Claire Duffy's blog about public speaking and communication (in real life). Speak well, do well!
This NY Times article from Draft, a series about the art and craft of writing, was so interesting I’m just posting the lot, with no permission at all – trust it’s fair use for educational purposes. Read on – and learn!
Kurt Vonnegut once wrote that “only nut cases want to be president.” But he helped me become a White House speechwriter. In 1965, Vonnegut was my adviser at the University of Iowa Writers’ Workshop, where I was studying fiction. One day, he said he could get me an assistantship, but I’d have to teach speech.
“I know nothing about speech,” I said.
He said something like: “Learn. It’s 1,800 bucks.”
In class, Kurt had annoyed some students by boiling all fiction down to a diagram: “Get someone in trouble. Get them out!” he would say. “Man-in-the-hole!”
Right, Kurt. But I was in a hole. $1,800 would help.
Next fall, as the Vietnam War was heating up, I stayed one chapter ahead of my students. When I decided that politics mattered to me just as much as writing novels, I’d learned enough to become a speechwriter. But wait! Isn’t speechwriting the sewage-filled, dumbed-down tributary of writing, designed to deceive and make inarticulate politicians seem smart?
No, because those charges fall far below even a half-truth. Political speechwriters trade the pleasure of writing under our own names for the power to help achieve policies we’re passionate about and, of course, help elect people who favor them. Democratic and Republican speechwriters may differ on the content of the speeches, but we agree on the value of the writing. This is why at midnight, in any political office, you find writers adding detail to a paragraph, compressing a sentence and trying to create the runs of antithesisthat bring crowds to their feet.
When I write speeches, I’m influenced by novels. I use story to move listeners. I also plant something in the opening and bring it back at the end, the way Anton Chekhov advised (“If in the first act you have hung a pistol on the wall…”), and I search for illuminating details, as Joseph Conrad urged (“My task is to make you hear, to make you feel, and, above all, to make you see”). But this hectic, collaborative life is nothing like the novelist’s, especially when it comes to the nerve-jangling pressure to meet impossible deadlines.
Once, back in the ’90s, when I wrote for Representative David E. Bonior of Michigan, the Democratic House majority whip, he said he wanted to do a one-minute speech. Something about the economy, he said. It was 11:50. “When do you speak?” I asked. “12:02.”
I wrote a 150-word speech, called my mother to tell her if she turned on C-Span she’d see me on the House floor, ran up three flights and handed it to Mr. Bonior just as he was walking to the well.
It’s tough to do great work when your first draft is often your last. It also can be difficult to make someone sound like Moses addressing the Israelites when you announce a three-point plan for reducing the deficit. And it’s an art to write for a general American audience, which averages a seventh-grade reading level. It genuinely distresses some academics that politicians today speak many school grades below George Washington’s Farewell Address. But a few years back researchers gave us a sense of what that seventh-grade level means. They tested adult, English-speaking hospital patients on some common directions about health, like the idiomatic sentence “Do not take this medicine on an empty stomach.” Did patients understand it? More than 40 percent didn’t.
To speechwriters that means, don’t write sentences even that complex. You can’t hand your boss a speech saying, “It’s got all your ideas. But 40 percent of your audience won’t know what you’re talking about.” Luckily, English is a rich language. Without losing nuance you can say a lot with simple words — use, not utilize; now, not currently — and simple sentences.
Speechwriters must help maintain what Aristotle called ethos, or character. Voters cast ballots not just for candidates they agree with, but for those they like. Are they compassionate? Humble? Optimistic?
To convey likability, politicians can’t just point to problems. They need to propose solutions. Monroe’s Motivated Sequence, the five-step structure most popular in political speech, has problem solving at its core. The most meaningful part of writing in politics is the attempt to make terrible problems real to listeners. But once we do that it’s hard to convince people of our sometimes puny solutions.
Even if we do all of that well, we won’t please everyone. If a president announces that the United States will invade Iraq or that he favors same-sex marriage, you can’t expect those on the other side to appreciate your graceful turn of phrase.
In 1989 I wrote Senator Lloyd Bentsen’s Democratic response to President George Bush’s address to Congress. It’s impossible for someone sitting alone in a room facing a single camera to match the glitzy presence of a president in a packed House chamber. The next morning I complained to my wife: 39 million people had watched Mr. Bush, but as soon as Mr. Bentsen started, 11 million turned off the television. Well, she said, gently, 28 million listeners were about 300 times as many people as had read all my novels.
Much of what lures speechwriters is the prospect of reaching so many people about ideas we think so important — as Peggy Noonan did forMr. Bush in 1989 (“thousand points of light”) ; Bob Shrum did forEdward M. Kennedy in 1980 (“the dream shall never die”); and Matt Scully did for Sarah Palin in 2008 (“If character is the measure in this election …”).
I have passed no bill, stopped no war, created no policy that would bring health insurance to a single person. But if we expect to see such results solely from our work, that dooms many to disappointment. There’s plenty to celebrate about being part of the team.
As a speechwriter in the House, Senate and White House, I wrote about 25,000 words a month — as much as three books each year. I cherish the four novels I wrote. But I am also proud that when Al Gore spoke at Nelson Mandela’s inauguration, he read my words. I’ve written a eulogy for Rosa Parks, speeches against a war I hated and for presidential candidates I loved. I’ve written about ways to educate children in the United States and to save the lives of children in Africa. At a Rose Garden event where Mr. Gore introduced President Bill Clinton, a photographer snapped a picture of Gore whispering to my son, “He wrote the president’s speech, too.”
So it would have been nice to tell Kurt how much more than 1,800 bucks I got out of his idea. He probably would have thought I put way too much faith in politics, though he would have been too nice to say it. If he picked up one of my speeches, would he have heard echoes of Conrad and Chekhov? Not likely.
But when he read through my problem-solution section he might have said what I now know is true of stories, speeches, speechwriting and, come to think of it, much of life. “Man-in-the-hole!!”
Robert Lehrman, who was the chief speechwriter for Vice President Al Gore, is the author of four novels and “The Political Speechwriter’s Companion” and teaches speechwriting at American University.