“You can’t fake authenticity” — a new leader emerges from tragedy

If you haven’t seen the poised, passionate, and extremely purposeful speech that Florida teenager Emma González, a survivor of the latest school shooting, gave last weekend stop reading right now and watch it.

Many people have commented on González’s speech, but I wanted to share one tweet in particular with you. It comes from Christopher Henry, a speechwriter from Canada. He wrote:

you can't fake authenticity

“You can’t fake authenticity in speeches. This is as authentic as it gets.”

I agree with him 100%. Anyone with a heart who watches the video can see that her tears and anger are genuine, as is her passion to change whatever needs to be changed so that no other school needs to endure what hers has.

Authenticity and preparedness

But notice something about this authenticity, please: She has written her speech in advance. She says it’s her “AP Gov notes,” but you can see by how often she lowers her eyes that she’s reading from those handwritten pages.

I run into so many speakers who equate “authenticity” with ad-libbing. “Just give me some talking points,” they say. “I’ll figure out the exact words when I get onstage.” If you’re one of those speakers, can you speak as eloquently as this without notes? By the end of the speech, I feel like González’s audience is ready to follow her wherever she wants to lead them. Do you get that kind of reaction from your off-the-cuff remarks?

I would also bet good money that González rehearsed her speech. Probably more than once. Pay attention to how she modulates her emotions. How she pauses for applause and cheers. How she intensifies the pace and volume when she wants to rouse the crowd. You don’t get that by shuffling through pages of your speech in the back of a town car on your way to the venue. You need to speak your text out loud. Preferably standing up.

“Ah, but if I rehearse,” I’ve heard clients say, “I won’t sound authentic.” No—you’ll sound like you haven’t read through your text. Isn’t that worse? Rehearse your prepared remarks until they don’t sound wooden. Until you can say the words and mean them.

Emma González shows us it’s possible to be both prepared and authentic. To rehearse and to bring genuine emotion to the podium. As Christopher Henry noted in his tweet, “This is what a leader looks like.”

As proud as I am of this young woman who spoke with such clarity and grace, I wish circumstances had not brought her into the spotlight.

The students at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High are now, sadly, authorities on the real consequences of our inane gun laws. They have a platform and they’re leveraging it, honoring their fallen friends and teachers by trying to shame our lawmakers into changing the laws. I half-believe they might succeed. In fact, when I hear Emma González’s speech, it’s hard to imagine anything can stop them.


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[this piece originally published on LinkedIn]

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.

I love podcasts — and you might too

I love podcasts — I love listening to them and I love being interviewed on them.

Regular readers have already heard me sing the praises of Malcolm Gladwell’s Revisionist History. Gladwell doesn’t just deliver a fascinating story each week, he also offers a subtle lesson in how to write well. Well? Brilliantly.

I talk a lot about the importance of reading good writing. Gladwell reminds me that it’s equally important—actually, maybe more so—to listen to good writing.

i love podcastsI should have mentioned Revisionist History when Pete Mockaitis, the host of the podcast How to Be Awesome at Your Job, asked me about good material to read. Guess I was in a literal mood that day. And while pretty much every episode of Revisionist History would make a damn fine book, it’s still a podcast.

I love Gladwell’s podcast so much that I included it in the “great writing” I analyze for the writers who subscribe to my Weekly What program. You’ll hear more about that tomorrow. But—seriously—when was the last time you heard a podcast put together with enough thought that it deserved a deep analysis? Yeah, I thought so. If you haven’t heard Revisionist History yet, start here at episode one. You’re welcome.

I love podcasts (lots of podcasts)

I also love more anarchic podcasts, like the ones from the Crooked Media stable. Actually,  Pod Save the World, Pod Save the People, and Friends Like These have too much structure to call them “anarchic.” Lovett or Leave It, Jon Lovett’s podcast, has been gradually acquiring more structure, although the lineup of guest comedians remains hit-or-miss. (This episode, however, shines.) But their flagship show, Pod Save America, feels like I’m eavesdropping on a conversation between some really smart friends.

Whatever the format, I listen because—well, because Lovett and Jon Favreau are speechwriters. Ya gotta support the tribe, right? And because I appreciate the insights of all of the “Crooked” podcast hosts in these baffling, frustrating, and scary times.

But there’s a qualitative difference between podcasts that capture free-flowing conversation and tightly scripted podcasts like Gladwell’s. It’s the difference between watching a baseball game and a baseball documentary. Both tell stories, but the stories may be a little harder to tease out from the live event. Unless a junior league outfielder falls over the fence in pursuit of a sure home run and catches the baseball. Now, that’s a story.

Anyway, you can catch up on all my podcasts here. Can you tell the difference between the ones I prepped for and the ones where I winged it? Whatever the format, I’m just happy to be contributing to this fabulous new medium. Because—I’m not sure if I mentioned this: I love podcasts.


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Prepared remarks — prepare for anything

When you deliver prepared remarks, do you read them over before you hit the podium?

Longtime readers of this blog know that’s a trick question: Of course you read them beforehand. In fact, you rehearse them beforehand, too.

I recently heard a speaker correct himself in mid-speech. His prepared remarks had him talking about some sort of training program started under his watch. The text had him saying, “To date, we’ve trained X number of people.” But he actually said:

“To date, we’ve trained—well, I haven’t trained anyone; the program has trained…”

It got a laugh from the crowd, but I winced. He clearly hadn’t read through the speech in advance.

Make sure they’re your prepared remarks

Now it wasn’t the worst speech-reading gaffe I’ve ever heard. That prize would have to go to “Uncle Joe” Biden. He may have rehabilitated his reputation somewhat after eight years as Vice President. But to me he’ll always be the clueless pol who, in one of his presidential runs, delivered a stirring speech about his ancestors, their challenges and their joys. Problem was, they weren’t his ancestors. He lifted the speech from a British politician.

Of course, it didn’t take long for the press to out him—even in those dark days before Google.

He said it was unintentional. Really?

Keep your ears open

Prepared remarks represent the speechwriter’s best guess about what you should say at the event. But stuff happens. You have to be aware of your environment, of who’s spoken before you and what they’ve said.

I once gave my client a speech that mentioned “rabbit ears” TV antennae as a reference that will outlive its usefulness when the Baby Boomers pass on. Turns out an earlier speaker had used the same metaphor. Staffers alerted my client before he went on and he was able to adjust on the fly, making a joke of it. Awkward situation averted.

The speaker I saw at the women’s business conference this week did not have his wits about him. Or perhaps he hadn’t been paying attention to the introduction, because he bounded to the podium and said,

“Thanks, Ann, for that terrific introduction.”

What’s wrong with that? No, it’s not that he got her name wrong (I actually don’t remember her name, only that he used it). It’s that the “terrific introduction” consisted of—and I quote:

“Our next speaker is the only man here, so let’s give him an enthusiastic welcome.”

Is that what you’d call a “terrific introduction”?

I’d call it about the bare minimum anyone could say. Now, obviously he can’t go out there and say, “Thanks for doing the bare minimum to introduce me.”

But he could have said, “Thanks, Ann.”—surely no one needs a speechwriter to tell them how to say that—and then just skip to the second sentence of his prepared remarks. Which was probably something about how honored he was to be there.

Not honored enough to pay attention to what was going on. But honored enough to have someone write up some remarks for him. Too bad he didn’t read through them beforehand.

What’s wrong with hiring a speechwriter?

Q: Why do people think it’s a bad thing to hire a speechwriter?

A: Damned if I know.

I don’t want the CEOs of the companies I invest in to spend their precious time scribbling speeches. I want them to be out there CEO-ing, using their talents to do what they do best. Hire me and let me do what I do best.hire a speechwriter when you need a word expert

Now, personally, I can’t imagine hiring someone to write a speech for me. I do it for other people; when the need arises, I do it for myself. But if my plumbing should spring a leak, I’m certainly not going to fire up the solder gun myself. (If that’s what you do for leaky pipes.) I call the plumber, stat.

My motto has always been, “Hire the best people you can find and pay them what they’re worth.” But I might be slightly biased in that regard.

Outsource so you can focus on the big stuff

Now, you can’t outsource everything. A speechwriter can write stirring sentences, but they’ll only be effective and memorable if you deliver them well.

As we saw in the first presidential debate between Secretary Clinton and Mr. T, there’s a reason candidates prepare and (ahem) rehearse. By the way, if you think writing your own speech is a get-out-of-rehearsal-free card, think again. You still have to stand up and say the words out loud, many times.

I imagine that most of the people who think it’s a bad thing to hire a speechwriter have never had to stand up in front of a crowd (much less a crowd with cameras) and speak coherently for more than a minute. It’s not an easy thing to do.

One of the things that separates great leaders from technocrats is that the leaders know how to delegate—and who to trust with the work. In the decades since he left the White House, Jimmy Carter has proven to be a great human being and humanitarian. But as President, he proved to be the Micromanager-in-Chief, even concerning himself with minutiae like tennis court schedules.

Still, he did have a speechwriter. More about that another day.

Rhinoceroses and rehearsal: A cautionary tale

Do you know what they call a group of rhinoceroses?

And no, I don’t know who “they” are, really. Those modern-day Adams who get to create nouns out of nothing but a fact and a bit of whimsy. Fact: Crows gather in groups. Whimsy: Hey—crows look sort of like ravens. And Poe, who wrote that poem about the raven, also wrote about murders. So let’s call it “a murder of crows”!

I mean, I don’t really know. That’s my own combination of fact and whimsy. But I digress. Rhinos.

Rhinoceros (public domain image)

Rhinoceroses can run at speeds of up to 35 m.p.h.—by my calculations, that’s over 3,000 feet per minute. But their tiny eyes can’t see more than 100 feet in front of them. A crucial disparity there.

This can—and I imagine quite often does—cause difficulties when it’s exercise time for the herd. So marrying fact and whimsy, “they” call a group of rhinos a “crash.”

What does this have to do with business?

Business executives—especially the kind who get asked to give speeches—tend to be very busy people. (You know this because “busy” is built right into the word “business.”) As a matter of fact, if “they” gave me the power to create a noun for a group of businesspeople, I would call them “a hurry of professionals.” But I digress (again).

Naturally, hurrying professionals look for ways to streamline their busy days. They outsource tasks of all kinds, from booking airline tickets to writing speeches. But you can’t outsource giving a speech. And you can’t streamline the preparations for it, either.

When you rush onto a stage without proper rehearsal, you crash. Just like those racing rhinoceroses, your physical abilities outrun your senses. Just because you can read from a page someone hands you as you stride to the podium doesn’t mean you should.

Whether you’re speaking from bullet points (which I never recommend) or reading a prepared text—even one you wrote for yourself—you need time to let the ideas sink into your brain. That way, when the ideas come back out your mouth onstage they’ll sound like your ideas and not like something you (or someone else) thought up a week ago. Take the stage unprepared and you leave yourself open to failure in so many ways. When you know your material backwards and forwards, then technical glitches won’t faze you. Neither will the CEO wandering into your presentation.

That happened to one of my clients, an executive who asked me to coach her and then was astounded when I had the temerity to ask her to run through her speech twice in rehearsal. The looks she shot me would surely have cowed someone who actually worked for her (yet another perk of flying in as a consultant). But she later told me that if she hadn’t known the material so well, seeing the CEO walk in during her speech would have thrown her off her game.

I looked for video of crashing rhinos for you, but I couldn’t find any. I’m kind of glad about that: I’m not sure how someone could film a rhinoceros stampede without ending up in the middle of it. But I did find a British band called Crash of Rhinos. The sample track on their website starts off deceptively soft, but watch out for your ears when the drums kick in.

Don’t be in a crash of rhinos. Aim for “a success of speakers” instead.