask not what your country can do for you; ask what you can do for your country”), but they also move us to action.
I’ve come to appreciate speechwriting in recent months as my staff members have developed a specialization in the craft—both in crafting original speeches and in providing significant revisions to previously written speeches. We’re ramping up our speechwriting capabilities because our clients are demanding it.
Here are five things I’ve learned about speechwriting:
- The speaker’s voice is paramount. It doesn’t matter if the speechwriter uses fancy words; if they ring false coming out of the mouth of the speaker, if the cadence is wrong, or if the verbiage seems stilted, the speech is a failure.
- The speechwriter must spend time with the speaker. Typically, my speechwriters will meet with a speaker several times before each speech, helping him or her develop and test out themes, messaging, and specific lines, and they’ll go over several drafts.
- Speakers have different styles; we have to adapt. Some speakers like to be scripted. Others are comfortable enough with the material that they just want some talking points or an outline. Still others use PowerPoint slides. A good speechwriter is comfortable working in all these realms.
- Don’t get married to the words! Most speechwriters I know, including all ours at BLH, are excellent writers. This is a prerequisite, but speechwriters know better than to get caught up in their written product. Speakers will often change major portions of text in the days leading up to the speech or even make changes during delivery. This is normal, it’s part of the job, and the best speechwriters learn to live with it.
- Listen and follow up. There is no replacement to hearing the speech delivered live. That way a speechwriter can see firsthand what worked, what didn’t, and what can be improved upon for next time.
Our clients do not generally ask our speechwriters to write or provide substantial rewrites for speeches that soar to such heights as those written by Chris Matthews or Ted Sorenson. But our speechwriters do develop an ear for the speakers with whom they are working. It’s part and parcel of the panoply of deliverables we create, such as factsheets, newsletter content, and blog posts. Our people are expected to craft speeches that meet our clients’ requests and exceed their expectations. When they’re at their best, that’s what they do.