i are speechwriter.
I remember the first speech I ever wrote. I was in high school and we were assigned the grueling task of oration. At the time (for God knows why), I thought it would be most appropriate to deliver a speech inspired by Ronald Reagan. Armed with the borrowed conservative worldview of Rush Limbaugh, I wrote out a speech. Two pages. About 8 minutes. I did pretty well.
Then, when I saw Obama on the campaign trail, I thought speechwriting could’ve been one of those things I could do with my life. I could write speeches for an elected official. I could be their mouthpiece, the direct link between their mouths and their brains. I could verbalize policy and rhetoric. I could write about Bob the Farmer, Mary the Teacher, the little black kids who were going to grow up and dream big. Not a bad gig, I thought to myself. Then, another twentysomething started writing and I went back to the drawing board.
When I think of speeches, I note the only two possibilities: you’re either riveted or searching for an instrument to keep your eyes open. Words on paper are completely different. You can always return later on to force your consciousness into finishing the prose. But with a speech, you have one shot to get your message out, eloquently and succinctly. Needless to say, speechwriting was a new kind of writing for me.
Since entering this new position, I have often joked that I have been abused for my one (and possibly, only) talent: writing. I tell people I can write my way out of anything. I can justify. I can seduce with logic, proper flow and grammar. I can most probably win court cases and save lives if I had a few days, a fully functional laptop and the proper physical conditions. But when I first had to write a speech for my boss, I totally shut down.
If I was writing another blog that only 3 people read (hah), I could let myself slide. But now, I kind of write for a living. I was totally averse to writing speeches, in part, because of the content. I was once used to writing reports, issue briefs, and op-ed types of essays. You know, for readers. But speechwriting for a politician had a new element of writing fluff. I was no longer going to be writing for justification and logic. I had to buckle down and get used to appealing to the fluffy circumlocution of emotion and inspiration.
I watched movies on TV, took naps and did, basically, everything in my power to procrastinate from my job. Then I had to buckle down and suck it up. I had to start writing speeches and hope for it to eventually become second nature.
By now, I have written a series of epic failure speeches but they are tempered with the gems of successful orations, where people have come up to me afterwards and told me that I wrote a winner. I’m still learning the ropes, but have found it helpful to keep the following tips handy. You know, for the other speechwriters out there who are doing research, reading aloud in their heads and hooked to the caffeine of their choice.
1. Shakespeare said it. So do it. Brevity is the soul of wit.
If you made it to this part of my blog, I’m sure somewhere along the way, you’ve said “this fool writes too much.” I know. I don’t like being brief in my blogs since I run this shit anyway, but when it comes to speeches, managing brevity and wit is the game. Edit, edit, edit and cut. You don’t need as many words as you need captured attention.
2. Know your mouthpiece.
In this case, I have gotten to know my boss much better in the last few months. In case you were wondering, I’ve kind of known her all my life (due to blood relation), but really knowing her - from delivery style to how big her reading font should be, takes a significant investment. At most of her speeches, you can find me passing her the folder with her speech and sitting somewhere close by watching my words come alive. It helps to observe your mouthpiece to know what can be improved upon in the future.
3. Research, research and… research some more.
When politicians speak, most of the time, the dismissive audience think that no thought goes into it. But in fact, you can spend hours on research for just one speech. Whether it’s looking for facts and figures or interesting anecdotes to relay, speechwriting research makes your work more credible and not 100% fluff. Believe me, I can pull fluff out of my butt, but infusing critical research about the real issues at hand makes your speeches that much more interesting and professional.
I also make sure to know my audience. I have to admit, most of my epic failure speeches have come from not knowing our audience too well. Sometimes, it really can’t be helped because of the fuzzy channels of information in this country (one day, I will tell the tales of over-the-phone follow-ups that take weeks to get replies… welcome to third world governance) and I know I need to streamline this better. In this country knowing your audience sometimes makes all the difference, whether things need to be in English, Tagalog, Tag-lish, long, short and how much fluff to infuse.
4. Proof your work for audibility.
Like I’ve emphasized, writing for reading tends to be a bit easier. You can be wordy and flowery, and use complicated words to impress your reader. But if you are writing for an audience of listeners, I make sure to read my writing out loud to make sure nothing sounds weird together. I often change words to simpler ones if I know, audibly, it won’t help in getting our message across.
5. Be inspired.
I don’t know about you, but when I am not inspired, my propensity to produce shit speeches and shit anything increases. I totally take this as my own problem and hold myself accountable for my own inspiration. What keeps me inspired is talking to lobbyists, constituents and other officials on the important issues I have to write speeches on. Keeping my ears open to the thoughts of others really helps me out when I’m faced with an empty document and a blinking cursor. I also make sure I observe other elected officials delivering speeches and take note of their words and body language. YouTube is a good resource for the ghosts of speeches past, where I get my dose of rhetoric and fluff from important orators of our time. I’ve watched tons of footage from commencement speeches to Obama’s announcement of Bin Laden’s death. These critical moments in history serve as great guides for writing a message for delivery.
Once our portion of the website for speeches goes up, I’ll make sure to link up on here to share some of the work I’ve done so far.
But for now (you guessed it), I have another speech to write. Here’s to the other speechwriters out there!