The 5 secrets of great speechwriting

At the intersection of Sesame Street and John Wayne Boulevard, the author learned the fundamentals of writing for a statesman in a time of crisis. Here are his takeaways.

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David McCloud, the chief of staff of the governor of Virginia, taught me how to write a great speech:

• Great speeches are primarily emotional, not logical.
• Small shifts in tone make an enormous difference to the audience, so sweat the details.
• A great speech has a clear voice speaking throughout.
• A great speech conveys one idea only, though it can have lots of supporting points.
• A great speech answers a great need.

The lesson nearly killed me. I had a Ph.D. in literature and rhetoric, and I was teaching at the University of Virginia, when Gov. Chuck Robb plucked me from academic obscurity to write speeches for him.

The previous speechwriter had cracked under the strain and had taken to shouting Nazi war slogans and charging around the office barefoot using his hat rack as a battering ram. So, of course, he had to go; he alarmed the governor’s State Police detail too much.

I don’t know why that didn’t worry me at the time. I suppose I was blinded by the opportunity to put my academic ideals into practice. I was installed in the same office, and I spent most of the first day or two looking at the hat rack and wondering how bad it would have to get before I, too, would be tempted to pick it up and go horizontal with it.

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