Discouraged or encouraged — “This thing’s got to be done”

“What does it matter if I’ve been discouraged or encouraged over the years?” she said, brusquely. “This thing’s got to be done. It’s not a question of how I feel from moment to moment.”

discouraged or encouraged, Marjory Stoneman Douglas pressed on
By Friends of the Everglades – Friends of the Everglades, CC BY-SA 3.0,

The “she” in that quote is none other than Marjory Stoneman Douglas. Sadly, if her name rings a bell it’s likely not because of her career as a journalist or her work to save the Everglades. It’s because a mentally ill teenager used the high school named after her in Parkland, Florida, as a shooting range this week. (I’m sorry; I just can’t bring myself to link to an article about it. The shooter has gotten enough ink.)

Mary Schmich of the Chicago Tribune actually met and interviewed Stoneman Douglas, and in this article she takes us on a great Story Safari™ to paint a portrait of a formidable lady. Stoneman Douglas died in 1998 (age 108), but she still has a lot to teach us. Schmich writes:

One Florida environmentalist described her to me as “that tiny, slim, perfectly dressed, utterly ferocious grande dame who can make a redneck shake in his boots.”

“When Marjory bites you,” he added, “you bleed.”

May we all develop into such effective advocates.

Don’t be discouraged. Be inspired.

As a writer, I appreciate her story-driven approach to advocacy, summed up in this quote from then-Florida governor Bob Graham:

“She deals in very tangible action, whether environmental, scientific or political,” he said, “but she also understands that there has to be a sense of magic, that people have to be inspired to what is bigger than themselves, longer than their lifetime.”

People need “a sense of magic” to inspire them to action. It’s never just about facts and figures—whether you’re trying to change a state’s environmental policy or a company’s human resources policy. Change requires inspiration. Inspiration requires story.

Schmich positions Stoneman Douglas as an icon for our time:

Arguing for better gun laws — say, making it way harder to get a semiautomatic rifle — may feel like a futile exercise, but when it does, just say to yourself: Marjory Stoneman Douglas.

“Be depressed, discouraged, and disappointed at failure and the disheartening effects of ignorance, greed, corruption and bad politics,” she’s quoted as once saying, “but never give up.'”

This thing’s got to be done.

Yes it does. Go do it.


Do you have ideas that need to be shared? Discover how in my free 5-day writing adventure, Anchor Your Story.

Reading speeches vs. winging it, presidential edition

If you see articles about speeches and speechwriting popping up all over your news feed, that can mean only one thing: It’s State of the Union time. Many people hate reading speeches someone else has written. It’s an acquired skill, but smart people know it’s worth acquiring. It’s much easier to read a speech written by a skillful speechwriter than to ad lib at a podium. Especially with the world watching.

I’ve written before about the man who purportedly writes the current president’s speeches. And if he weren’t an unrepentant white supremacist—or as Jon Lovett of Crooked Media calls him, “a C+ Santa Monica fascist”—I might even feel sorry for the dude.

One of the key principles of speechwriting is that you need to match your speaker’s voice—vocabulary, cadence, and content. For most presidential speechwriters, this undoubtedly means raising the bar: Imagine trying to match the brilliance of Bill Clinton’s or Barack Obama’s thinking. I mean, these men are Constitutional scholars, graduates of Ivy League law schools. The current president’s speechwriter only has to match the vocabulary of a second-grader.

But matching your speaker’s voice may only be the second-hardest thing about being a speechwriter. Because before you can write for someone, they have to accept the idea that they need you.

President Obama had written a best-selling book before he hired his first speechwriter. After talking with Jon Favreau, then-Senator Obama said, “You seem like a nice guy, but I don’t need a speechwriter.” Favreau got the job, though. As did many other men and women.

Apparently our current president feels much the same as Senator Obama did. Olivia Nuzzi’s illuminating article in New York magazine—“Who really writes Trump’s speeches? The White House won’t say”—contains this quote, said to come from “multiple sources close to the president”:

“Trump hates the idea that anybody puts words in his mouth. He hates the idea that everything isn’t written by him.”

Reading speeches—and writing them too

I’ve always said that my favorite clients are people who recognize great writing when they see it but are too busy to write it themselves. The current president may have the time to write for himself—if he can tear himself away from Fox News and Twitter long enough—but that’s not why he feels no need for a speechwriter.

Nuzzi eventually got this explanation from the White House:

“…when President Trump communicates with the American people, his words are his own and come directly from his heart. His unparalleled ability to speak to and connect with people from across the country, including those who have felt forgotten by Washington for many years, will never waver.”

This fundamentally misunderstands the purpose of having a speechwriter. A good speechwriter will never put words in your mouth that are not already in your “heart.” A good speechwriter finds out what’s in your heart—either because she’s worked long enough with you to know what you’re thinking before you think it, or because you take the time to talk with her before she starts work and then you read and comment on the drafts.

Bill Clinton, June Shih, and the Little Rock Nine

Last September, the Clinton Presidential Library published drafts of his address at the 40th anniversary of the integration of Little Rock’s Central High School by the “Little Rock Nine.” Comparing a draft by June Shih—one of the few women to rise to the level of presidential speechwriter—with the final draft, you can see the care that President Clinton took to personalize the remarks.

I analyzed these drafts side-by-side for the critical reading program I put together for my writers, but you can see the originals at the Clinton library site. Yellow marks material that got reworked between the early draft (on the right) and the final. The green highlights material that was deleted before the final draft; and the blue are straight additions to the final draft.

reading speechesGenerally these make the language tighter, more concise. But sometimes, they’re the president adding personal details. The speechwriter sketched the outlines of some of these details in the earlier draft, but the president drills down on them in ways that make the stories indelible. That’s how the collaboration between writer and speaker is supposed to work.

reading speeches

When you should you use a speechwriter?

Look, all of us have the ability to speak on our own. We do it every day. Still, just because we can do something doesn’t mean we should.

If you’re speaking on a larger platform that usual—if your words will reach people beyond the folks sitting in front of you in the audience: Use a speechwriter.

If you have specific expertise in a certain area and that’s the area you’re asked to speak about: Go for it. But make sure you sketch out the speech so you don’t start to ramble.

If you’re expected to have specific expertise in a number of areas and you don’t have time to keep up with all of them (if, for instance, you’re the freaking president of the United States): Don’t be an idiot. Use a speechwriter.

If when you’re reading speeches, you sound like you’re reading speeches: Get yourself a speech coach and/or spend some time rehearsing. All the best speakers do.


If you’d like a full copy of my analysis of Bill Clinton and June Shih’s Little Rock Nine speech, just tell me where to send it.

Barking mad — American life at the end of 2017

barking madI had some structural work done on my house last week—several men beneath my kitchen floor made scary noises for a day or two, while upstairs the dogs went barking mad.

They heard strange men’s voices, but they couldn’t figure out where those voices were coming from. They ran from the front to the back of the house, looking out the windows. Not a creature was stirring, not even a squirrel. But the noise—it was definitely real, definitely a threat. So: WOOF! WOOF! They ran in circles in the kitchen, barking at the air until a friend mercifully took them to her house.

I know how they feel.

Barking mad. Aren’t we all?

A threat you can’t put your finger on? A sense of real danger with little tangible public evidence? So many possible sources of danger you can’t keep track of them all? (And that’s probably a blessing, because if you could it would surely drive you crazy.)

Welcome to the United States of America in the first almost-full year of the current presidency.

California’s burning—but, hey, North Korea could nuke it tomorrow. Losing net neutrality could make it impossible for me to do business online—but, hey, the tax bill signed yesterday ensures that the entire economy will implode. Party at the protest or on the breadline—your choice.

Robert Mueller’s investigation continues to be one bright light at the end of the endless tunnel we’re slogging through. But he could get fired any day now. My guess is Christmas Eve for maximal Scrooge-factor and minimal news coverage. And then it’s goodbye turkey dinner and hello protest march. God bless us, every one.

Stock up on the comfortable shoes and warm outdoor clothing, folks. And don’t let them make you feel crazy. Stay barking mad.


Want to communicate more courageously? Click here to get my e-book Do It Anyway: Tips for Courageous Writing

All fall down

I’ve been editing a video for the last three days, in between an unprecedented number of calls, interviews for pieces one of my clients wants me to write. Still, I managed to piece together the five or so hours I needed to edit the final video in myWriting Unbound program. And when I tried to upload the finished product to the internet, something crashed. You know what’s coming, right? The verb “tried” gives it away: 

the entire edit disappeared.

There’s a backup of most of it somewhere, but I can’t look for it right now, okay? I’m too busy wallowing in frustration and exhaustion and probably a handful of other -tions I’m too pissed off to identify.

Sometimes I hate technology.

I don’t, however, hate it nearly as much as the current FCC, which yesterday voted to turn the free and open internet into a playground for the haves and have-nots. 

If they truly do succeed in killing net neutrality, it might not matter if I ever get my video edited. Who will be allowed to see it? How much will my clients have to pay to access my website, my courses? How much will I have to pay to access the searching and streaming services that enable me to function as a writer working remotely with clients around the world?
The fight isn’t over. Check Battle for the Net for action steps. Call your Senators and Congressional Representatives, as they have some power here.

Killing Net Neutrality will wipe out small businesses and the growing “gig economy.” And those of us who’ve been able to do business from bases in small towns? We may have to hightail it back to the cities and stop working remotely.

But now it’s Friday night and I have another small town to consider: I’m going to decorate my first gingerbread house.

“I hate speechwriters” and other true-life tales

I was a baby-speechwriter, just two or three years into the profession, when I got the chance to interview for a plum role: speechwriter for the CEO of an even bigger, older, and fancier organization than the one for which I was already working. I gussied myself up, even bought new shoes. And the interviewer’s first words to me?

“I hate speechwriters.”

Not the most auspicious of opening lines. I can’t remember what I said in response, but what I wish I’d said is:

“Then I’m glad I’m not interviewing to be your speechwriter.”

No, what I really wish I’d said would have involved a few expletives. But at the time I was still hoping to land the job.

I’ve thought about that interview a few times over the years. It’s possible he was mimicking his CEO’s demeanor to see how well I would stand up to him. Or it’s possible he was just an ass. At any rate, I got to eat lunch in the organization’s storied dining room. And new shoes.

I’ve often said that my favorite clients are smart enough to know good writing when they see it, but too busy to do it themselves. Seems simple enough. But that requires clients to recognize two things: That I’m as good as or better than they are at writing speeches. And that, no matter how much they enjoy writing, they have better uses for their time.

If you’ve been a fan of Pod Save America, the podcast fronted by several veterans of President Obama’s White House speechwriting shop, you may be surprised that President – well , then-Senator – Obama did not leap at the opportunity to hire Jon Favreau.

“I don’t think I need a speechwriter, but you seem nice enough.”

Really? Obama was one of those clients? It doesn’t completely tarnish his image in my mind; given what replaced him in the White House, I’m not sure if anything could. And he did come around later, apparently becoming very appreciative of his speechwriting team’s efforts. But, still, one wishes he’d have understood from the beginning the benefits of a hired pen.

Then again, if everybody understood the benefits of ghostwriters, there wouldn’t be so much awful writing out in the world. And so many great assignments just waiting for the right ghost to find them.

Words matter. Use them wisely.

How much do words matter?

Last October, I wrote about a chilling article in The Guardian that asked:

“What happens when political language fails?”

The writer, former BBC director general Mark Thompson, offered an answer…:

“From the fall of Athens to the rise of totalitarianism, observers from Thucydides to George Orwell have associated a breakdown in public language – or rhetoric, to give it a more traditional name – with the failure of democracy, loss of freedom, civil strife and, ultimately, tyranny and murder.”

It’s not just fancy speechifying that’s gone missing in the United States these days. Even in conversation, even when answering questions, our politicians and their spokespeople lie with impunity. Words have often ceased to be meaningful indicators of reality—whether they emanate from the White House or from the Congress.

This administration and their Congressional enablers have done a great deal of damage to our country and to many people—especially the marginalized people—who live here. But it may be that the worst damage they have done is to our language.

Words matter. Or they should.

words matter
Peter Pan and his shadow by Oliver Herford, The Peter Pan Alphabet, Charles Scribner’s Sons, New York, 1907, page 39, Public Domain

We can boot the lying bastards out of office—and this past Tuesday’s elections clearly showed that’s the direction we’re headed—but how can we reunite word and meaning?

It’s like sewing on Peter Pan’s shadow: the operation only works if you believe in it. And the problem here is that many people no longer believe what they hear.

In a blog post just before the inauguration, I wrote:

It’s a tough time to be a word person.

With people doubting even long-established facts, the very building blocks of a wordsmith’s trade threaten to become meaningless. It’s as if someone decided that instead of making bricks out of stone—or whatever bricks are made of—we’ll now make them out of papier-mâché and pretend it’s the same thing.

You can stand there shouting about engineering and the immutable laws of nature until you’re blue in the face. But you’re not going to reach the people who’ve decided that facts don’t matter. Until, perhaps, their papier-mâché chimneys go up in smoke.

Oh, who am I kidding? When that happens, they’ll just blame the logs.

Don’t shout. Listen. And Talk.

Shouting won’t help anything. But listening will. And talking face to face, heart to heart.

Conversations won the elections for Democrats last Tuesday, as tens of thousands of people canvassed for their candidates. One activist on a recent episode of Pod Save America said that supporters of Planned Parenthood had knocked on over 300,000 doors in Virginia in recent weeks. And let’s not forget the people across the country who worked the phone banks, calling voters to find out and address their concerns.

Conversations—remember those?

Those conversations worked. And we have to keep having them, and expand the circles of people we reach.

I quoted Neil Gaiman in that “it’s a tough time to be a word person” post.

He said “Words are more important they ever were” because “We navigate the world with words” and

“People who cannot understand each other cannot communicate.”

And people who cannot communicate cannot fix what’s broken about our democracy.

So get talking. Because words matter.


Do you need some practice speaking up at work? Join me for “Say What You Want to Say”—a webinar for women who are ready to lead. Priceless advice from an award-winning business speechwriter: On November 20th, it’s free.

Hitting the word-lottery — David Litt, presidential speechwriter

What were you doing when you were 24 years old? I’ll tell you what you weren’t doing–because very few 24-year-olds ever do it. Heck, very few people of any age get to do it. One guy hit the word-lottery when he became a presidential speechwriter, just a few years out of college.

Okay, David Litt may have been slightly older than 24 when he started writing for President Barack Obama. His first gig at the White House was writing for Obama’s longtime advisor Valerie Jarrett. Time and attrition moved him ever closer to the Oval Office.

The president’s “real” speechwriters tossed him a small assignment from time to time. And then one day in Obama’s second term, Litt found himself not just a presidential speechwriter, but a “Senior Advisor to the President.” On the one hand, people commonly abbreviated that title to SAP. He was a SAP. On the other hand, he got his own key to the senior staff gym.

presidential speechwriterDavid Litt’s new book, Thanks, Obama: My Hopey Changey White House Years (A Speechwriter’s Memoir) is as delightful as its title. It manages to be both funny and informative.

While the job he did had serious implications, Litt never seems to take himself too seriously. To hear him tell it, he came perilously close to losing his job several times. But he also Spoke Truth to Power and made President Obama laugh so hard that Litt sensed he forgot he was president. Just for a second.

Presidential Speechwriter, rookie mistake

One of my favorite stories involves one of Litt’s first assignments for the president–a short speech about Infrastructure.

Litt made a rookie mistake–and he comes across as so charming in the book that I won’t stop to wonder how you get to be a presidential speechwriter and still be making rookie mistakes.

Anyway, Litt dove headfirst into researching this infrastructure speech. He knew the American infrastructure, like, down to the last rivet. And he put all of his new-found knowledge into the draft.

Beware the Curse of Knowledge. As the Heath Brothers tell us in Made to Stick, you have to remember who your audience is–and who your speaker is. An audience of engineers may have appreciated the draft Litt turned in; an engineer delivering the speech might have knocked it out of the park.

But it wasn’t an engineer giving the speech, it was President Obama. And not only does he not know the granular details Litt packed into his draft, no one wants to hear the president deliver granular details. They want the president to uplift them, to inspire them, to speak about the large picture, about how the United States depends on a healthy infrastructure and by golly we’re going to take care of that.

I’ve fallen into the same trap–I once tried to get a businessman to reference Aristotle. No dice. I knew better, but it seemed so perfect. Just this once, I told myself. My lovely idea died a swift death in review. As it should have.

If you want to learn more about how speechwriting works, if you want to peek inside the Obama White House, or if you just want a compelling read, Thanks, Obama will hook you from page one.


Want to get better at writing speeches? Click here to get my free tips for speakers

Katharine Hayhoe — stories drive change

“How can I talk to people who don’t accept the truth about climate change?” That may not be exactly what the audience member asked the dudes from Pod Save America on a recent episode, but it’s close enough. Their answer—again, not verbatim: Stories drive change.

The questioner had asked particularly about climate science: How can her relatives not understand the source of the havoc we are unleashing on our environment—catastrophic hurricanes, fires, flood. So far everything but a plague of locusts.

Usually those encounters go one of two ways:

  1. Are you crazy?
  2. The median temperature of the earth has risen X degrees in the last 20 years.

When’s the last time you had a productive conversation with someone who called you crazy?

I didn’t think so.

And when’s the last time you listened to someone rattle off a string of numbers and didn’t fall asleep? Or start thinking about something more interesting, like when you’re going to run out of clean underwear. Or whether the lettuce on sale will last more than a day and a half.

As I’ve said more than once, if you want people to remember what you’re saying you need to tell a story.

Stories drive change

stories drive change
Katharine Hayhoe and a friend, from her Twitter profile

One of the Pod Save America hosts, Tommy Vietor I think, mentioned a name I hadn’t heard before: Katharine Hayhoe. He said she has the ability to turn facts into stories that connect with people on the other side of the climate change debate. And more importantly, that her stories drive change.

Vietor isn’t the only member of the Katharine Hayhoe fan club:

“Katharine Hayhoe is a national treasure,” said Anthony Leiserowitz, the director of the Yale Program on Climate Change Communication. He said that she combined powerful communications skills, world-class scientific credentials and an ability to relate to conservative religious communities that can be skeptical about the risks of a changing climate.

That’s from a 2016 New York Times article about her. So is this:

“…she has found that she gets her science across more effectively if she can connect with people personally. In a nation seemingly addicted to argument as a blood sport, she conciliates. On a topic so contentious that most participants snarl, she smiles. She is an evangelical Christian, and she does not flinch from using the language of faith and stewardship to discuss the fate of the planet.”

Use the language your audience speaks. Connect with the people you’re speaking with. Be human. Be vulnerable. Be authentic. And use concrete examples that everyone can understand.

Can stories drive change—really? Check out the quote from Hayhoe that closes the Times article:

“I don’t believe in climate change,” she said. Belief doesn’t come into it; scientific verification does.

“Gravity doesn’t care whether you believe in it or not,” she said, “but if you step off a cliff, you’re going to go down.”


Time to kick your writing skills up a level? Join me for my popular Writing Unbound program this October. A serious commitment, for people serious about change.

A Date to Remember — September 11th

I may have been confused about the day when I wrote yesterday’s blog, but there’s no mistaking September 11th. As I opened up the window to write this blog, I wondered what I might write about. But the minute I filled in the posting date, the topic became clear.

I used to work at the World Trade Center, in Building 7, the last one to pancake into a pile of rubble sixteen years ago. The first time they tried to bomb the World Trade Center, I felt our building shudder, saw the smoke emerging from the parking garage entrance, walked down 46 flights of stairs with my frightened colleagues.

But after two years of working in that place, I knew its geography intimately. So when the news reports started coming in on September 11th, I could picture it clear as day. The pockmarked white marble walls, the back stairs, the shortcuts that might have taken some people to safety. Until they pancaked too.

A lot changed on September 11th, so much more than the New York City skyline. One of my friends became a Republican, worried that the Democrats would compromise our safety. Xenophobia came out of the closet on September 11th and it’s only grown stronger since. My Republican friend is not a xenophobe—and didn’t vote for Trump—but many others are. And did.

As determined as we were not to “let the terrorists win,” the America we live in today is not the same country I grew up in, not the same country we were on September 10th—or even September 12th—sixteen years ago.

Me, I’ll be taking a social media break today. I can’t stand to see my feeds stuffed with waving flags and “Never Forget” admonitions.

I don’t need the reminder, thanks.


Want to communicate more courageously? Click here to get my e-book Do It Anyway: Tips for Courageous Writing