Vital speechwriting takeaways from the political conventions

When compelling messages and engaging delivery merge, sparks fly and light up the sky. The RNC and DNC offered essential lessons for those who pen and render soaring oratory.

Anyone who has watched even a small portion of the political convention coverage these past two weeks would realize that there are speeches and there are Speeches.

As corporate communications professionals, we are often called upon to help leaders prepare and deliver carefully crafted messages, not unlike what is done at these conventions. The topics may differ, but the concepts are similar.

What can corporate communicators learn from the orators at the conventions? Quite a bit, according to Joellen Brown, a professional communicator and chief speechwriter for Verizon’s chairman and CEO, Lowell McAdam.

“I love conventions,” she says. “They’re like Bonnaroo for speechwriters.”

We asked Brown to consider what the conventions can teach us about a successful speech. Here are some of her thoughts:

On Melania and Michelle

Two thoughts. First, plagiarism is surprisingly easy to commit. The best defense—besides good software—is having an original thought. Second, when I heard Melania deliver the purloined section, I thought, “platitudes.” When I saw Michelle Obama deliver the same lines, they were still platitudes, but suddenly they came alive through the power and sincerity of her delivery. Amazing how passion can redeem even the most banal of sentiments.

On Michelle Obama

When such passion is married to words that paint a picture, the result is pure magic. Why did this speech stand out? Because we felt like she was talking to us from her heart. She brought us into her life (that picture of her girls getting into the Secret Service limo, of her daughters playing on the lawn of a house built by slaves). She showed us what’s at stake (vote for your children’s future). She asked for the sale (“Let’s get to work”). All in her own voice, with an emotional investment in her message that radiated across a huge auditorium.

On how to begin a speech

Aristotle was right. The first words in Bill Clinton’s speech were: “In the spring of 1971 I met a girl.” No “happy to be here,” no “I’m going to tell you three things,” no clearing-your-throat intros to give the audience a chance to settle in. Bill Clinton started, per Aristotle, in medias res-in the middle of things-and did what good speakers do: He told a story, with a beginning, a middle and an end-and a moral.

On the differences between men and women as speakers

Apparently on Mars you’re allowed to shout. On Venus you’re not. Just saying.

On overcoming challenges

Want to see someone wrestle cultural norms to the ground and win? Watch this: the speech Anastasia Somoza gave at the Democratic convention.

On the importance of the messenger

In corporate speechwriting, we tend to think that a speech is about the information it contains or the point of view we’re selling. Yet almost two weeks’ worth of speeches reinforce that the most important message is the speaker herself or himself.

Every time your CEO speaks without a teleprompter, shows up in sneakers and a polo shirt, or talks in English rather than corporate-speak, or shows he/she can take a joke, it says something to the audience-not just about his or her own personality, but about the culture of your institution.

On speaking in the age of instant sharing

Speeches used to be ephemera, or at least they would live on as oral history or urban legends. Now they live on in a multitude of forms and are subject to the instant replay and instant analyses that we associate with sporting events. It puts even more pressure on speakers who aren’t Meryl Streep or Lebron James—or, dare I say it, Donald Trump—to compete with the pervasive celebrity culture we swim in 24/7.

On performance

In an era when “messaging” is supposed to be conveyed in 140 characters and we’re told that people have the attention span of fruit flies, there’s still a place in our public discourse for The Speech: a long-form piece of writing that reveals the speaker’s intellectual concerns, vision of the future and, if we’re very lucky, his or her emotional center.

Of course, it’s not just a piece of writing—a speech is also a performance. Standing in front of an audience and subjecting yourself to the public gaze, inviting scrutiny of your clothes, your hair, your voice and your mannerisms is both an intensely personal form of self-revelation and a confrontation with powerful cultural norms, many of them about gender and physical abilities.

The speechwriter can make the narrative itself successful; only the narrator can do the rest.

A version of this article first appeared on IABC New Jersey.

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