By Lynn Paris
I was recently privileged to attend the Ragan Communications 2009 Speechwriter’s Conference in Washington, D.C. Everyone considers it THE best conference of its kind, so I knew it would be a wonderful experience. I also knew it would be somewhat frustrating. I was right; it was both.
Perhaps the single thing I took away from the conference that was most valuable to me personally is that speechwriting is, or at least can be, a noble profession. At its best, it articulates policy and inspires hope. Networking with fellow speechwriters, and listening to the words of wisdom from some extremely well known speechwriters, especially Theodore Sorenson, all helped elevate my perception of the work we do. As Sorenson admonished us: “Don’t let anyone ever dismiss you as a mere speechwriter!”
Sorenson was the keynote speaker, the one everyone came to see. He is a legend, having been the only speechwriter for John F. Kennedy. Of course, he did so much more than write for him; he was his counselor and advisor, his intimate associate through the days of Camelot and the days of the Cuban missile crisis. He wrote the famous “I am a Berliner” speech, and also the Inaugural Address. You know, the one with “And so, my fellow Americans: ask not what your country can do for you—ask what you can do for your country.” And way back then, in 1960, he also wrote, “Let every nation know, whether it wishes us well or ill, that we shall pay any price, bear any burden, meet any hardship, support any friend, oppose any foe, in order to assure the survival and the success of liberty.” The entire speech is poetry; you should read it sometime.
Today, Sorenson can barely see, but he speaks with dignity and with passion. He speaks like any great speaker: weaving in personal stories, humor, and a great knowledge of his subject matter as well as his audience. He reminded us that before anyone calls Obama’s eloquence “just words,” they need to remember the power of words. “Just words?” he asked, somewhat incredulously. “Just words?” It was “just words” that allowed Kennedy to go before the United Nations and win the respect and support of other nations . . . “Just words” that Kennedy used to galvanize a nation to dare to go to the moon.
Clearly, Sorenson knew his audience. He accomplished what every speechwriter hopes to accomplish; he inspired us all.
The second point that was stressed during the conference is how crucial an effective speech is during times of crisis; such as the one we are currently experiencing. We were advised to write speeches for our CEOs, leaders, presidents, etc. that did NOT sugarcoat an obviously bad situation because that damages their credibility. Instead, we were exhorted to take the opportunity to show how adversity can be overcome, or how they are going to lead us, or what the audience can do to help . . . in other words, to temper optimism with realism, and then motivate! There have been times in my current position that I’ve felt like we were existing in a bit of a bubble, that we needed to do more to acknowledge the situation playing out in the world around us. I’ve been admonished not to do that—to keep away from anything negative and keep it all positive and optimistic. The experts made me feel a little better about my instincts; I believe they’ve been right most of the time, although not necessarily in sync with what the administration wanted to do.
I took pages of notes on what constitutes effective speech writing. Most of it served to validate what I’d learned from experience, from reading books by great speechwriters, from reading great speeches, and of course, from my past year of writing speeches. It felt very confirming to know that I already know the tenets of good speechwriting and, for the most part, am practicing them. I have a renewed respect for using the short word rather than the longer, fancier one and the short, succinct sentence rather than the longer convoluted one. (Although clearly I find that the most difficult rule to adhere to!) Nevertheless, all the experts agree on this one. They must be right.
Undoubtedly the most frustrating part of my experience was one I anticipated before I got there. After all, I’d read Peggy Noonan (my speechwriting hero) and scores of other authors and I knew what was coming. During the conference I had the opportunity to talk privately with at least twenty attendees—including three speechwriters for university presidents—and, as anticipated, the main difference between ALL of them and me was that they all had direct access to the person for whom they wrote speeches. Each was able to discuss the speech beforehand with the speaker, receive input (including personal stories and anecdotes) on drafts when needed, and each enjoyed a close working relationship.
Similarly, every expert, including Ted Sorenson, Robert Schlesinger, Rosemary King (Bob Gates’ speechwriter at Defense), Rob Friedman, and Mike Long (White House Speechwriters Group) stressed access as the single most important factor in crafting a memorable speech. They all talked at length about knowing how their speaker thinks, observing their decision-making style, traveling with them, picking their brains, and becoming very familiar with their unique brand of humor, tone, cadence and speech patterns.
That was the fantasy vision I had of MY job. I actually believed it would be like that. Turns out I was totally naïve to the ways of huge, state-run bureaucracies, and had no conception of chains-of-command. I also had no grasp of the demands made on a university president, the grueling schedule, time constraints, and higher, more pressing priorities. There IS no access for the speechwriter. No partial access, no limited access—there is NO access.
Nine months in I’ve accepted all that, moved on, and do the absolute best I can under the circumstances. No one is complaining; in fact, the speeches seem to satisfy everyone and life goes on. Nevertheless, I continue to believe that an opportunity is being missed. I continue to accept what the experts told me at the conference—the better the access to the person for whom you’re writing speeches—the better the speech. I continue to believe that personal, direct access is what transforms good speeches into great and memorable ones.
And who knows? Maybe, some day, I’ll write a great and memorable speech.