Speechwriters wield a unique power to inform and inspire. They consistently transform complex issues into concepts and stories that move hearts and minds.
Here are some insights from a veteran speechwriter to help you or your exec do the same—whether from the podium, a presidential suite or in a Zoom town hall:
1. Nail their voice—get tight with your exec. “Spend as much time with your principal as possible,” says David Levey, who was a speechwriter at the Drug Enforcement Administration for 13 years. “That will help build a strong, trusting relationship with them and capture their ‘voice.’”
YouTube videos and recordings help, but Levey believes the most valuable time you can spend is with your exec in person. One pro tip: Ask to get in the car with them on their way to or from a speaking engagement.
“They often just won’t have time for you otherwise,” he says. “You’ll get to see firsthand how they prepare and talk, what phraseology and even metaphors they prefer—and you get to do it without someone pushing them out of the room to another meeting.”
That kind of access usually requires you to also get close to your exec’s gatekeepers.
“Get to know their chief of staff, their ‘special advisors’ or whoever controls their schedule,” Levey adds. “Ask what your principal likes or doesn’t like, as well as when the principal is most receptive or available. If the contact is close to your exec, ask for ideas and spitball them together. Build trust there and it’ll pay off.”
He also recommends always reading your drafts aloud. “You’ll better emulate your exec’s sense of cadence and tone,” he says. “You’ll also hear where they might get hung up, or if it’s getting too verbose.”
2. Get uncomfortable—take to the podium. “If you want to be a good speechwriter, it helps to learn what it takes to be a good speaker,” says Levey. “Put yourself in what is for many the uncomfortable position of being in front of others whenever you can, so you know the tools you need to help your principal be successful when they are speaking in front of others.”
One of Levey’s most valuable experiences was writing his own speeches and presentations as an adjunct professor at John Carroll University in Cleveland.
“I had to talk about international trade twice a week for four years,” he says. “I learned what I wanted on the paper—whether it was a full speech or just bullet points. I also learned what the pressures are like to be in front of an audience who are scrutinizing and questioning what I’m saying.”
His bigger point: “You’re in a leadership role as a speechwriter,” he says. “Accept that though you’re not on stage, your words are and you have a responsibility to ensure that what is in front of your principal is correct and puts them in the best light. Your speech is an essential element of effectively communicating your organization’s priorities and positions.”
3. Read the masters for inspiration. “When you’re stuck or in a funk, try reading somebody who is a great writer, particularly if they have a speechwriting background,” suggests Levey.
A top recommendation is Peggy Noonan, President Reagan’s former speechwriter. Today she writes the “Declarations” column which appears regularly in The Wall Street Journal.
“Read it and anything you can find by Theodore Sorensen, who was Kennedy’s speechwriter,” Levey says. “Study their lyricism, compact sentences, colloquialism and sense of structure. Listen to their words ‘with your eyes’ and you will hear in your head the picture they’re painting with words. This may get you out of your funk and inspire you to start putting words down on the page.”
Sorensen’s use of imagery is made more potent as he battled blindness in later life while writing a memoir, “Counselor: A Life at the Edge of History,” about his work in government. It sings because he had mastered “visual writing”—and the text serves as a great example for speechwriters to follow.
Sorensen had also mastered Kennedy’s “voice” starting in his early years in working for him. A story in his memoir recalls a time when Kennedy actually lost his voice at a campaign stop. Sorensen filled in and a reporter later discovered he had been “reading” Kennedy’s speech from blank pages, according to The New York Times.
If you can achieve that level of engagement, you are truly a master and are an indefensible insider to your principal.