8 lessons from a former White House speechwriter

NASA’s Terry Edmonds was the first African-American presidential speechwriter, serving under President Clinton. He mines that rich experience for some valuable takeaways.

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All those scribbles blackening the text and filling the margins? Clinton’s handwriting, not Edmonds’.

“There are only three words that survived his editing,” Edmonds said at a recent Ragan Speechwriters and Executive Communicators Conference. “‘Vice President Gore.’ Whenever I get a big head and think that I’m a great presidential speechwriter, I look at this.”

It didn’t always go like that, though. Now a NASA speechwriter, Edmonds might be excused for taking a bit of pride in his accomplishments. As Clinton’s director of speechwriting, he was the first African-American presidential speechwriter.

Edmonds also has written the words for some of America’s best known politicians, among them Sen. John Kerry, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, and former Secretary of Health and Human Services Donna Shalala. He has held major corporate positions, such as speechwriter for the chairman and chief executive of Time Warner.

“As speechwriters we’re accustomed to the phrase: Leave your ego at the door,” Edmonds said. “But I’m sure you would agree with me: We can’t help it. We always bring ourselves to what we do.”

Here are a few of his lessons learned:

1. Remember whom you serve.

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