The main factor that determines whether communication fails or succeeds often boils down to trust.
Does your audience trust you? If they do, they’ll listen to what you have to say.
Do your execs trust you? If they do, they’ll seek you out as an advisor and share candid thoughts instead of giving you surface-level drivel.
To help you reach new heights of trust and authenticity in your messaging, a heavy-hitting panel of experts shared communication wisdom at Ragan’s Speechwriting & Public Affairs virtual conference on Thursday, March 4. Here are some top takeaways shared by the speakers:
Distilling complex policy into bite-size takeaways
According to Stephen Krupin, who served under President Obama, speechwriters must be interpreters and translators. Whatever subject matter you’re covering, trace policy back to human impact and lived experience. “Take the policy out of its vacuum,” he says, and “connect the issue to a larger narrative and story.”
Krupin says to be mindful of the language you deploy, but don’t be overly concerned with pithy lines, rhymes or other rhetorical devices. Focus on the personal, emotional and human element of what you’re trying to convey. You want to succinctly capture the essence of an argument, “but you must present the argument first,” he says.
In this regard, personal anecdotes and stories always trump data and numbers.
‘Think clearly, and leave the soundbite to God’
Longtime Washington Post reporter and Hillary Clinton speechwriter Desson Thomson, suggests how to distill complexity into clarity. “The more complex it is, the more important it is to have a one-sentence opening,” he says. Launch into the meat of your story, and quickly start building your persuasive case.
Instead of just making corrections to a draft of a speech, have a conversation with your client. Thomson says to ask leading questions to your executive, such as, “What’s the cheat sheet of this thought?” and, “So you’re saying this…”
It’s an interplay, with the goal of getting your speaker to explain dense concepts in plain, conversational terms.
On the topic of serving up tasty soundbites, Thomson quotes Peggy Noonan: “Try to think clearly and write well. Leave the soundbite to God.” The idea, here, is “don’t get too cute” in pursuit of what you perceive to be an irresistible soundbite. Thomson advises you focus instead on “distilling a big idea into something simple.”
Trust is about ‘connection’
Katye Riselli, a speechwriter for Laura Bush, emphasizes focusing on the needs and preferences of your audience. It’s not just about you and your principal. “You need people to listen to you,” she says, with a reminder to always ask: “Who are you writing for?”
Riselli says that being scripted is a good thing. Some execs are hesitant about this idea, as they feel “authenticity” requires extemporaneous interaction. On the contrary, being prepared signals a basic show of respect for your audience. You don’t want to be robotic, of course, but preparation goes a long way toward preventing a freewheeling fiasco.
“Trust is about connection, which comes from preparedness,” Riselli says, noting that adlibbing can quickly backfire and damage trust.
Riselli and other panelists then shared their top tips for speechwriters and communicators:
- Strive to keep execs in their comfort zone, but push them to share more personal stories.
- Every speech is a speech about “America” (or your company). Go beyond the issue at hand to make it personal and relevant for your specific audience.
- Make the end of the speech inspirational and universal. Give your audience a take-home, and make it personal for people. As Thomson notes, movies are always about the bigger “us,” not just the characters. As an example, he shared the Bill Clinton quote: “There’s nothing wrong with America that can’t be cured by what’s right with America.”
- Writing is ultimately storytelling. To expand your skills, study other storytelling methods, such as photography, poetry or videography.
- Keep it personal. Encourage executives to tell personal stories. As Riselli notes, “Your audience will walk with you if you give them something personal.”
A repeatable framework for success
According to Mike Souder, a speechwriter and former deputy communications director for the U.S. House of Representatives, messaging success hinges on three factors:
Inward comes first. Sounder says that self-care should be your first order of business. Be mindful of your own mental health and personal happiness. Frequently ask: Do you enjoy the work you do? Do you respect your colleagues?
Souder offers a reminder that if you’re not happy, you’re not going to do your job well. So, be careful with the types of clients you work with. “Not every paycheck is worth it,” he says.
Global knowledge is a must. You must know what’s happening in the world.
To succeed, you should be able to read the room locally, nationally and internationally. The best speechwriters take time to understand the chief concerns of their audience—no matter where they might be.
If you’re informed on what’s happening in the world, you’ll have sharper, more relevant insights. And you’ll be more likely to catch and avoid off-color statements before they escape into the wild. Souder says that being up on current events will improve your life by broadening your perspective and enriching your mind. (You might also commit to learning the world capitals to boost your networking skills.)
Build your strategic framework. Souder says speechwriting success hinges on building relationships. “It’s about purpose,” he says. You should be the one in the room who draws messaging back to the deeper meaning and goals you’re trying to achieve.
How do you become indispensable? Continually research and track your progress, he says. Read old speeches and interviews. Analyze your executive’s pacing, language, cadence and rhythm. Track what works for your writing process and what doesn’t.
Expand your knowledge base by interviewing senior staffers, other writers and friends of your executive. Souder offers more tips:
- Talk to people you normally might not for fresh insights and new perspectives.
- Read voraciously.
- Get outside your comfort zone to learn.
- Establish processes. Don’t just wing it. Set up a speechwriting process to reduce stress. Efficiency creates value, so create a process that’s repeatable.
- It’s not about mimicking. Authenticity is presenting perspective, context and motivations behind “why” someone said something.