Advice on authenticity from a former U.S. Senator’s speechwriter
PNC Bank’s Patrice Smith shares secrets to crafting an executive speech that ChatGPT can’t imitate.
Speechwriting for a U.S. Senator in Congress was a dream for self-described introvert Patrice Smith, now vice president of media relations at PNC Bank. “Words that I wrote from my desk were transcribed into the United States record,” said Smith. “They’re written in the history of this country forever.” To get to that moment, Smith needed to learn the rhythms and intricacies of how her principal spoke. “I had to be a student—and still am.”
Ahead of her session at PR Daily’s Public Affairs & Speechwriting virtual conference, we sat down with Smith to discuss her speechwriting career writing for Senator Tim Scott, the advice she gives to C-suite on authentic storytelling, and why AI won’t replace human writers anytime soon.
Can you describe how you tackle speechwriting and capturing a principal’s voice?
Smith: When it comes to speechwriting, it really takes a lot of studying, [which] is what’s unique compared to the other different segments of public relations and communications. You are learning how to be someone else, literally.
When I worked for the Senator, I spent months studying his voice. I listened to every single news segment published on YouTube. I listened to every speech. I listened to anything and everything so that I could capture how he speaks. He had just written a book, so I took the voice that I was used to hearing and I read the book in that voice. That was all before my interview.
Even after getting the role, it was constantly a refinement process. Even if I wrote [a speech], I was in the back taking notes, because the way I would write something on paper wasn’t necessarily the way that he would speak it. I would always listen to what he used, what he changed and how could I refine it to make it better. After three years of working for him, I felt like I finally had his voice and he was saying what I was writing.
You really have to study your principal. Granted, you’re not them, but you want to get into the point where like people think that you are them.
There’s a huge difference between writing a long-form speech and writing a tweet. What direction will you give to comms lead when they are tackling social media?
When you’re writing social media content, just be natural. A lot of times people focus too much on writing something that will go viral. When I would write something, I would take a sentence from a quote or statement that I had already drafted. It will go viral if it’s good.
What’s the advice you give to leadership or C-suite about sharing information to their teams authentically?
Without adding jargon, how would you explain this to your wife? Or to the person [at the bottom of the org chart]? Remember first and foremost that you’re talking to people. Once you understand what those people want or need from you, you can communicate to them in a way that will resonate with them.
How would you take a speech and adapt it to share across channels?
When I was in the Senate, we did this quite a bit. You can take the same piece of content and use it across many different platforms, but you have to know your audience.
Twitter is everybody, not necessarily your constituents, but people who are interested in you as a political figure — and reporters. Facebook has the folks back at home who are interested in what you’re actually doing for [them]. Instagram is the younger population, Millennials and younger typically, and LinkedIn is the business folks.
You have to find out what in the speech will resonate with [each] group.
What is your favorite tool or platform that you use that makes your life easier?
Apple Notes is a godsend. I can’t tell you how many speeches and press releases I’ve written on that. I like project management tools like Monday.com, Trello, those are amazing. Today I use stickies, either physical stickies or a digital sticky or Apple Notes.
Let’s talk AI.
ChatGPT. [laughs] Let’s talk about this. In addition to working at the bank, I’m an adjunct faculty member at Georgetown University on the graduate program for public relations and corporate communication. This has come up.
I will admit, it does give us heartburn on the academic side because students can draft whole papers. The AI is so good to where you can’t tell when the students are providing their own thought leadership versus [ChatGPT].
One thing AI [can’t] do is capture voice. It can give me a very academic piece, but when it comes to writing for my principals, it wouldn’t know to switch out this word for this word. There are little things that I know, for example, the Senator hates the word politicians versus elected officials. It can’t capture human personality and human preferences.
It can’t specialize. While ChatGPT can give [my students] a strategic communications plan, it can’t capture those human moments that only you as a writer know about. If they want to try, I’m really good at vetting papers. I feel like universities will start to update their rules on academic dishonesty.
Can you give any advice to communicators that are hoping to break into the speechwriting field?
Great writers read. I’ll admit, I have a lot of unfinished books. That’s #1.
Figure out what you want to communicate, what industry you want to work in and what you’re passionate about. Speechwriters do a lot of research so it should be something you’re passionate about. When I’m not at work, I’m spending all my time studying finance.
Every executive needs a communicator. Once you pair those two things, you can land where you want.
And… seek professional development. Writing is a craft that you have to continue to hone. You don’t just make it as a writer, you always have to be invested in getting better.
Join Smith at PR Daily’s Public Affairs & Speechwriting virtual conference, which goes down April 4. Smith will speak alongside speechwriters and communications leaders from the U.S. Navy, Edelman, IBM, the U.S. Department of Labor, and more.
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Wow, learning from even one Conference presentation like this can help a student get a job that permits paying more rent, going to restaurants more and enjoying more happiness from succeeding. But the following paragraph may not be correct:
“Figure out what you want to communicate, what industry you want to work in and what you’re passionate about. Speechwriters do a lot of research so it should be something you’re passionate about.”
What to communicate is the employer’s decision, not yours. What industry to work in may be decided by where you can get a job. And what you’re passionate about doesn’t matter because the job is to communicate what the boss is passionate about.
Every executive needs