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Don’t Blame The Speechwriters

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Don’t Blame The Speechwriters

In the early days of my career in business, I spent a few years writing speeches for BFGoodrich’s CEO and other executives. It was a great education for me in subjects involving business, management, government, employee relations and so on. Not sure many in business, education and nonprofit organizations give formal speeches much these days. Mostly, they read off PowerPoint slides, while the audience replies to e-mail and sends messages via Twitter.

That’s a shame.

Being able to develop a point of view over a period of 20 minutes or more, engage an audience with words and not visuals, and then get the audience to take some kind of action as a result of the oratory — and writing — is a skill. And say what you want about the negative campaign ads and the mindless robocalls, those who craft the hundreds (or more) speeches given by the candidates for office at all levels still play an important role in creating an understanding about the issues and about the candidates themselves.

Here’s an interesting NYT article by Robert Lehrman, former chief speechwriter for Al Gore, “The Political Speechwriter’s Life“:

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.

And more:

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.

For all the billions spent during this presidential campaign, I’m still not exactly sure where Obama and Romney stand on the major issues.

But I’m not blaming the speechwriters.

 

Image Credit: Great Political Speeches, via Amazon.com

 

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