Speechwriting: Getting to a Perfect Fit
Chris Bender, Vice President, Public Affairs Council
January 29, 2018
Big meeting, potential new client – you need a new suit. You find a dusk grey showstopper with sinew-thin pinstripes but it’s too long in the pants and generous in the coat. The tailor works his magic and, voila, the suit looks like it was cut and stitched for your frame. That’s how good speechwriting fits, too.
A good speech fits the speaker. Its phrasing and rhythms sound like the speaker crafted them. In essence, it sounds like the speech isn’t there: Giving the speaker a framework to drive their messages but the freedom to move as the occasion and audience require.
Achieving that fit requires speechwriters to get out of their own heads and into someone else’s. In anticipation of Tuesday’s State of the Union, here are five tips and tricks to help make that jump:
Learn your subject
We don’t only mean your issue area. We mean the person speaking about those issues:
- Understanding their natural style, from cadence and intonation to words and stories of choice;
- Determining the subjects or interests they talk about most often; and
- Hearing how they explain complex policy issues.
“Good speechwriting starts with writers who know the voice they need to capture,” says Mike McCurry, former press secretary to President Bill Clinton. “Our speechwriting gang always spent time with Clinton ‘interviewing’ him before a big speech.”
In addition to interviews, attend internal meetings and external presentations to listen to your speaker. Take notes dedicated solely to recording how they talk and explain (this also comes in handy for writing press statements and quotes). This stylistic intelligence allows you to write speeches that sound like your speaker did the drafting – and, accordingly, makes your speaker more comfortable with the text and prepared to deliver a better speech.
Feel the beat
Speechwriting starts with the ear. Rhetorical techniques that give the speech a song or rhythmic quality make it easier to deliver and easier to remember:
- Sound bites that succinctly capture the main message or theme: “Mr. Gorbachev, tear down this wall.” (Former President Ronald Reagan)
- Repetition with a purpose, layering an idea throughout the speech: “I have a dream.” (Dr. Martin Luther King)
- Pairing unlike ideas used to create a memorable juxtaposition: “Ask not what your country can do for you; ask what you can do for your country.” (Former President John F. Kennedy)
- Word pairs or opposites to create imagery: “Everything that ought to be down is up. Everything that should be up is down.” (Former Vice President Al Gore)
Most people remember songs and rhythms more easily than direct quotes: think about memorizing portions of the Constitution versus the National Anthem. Writing for the ear puts those natural tendencies to work.
Tell me why
The mechanics of public policy matter. But those mechanics won’t sell the policy in a speech. Stories of the policy’s impact on real people make the sale:
- Helping them save money to send their kids to college.
- Freeing up money to invest in a first home.
- Flying to see a grandmother they haven’t seen in years because they couldn’t afford the ticket.
Show, don’t tell. Save the “how” for later. To quote Simon Sinek, “Start with why.”
“Point out a person in the audience whose story encapsulates the speech’s theme,” says Mark Siegel, principal speechwriter to the late Pakistani Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto and professor at New York University’s Center for Global Affairs. “As the audience identifies with that individual, it humanizes the speaker at the podium.” You can follow up with white papers and explainers. Use the speech to turn your intellectual argument into an emotional one.
Use your surroundings
Location, in addition to subject matter, makes speeches topical and timely. Working a speech’s location into the conversation ingratiates the speaker with the audience and creates a common point of conversation: “I know what s/he’s talking about. I’ve been there. I’ve seen that.” If your speaker is presenting at a conference, for example, kick off the speech with an interesting story about the city or venue, linking the point of that story to the point of your speech.
Occasionally you’ll hit a block or bump and have a tough time writing your speaker’s opening. If that happens, start with the ending. Write the conclusion and work back up the speech, defining the arguments you’ll need to make to arrive at that conclusion. If a speech is a journey, knowing where it ends will help describe how to get there.
The test of a good speech is whether or not it sounds natural: Written by your speaker or dreamed up on the spot. These techniques can help create that natural feeling, like the fit of a good suit.