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.

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.

David called me into his office on Day Three for my first assignment. Four death-row inmates had escaped from Mecklenburg State Prison and were wandering loose in the Virginia countryside, which alarmed the citizenry. The governor had to give a speech to show that he was in control of the situation.

“The truth is,” David said, “that no one pays any attention to prisons until someone escapes. Then everyone wants to know why we don’t spend more money, hire more guards, do whatever it takes to keep scary people from getting out. Write a speech which says that we care about voters’ security but won’t waste their money, either.”

I made a face. “But those two things are logically contradictory.”

“Your first lesson in real speechwriting,” he said. “Logic has nothing to do with it. Figure it out.”

Clutching my logic and my expensive education in rhetoric, I went back to my office to figure it out. For about half a day I stared at the computer screen with no idea how to begin. At some point, David popped into my office to see how I was getting on. He took in my lack of progress at a glance.

“Think John Wayne,” he said. “Make the governor tough.”

So I thought about what John Wayne would have said if he’d been the governor, and shortly a script began to form on the screen. I wrote, re-wrote, and finally had a draft that I thought was pure gubernatorial magic. I handed it in to David.

A few hours later, an email arrived “My office. Now.”

David scowled at me when I walked in. “This is the worst first draft I’ve ever seen,” he said. “It’s ridiculous. It’s too much John Wayne, not enough governor. Go back and try again.”

So I did. I took John Wayne out and let in the sweet light of reason instead. I handed in what I thought was a much more measured draft to David the next morning.

This time he came to me. “This is the second-worst draft I’ve ever seen,” he said. “The governor sounds like a ‘Sesame Street’ character. Give him his cojones back.”

He left. I bowed my head over the screen. This was not the enlightened political discourse I had been expecting. I looked at the hat rack. Then I wrote another draft.

Before I got that speech right—and before David was satisfied with it—I wrote 12 drafts. John Wayne and “Sesame Street” came and went. I added sections on prison spending and took them out. I put in an update on the search for the escapees and revised it over and over again. I researched Thomas Jefferson’s attitude toward prisons and put in a section quoting him. It wasn’t until draft No. 11 that David thought it was even worth sending it to the governor for him to look at.

“OK,” he said. “It’s not great, but it’s OK for a first try.”

David was not my favorite person in the world that week, nor for a number of weeks after. But in the end I realized that in being tough on me he had given me an enormous gift: He had taught me how to push myself to do better than I thought I possibly could.

He also taught me how to write a speech—in the real world. Great speeches are primarily emotional, not logical. Small shifts in tone and phrasing 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. And most of all: A great speech answers a great need.

Thanks, David.

A version of this article first appeared on Public Words.

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