I read a wonderful book called “The Lost Art of the Great Speech: How to Write One, How to Deliver It,” by Richard Dowis, an award-winning speechwriter and retired senior vice president of Manning, Selvage and Lee.
The book is chock full of great writing tips and world-class speeches by everyone from Washington, Lincoln, Churchill and Roosevelt to JFK, Jesse Jackson, Nelson Mandela and Mario Cuomo—with some female representation from Rep. Barbara Jordan, Margaret Thatcher and former UN Ambassador Jeanne Kirkpatrick.
One of the excellent chapters is on editing the speech. Dowis quotes former Reagan speechwriter Peggy Noonan, who says this about being edited, “A speech is a fondue pot, and everyone has a fork. And I mean everyone.”
Dowis adds, “If you’re a speechwriter working in a corporate or government environment, you’ll have plenty of ‘editors’ – probably more than you want or need. Everyone, it seems, is a frustrated writer and cannot resist the impulse to edit someone else’s hard work.”
He’s right, of course, but all writers need editing.
One of the best editors I ever had was the manager of my speechwriters group at a telecommunications company back in New Haven, Conn. It was my first real speechwriting job.
After reviewing the speech, my manager would come to my desk, script in hand, and begin a conversation that went something like this: “I really like this speech, but I’d like to draw your attention to a few areas you might like to think about.”
He’d proceed to walk me through the speech, stopping at those spots he thought needed a little more reflection. He’d say: “Is this quite the right word to use to describe this? What do you think the audience will think when they hear this?”
He was so insightful and kind about his reviews and edits, I most often agreed with him and went on to make changes that strengthened the speech.
His supervisor in our department, who also reviewed our speeches, was also gentle in her edits. She would send the speech back with “Good Start!” written in the upper right-hand corner. We knew this usually meant numerous edits were to follow. But I never thought they were gratuitous or arbitrary. I always thought they were designed to improve the speech.
Years later, in a different corporate setting, when my speeches were edited by less creative people—in the technology group, for example, or in corporate affairs—the results were less pleasing.
On this subject, Dowis quotes what Peggy Noonan writes in her own book, What I Saw at the Revolution. Dowis says: “In the book she tells of writing a speech for the president to deliver to students in Shanghai. In her final draft of the speech, she included this paragraph:
“‘My young friends, history is a river that takes us as it will. But we have the power to navigate, to choose direction, and make our passage together. The wind is up, the tide is high, and the opportunity for a long and fruitful journey awaits us. Generations hence will honor us for having begun the voyage…'”
Dowis continues, “Ms. Noonan relates that a State Department functionary, in reviewing the draft, had numerous changes, including elimination of the metaphor of history as a river. His reason was that the metaphor was ‘politically unhelpful’ because, in his words, ‘the history is a river’ claim is more in line with standard Marxian theory regarding historical determination than with the idea that man can affect his fate.”
We’ve all been there, no?
Dowis suggests these steps in editing speeches, which are very helpful to those of us in who are freelance speechwriters without a built-in supervisor to edit our talks:
First, let it rest, he advises. “Once you have completed your draft, put it aside if time permits. Actually, the speech will never leave your subconscious mind. Your mind will continue to work on it, and when you get back to it, ready to do your editing, you’ll be able to look at it more objectively.”
Second, edit for content. “In editing a speech for content,” Dowis writes, “question everything. Check every statement, every statistic, every quotation for accuracy. Examine every metaphor, analogy, quotation, statistic, and illustration for stability. Be especially critical of your humorous touches. Most important, look at the overall content of the speech and ask yourself once more whether it fulfills the basic purpose of the speech as stated in your prewriting phase.” Or outline, as we like to call it.
Third, edit for organization. Dowis writes, “Now is the time to be certain the speech is coherent, that it hangs together, that it is a unified presentation rather than just a collection of ideas and information. Remember transitions. When you go from one thought to another, is the transition smooth?”
Fourth, edit for style. “Editing for style,” says Dowis, “will probably produce the most changes.” This editing “involves how word combinations, sentences, and paragraphs are put together to create the meanings and impressions you want to convey with your speech.”
He continues: “Simplicity has a certain eloquence all its own. Never underestimate the power of a simple, declarative sentence.”
Fifth, edit for language. Dowis urges speechwriters to edit for overuse of jargon, use of too many long words, infrequent use of contractions and personal pronouns, overuse of the passive voice, use of clichés, and use of too many generalities rather than concrete words.
Sixth and last, edit for grammar. “Although perfect grammar does not produce a perfect speech, too many instances of bad grammar can damage an otherwise good speech.”
So, there you have it. I know I’ll use these tips in editing all the speeches I write. But I’d pay a lot of money for time to do the very first one, “Let it rest.” Sigh…
Cynthia J. Starks is partner of Starks Communications.