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

How to keep things interesting under less than ideal circumstances.

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.

In 1946, Churchill could pull this off: “From Stettin in the Baltic to Trieste in the Adriatic, an iron curtain has descended across the Continent.”

Today, even the best government speechwriter might very well be reduced to a pale equivalent: “Throughout the Baltic and Adriatic regions, the Continent faces many challenges posed by Soviet influence.”

Now before you fault this contemporary speechwriter for a failure of imagination and faintness of heart, consider two real-world variables. First, federal officials must take great care not to make policy on the fly, or alienate sensitive constituencies, as doing so may well trigger an unpleasant call from the White House. (Believe me, I’ve seen it happen.) Second, this speaker ain’t Churchill. Not by a long shot. He (or she) may keep eyes glued to a speech book or index cards; have prepped little or not at all; and possess a truly astonishing indifference to the power of great oratory.

A third variable that also bears mentioning is time, or the lack of it. I, for one, often have less than four hours to research and write a policy speech that will be delivered to hundreds of senior-level folks, with media present. Hardly enough time to invent such a felicitous phrase as “the iron curtain,” let alone tinker with pacing, stylistic flourishes, and other niceties that masterpieces require.

In my world, speechwriting has primarily a utilitarian purpose, which is not to inspire, but to inform (with a wee bit of jargon thrown in), perhaps to excite (a little, but not too much), and give everyone in the audience some kind words of encouragement.

A low bar, you think? Maybe. But that’s often the way it’s done, particularly in government. So the question arises, how does a speechwriter keep things interesting under circumstances like these?

We may be tinkering at the margins here, but a couple of coping mechanisms are worth trying.

Work with the limitations of your speaker, not against them. If he or she is a stumbler or worse, a mumbler, keep sentences short and declarative. Avoid compound adjectives or complex phrasing of any kind. Don’t use any big or unusual vocabulary. And make sure he or she speaks right into the microphone.

Accommodate your speaker’s reading-out-loud skills. Some highly intelligent executives struggle to read written material aloud. (A neurological processing issue?) It helps to use a large sans-serif font size on the page (e.g., 18 points). Craft short bullets instead of fluid paragraphs, with plenty of white space in between. And limit the amount of type displayed on a given page.

Embed speaking cues in the written speech. Develop cues that your speaker knows how to interpret, such as putting key points in boldface, or actually writing in a word like “pause” where it’s needed. Some executives respond to the command, “Speak Slowly,” on every page.

Provide executive coaching. An executive who speaks in public several times a week will likely come to see the value of doing better. Coaching can range from offering simple pointers (where and how to switch focus from page to audience; the value of at least one run-through, etc.) to more intimate feedback about voice levels, pacing, how to emphasize key words, etc. If you are not comfortable in this role, elicit the involvement of a senior staffer the executive knows well and trusts.

I hope I haven’t conveyed the impression that I’ve somehow settled for second-best as a speechwriter. The truth is, I love being in a position to help articulate — and sometimes even to craft — policies that matter to the president, the Congress, and the American people.

I just wish somebody would give me a crack at one of those inaugurals.

Louise Garland, who is writing under a pen name, is a senior speechwriter in a federal agency in Washington, D.C. She has worked in the federal government for about six years, and before that, spent more than 20 years as an award-winning journalist working in print and radio.

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