Utilitarian speechwriting: When the job is to inform, not inspire

How to keep things interesting under less than ideal circumstances.

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Let’s get real.

Those of us in the public sector who write speeches for a living long for the chance to compose a masterpiece that artfully combines the elegant simplicity of the Gettysburg Address, the prophetic intensity of Martin Luther King’s “Dream” speech, and the historical durability of Winston Churchill’s “Iron Curtain” speech.

Oh, but that’s not enough. We want more. We don’t just want to pen these masterworks for the ages. We want them to be delivered by someone with extraordinary oratorical gifts. Someone who intuitively understands how to make the most of the pregnant pause, variable pitch, and a podium-thumping call to action that lifts words off the page and elicits a thunderous ovation.

Well, dream on.

The dozen or more speeches I write each month are strictly workaday and intentionally disposable. From a policy perspective, they are important. But inspiring? Not exactly. And is that my fault? Not exactly.

The truth is, when the head of a federal agency addresses a group of, say, health-care executives one day, and labor leaders the next, there’s a lot more at stake than elegance. What matters most is to convey a consistent set of policy messages that the media can readily carry forward in simple sound bites and short headlines.

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