Dr. King and the speechwriters

Everyone’s publishing pieces about Dr. King today—of course, it’s Martin Luther King, Jr. Day. But I found some new things in this long piece Vanity Fair republished today. Okay, “new” only because I clearly missed it three years ago when it was originally published.

It focuses on one Clarence Jones, who was Dr. King’s lawyer and—the word appears just once—speechwriter. Nelson Rockefeller’s speechwriter pops in at a pivotal point in history, too. He connected with his fellow scribe Jones after King and dozens of young people had been jailed in Birmingham. And because of that connection, Jones met Rockefeller at a Chase Manhattan Bank branch one Saturday morning and emerged with a valise full of bail money—$100,000 in cash.

Dr. King
Meme created by Daniel Rarela (@DJRarela) using text from Dr. King’s “Letter from a Birmingham Jail”

Like his contemporary Ted Sorensen, who never until the day he died confirmed that he had written President John F. Kennedy’s speeches, Jones remains mum on his contributions to Dr. King’s writing. But he did smuggle the “Letter from a Birmingham Jail” out of said jail, after smuggling in the pages of legal paper on which Dr. King wrote it.

Clearly, these days it’s more important than ever for us to remember Dr. King, all that he fought and died for. We must also recognize all the injustices we still perpetrate (knowingly and unknowingly) and still need to correct.

But let’s also remember the people behind the legendary leader—especially those who’ve stood in history’s shadows for so long. Including Clarence Jones, Dr. King’s lawyer and speechwriter.

“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.

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.


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A presidential speech-writing process — Bill Clinton

presidential speech-writing process
“Little Rock Nine” memorial; detail of Elisabeth Eckford’s statue Photo by Sgerbic – Own work, CC BY-SA 4.0

Bill Clinton’s library released a fascinating digital exhibit this week. If you’ve ever wondered about the presidential speech-writing process, hop on over to Commemorating Courage: 40th Anniversary of Desegregation of Central High.

This coming Monday marks the 60th anniversary of that signal event in our history. Three years after the Supreme Court abolished the “separate but equal” practice of segregation in Brown v. Board of Education, Arkansas still hadn’t integrated its school system. When nine young black men and women enrolled in Little Rock’s Central High in 1957, their governor called out the National Guard to turn them away. President Eisenhower eventually intervened, sending in troops to escort the students into the building on September 25, 1957.

I think sometimes karma has a hand in “booking” speakers. Bill Clinton was 11 when the “Little Rock Nine” finally entered their new high school. It was a formative experience for him—and as president, he made sure to shine a spotlight on the event. The first person of color to serve as president, Barack Obama, got to speak on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial 50 years after Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. addressed the March on Washington. A great symbol of the progress we (thought we had) made. That kind of personal connection between speakers and events doesn’t happen every day; when it does, I get the shivers.

Presidential speech-writing process, on full display

So dive into the Clinton Library’s exhibit on Little Rock and you’ll see everything from handwritten notes from the first speech-prep session, to research materials, to drafts prepared by the lead speechwriter, June Shih. You’ll also find a photograph of the president still revising his remarks “backstage” in the High School, just moments before he took the stage.

The folks in my Weekly What program will get a full analysis of the speech and the differences between drafts. But spend a little time on the Clinton Library’s website and you’ll find several articles about different aspects of the events surrounding the school’s desegregation, as well as some moving photographs of President Clinton holding open the high school’s doors for the now-grown Nine, and awarding them the Congressional Medal of Freedom in 1998.

Clinton’s speech recognized that the country still had a ways to go. But its optimism about the effect the Little Rock Nine had on the education system seems quaint today, 20 years after his speech. The New York Times magazine last weekend ran a piece called “The Resegregation of Jefferson County.” “Resegregation”—spellcheck doesn’t even recognize that as a word! But apparently in some parts of the country, municipalities are forming their own school districts as an end run around integration.

Surely this is not the best way forward for our country. It’s certainly not the future President Clinton envisioned for us 20 years ago. So take a trip back in time and imagine a world of educational equity, freedom, and justice for all.


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Mayor Mitch Landrieu on Confederate history

Removing Confederate statues has become a pretext for white supremacist and neo-Nazi activity, most memorably in Charlottesville, Virginia, a couple of weeks ago. New Orleans mayor Mitch Landrieu addressed the situation more clearly and with more moral authority than many better-known politicians.

New Orleans mayor Mitch Landrieu
Mitch Landrieu, photo by Derek Bridges from New Orleans, United States CC BY 2.0

Mayor Landrieu delivered the speech last May, as his city prepared to remove its last few Confederate monuments, and the folks over at Pod Save America—President Obama’s former speechwriters and communications director—recently called it the best speech on the subject they’ve seen. So I thought you might be interested in my thoughts about what makes this speech so compelling.

Every other week, I do a deep analysis of a piece of writing for the people subscribed to my Weekly What series—a yearlong, self-directed writing program that I’ve offered in connection with my Writing Unbound course. Here are some excerpts from my analysis.

Mayor Mitch Landrieu tells a powerful story

Mayor Landrieu begins with two things I usually caution against: a thank you and a list. As for the thank you, at least it’s brief. But the list is not. And I’m okay with that. The Civil War is usually seen as a black- vs.-white thing or North vs. South. But in New Orleans, nothing is ever that simple. So I love that the Mayor began by naming all the tribes and nations whose people shaped the history of this remarkably polyglot city. Then he continued:

But there are also other truths about our city that we must confront. New Orleans was America’s largest slave market: a port where hundreds of thousands of souls were bought, sold and shipped up the Mississippi River to lives of forced labor of misery of rape, of torture. America was the place where nearly 4000 of our fellow citizens were lynched, 540 alone in Louisiana; where the courts enshrined ‘separate but equal’; where Freedom riders coming to New Orleans were beaten to a bloody pulp.

He faces the “other truths” head on. And notice the details in the description; he doesn’t let his listeners off the hook by glossing over the horrors of slavery. But he also doesn’t indict Louisiana alone—“America was the place where nearly 4000 of our fellow citizens were lynched.” I winced when I got to that last word.

So when people say to me that the monuments in question are history, well what I just described is real history as well, and it is the searing truth….

“An inaccurate recitation of our past”

Later, he demolishes the argument about historical necessity:

To literally put the Confederacy on a pedestal in our most prominent places of honor is an inaccurate recitation of our full past. It is an affront to our present, and it is a bad prescription for our future. History cannot be changed. It cannot be moved like a statue. What is done is done. The Civil War is over, and the Confederacy lost and we are better for it. Surely we are far enough removed from this dark time to acknowledge that the cause of the Confederacy was wrong.

And in the second decade of the 21st century, asking African Americans — or anyone else — to drive by property that they own; occupied by reverential statues of men who fought to destroy the country and deny that person’s humanity seems perverse and absurd. Centuries old wounds are still raw because they never healed right in the first place. Here is the essential truth. We are better together than we are apart.

And Mayor Landrieu ends by confronting the charge that removing Confederate monuments “erases history.”

We have not erased history; we are becoming part of the city’s history by righting the wrong image these monuments represent and crafting a better, more complete future for all our children and for future generations. And unlike when these Confederate monuments were first erected as symbols of white supremacy, we now have a chance to create not only new symbols, but to do it together, as one people. In our blessed land we all come to the table of democracy as equals.

If you’d like to read my full analysis, click the green button. It’s a very fine speech. Thank you, Mayor Mitch Landrieu, for your leadership on this issue.

Send me your analysis of Mayor Mitch Landrieu’s speech


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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.

Three times? No thank you, thank you, thank you.

I spent most of last week at the Infusionsoft conference, ICON17. I loved hearing so many presenters talk about the importance of storytelling and emotional connection. Yes, even at a tech conference. But a couple of the folks onstage exhibited a strange rhetorical tic: They said things three times.

One strode out on stage the first day and said, “Welcome, welcome, welcome.” The next day a speaker offered us the opportunity to support to Mentor International, a fine organization that offers micro loans and mentoring to budding entrepreneurs in developing nations. After a pause for us to whip out our smart phones and donate, the speaker said, “Thank you, thank you, thank you.”

So here’s the problem. First, the delivery: the third “welcome” or “thank you” was identical to the first. Same tone, same physicalization, same level of engagement. If they had ramped up the intensity with each thank you, I might have bought it. Maybe. But I’d still have a problem with the repetition, because…

Three times not “the charm”

Repeating things doesn’t make them more true. In fact, it can have the opposite effect. Think back to when you were a teenager and a parent caught you in a lie. You protested your innocence, of course. Did you do it more than once? I rest my case.

A single “welcome” or “thank you” would be perfectly adequate if it were authentic and emotionally connected. But say you have a speaker who’s a little wooden. He could be the nicest man on the face of the earth when you’re talking with him one-on-one, but put him on stage in front of 2,000 people and he reverts to a scared 3rd grader delivering an oral book report. No shame in that—we’ve all been there.

In a case like that, the speech needs to help clue the audience in on the emotion the speaker wants to express. But repeating the same word is not going to get you there. Find some other words that expand on the idea of “welcome” or “thank you” and build a sentence or two.

“Welcome! My team and I are so glad you’re here.”

Or, better yet

“My team and I have been working on this event since the day after the last one ended, so I am absolutely thrilled to be able to say—finally—Welcome to ICON 17!”

Notice the difference there? When you’re welcoming someone, “welcome” doesn’t have to be the first word out of your mouth. But if it is, please don’t let it be the second and third as well.


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Friday flashback — an Obama speechwriter speaks

What’s it like to write for a president? An Obama speechwriter visited his old business school last week and offered some advice.

an Obama speechwriter
Stephen Krupin’s profile photo on LinkedIn

Now, you’d hardly expect anyone’s speechwriter to bad-mouth the boss—at least not until all the post-Trump memoirs hit the shelves—but I believe Stephen Krupin when he says President Obama was “very easy to work with”:

“People who have only written for Barack Obama are spoiled and don’t know how good they have it.”

I didn’t expect to be moved to tears reading a student newspaper article. But Catherine Kim, Assistant Staff Editor of The Daily Northwestern (guess which school it serves) found the right quote from Krupin to describe the most memorable moment of his time as a White House speeechwriter.

In researching the president’s Memorial Day speech last year, Krupin interviewed veterans and their family members. One of the people he talked to, a woman who’d lost her husband in combat, asked if she could meet President Obama.

Krupin pulled some strings to get her seated in the president’s box at Arlington National Cemetery, where her husband is buried. And when the president mentioned her in the speech, the crowd broke into sustained applause.

“I will never forget that moment,” he said. “I wrote the speech. I could not sit here right now and tell you a single line in that, but I’ll always remember what it felt like when all of Arlington Cemetery stood and clapped for that woman.”

And no, I’m not crying—you are.

Seriously, folks, even when you have a great client, and by all accounts Obama is one, you sweat over the big speeches. You write and rewrite them so many times you think you’ll still be reciting them in your sleep 20 years later. It takes a powerful moment indeed to wipe all that work out of your memory.

An Obama speechwriter and his speech

So I went looking for that speech Krupin wrote. It’s strong, full of detail and stories. Grab some more Kleenex and read the story he’s talking about:

Joshua Wheeler’s sister says he was “exactly what was right about this world. He came from nothing and he really made something of himself.” As a kid, Josh was the one who made sure his brother and four half-sisters were dressed and fed and off to school. When there wasn’t food in the cupboard, he grabbed his hunting rifle and came back with a deer for dinner. When his country needed him, he enlisted in the Army at age 19.

He deployed to Iraq and Afghanistan — 14 times; earned 11 Bronze Stars, four for valor.  Last October, as ISIL terrorists prepared to execute 70 hostages, Josh and his fellow Special Ops went in and rescued them. Every single one walked free. “We were already dead,” one of the hostages said, “then God sent us a force from the sky.” That force was the U.S. Army, including Josh Wheeler.

Josh was the doting dad who wrote notes to his kids in the stacks of books he read. Flying home last summer to be with his wife, Ashley, who was about to give birth, he scribbled one note in the novel he was reading, just to tell his unborn son he was on his way. Ashley Wheeler is with us here today, holding their 10-month-old son, David. (Applause.) Ashley says Josh’s memory makes her think about how can she be a better citizen. And she hopes it’s what other people think about, too. Today, this husband and father rests here, in Arlington, in Section 60. And as Americans, we resolve to be better — better people, better citizens, because of Master Sergeant Joshua Wheeler.

The power of stories

It’s not just a story about Ashley Wheeler’s loss. Krupin and Obama don’t portray her as a victim. The story they tell focuses on what she has gained from the inconceivable hardship of losing her husband. And by extension, on what we all might gain from the sacrifice of the many military personnel whose stories never get told.

That’s why I love being a speechwriter. Even when you’re not an Obama speechwriter — even when you write for lesser mortals — you get to take the base materials of words and thoughts and sometimes alchemy happens and they turn into gold. A story you tell makes an impact, maybe changes the world just a little. It’s an extraordinary opportunity we have.


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Great way to express gratitude—a pro tip for speakers

one way to express gratitudeIf I’ve given my regular readers the impression that I hate “thank yous,” I apologize. I love it when speakers express gratitude—just not at the beginning of a speech.

You never want to give your audience an excuse not to listen to you. And what says “I’m not talking to you right now” better than taking three minutes to lavish thanks on 0.01% of the people present. That’s why I tell my clients—and my writing students—to integrate their thank yous into the body of a speech. Find a way that they can add value to what you’re saying.

Here’s how I used the technique at the Smith College Women’s Leadership Conference last month.

Step 1—the set-up

I talked about how and why speakers shouldn’t open with a list of thank yous.

“When you get called on in a meeting, do you stand up and say, ‘I’d like to thank John for calling on me. And Josh for getting the bagels. And, Margie—great PowerPoint!’ Of course you don’t; you’d be laughed out of the room. People in a meeting want to hear your ideas. Your audience at a speech does too.”

Still, it’s appropriate to thank your hosts. And I said I would—when it would add value to my presentation.

Step 2—the recall

Maybe 10 minutes later, I reminded the audience that I promised to thank the college. After a beat, I said:

“No, I’m not going to do that yet. But you’re all waiting for it, right? That’s because I’ve created Mystery.”

And I discussed the importance of creating a sense of mystery when you tell a story. Chris Anderson, in his book TED Talks: The Official TED Guide to Public Speaking, talks about the power of framing your speech like a “detective story.”

Step 3—the surprise

Toward the end of my speech, I told a story about a meaningful experience I’d had at Smith, something profound I learned that’s served me well throughout my career. I showed a photo of the professor who taught me the lesson. He’s still teaching, all these years later, and his students and former students let out a small cheer.

“…And I would like to thank Smith for bringing me back here today so I could share this story with you.”

And the audience broke out into laughter and spontaneous applause.

As one woman told me the next day,

“We knew you were going to do it. You told us to expect it. But we never saw it coming.”

Express gratitude memorably

How did I get there?

Well, you can pretty much never go wrong when you use the Rule of Three: aim for a laugh on the third repetition of something. Could I have thanked Smith when I discussed thank yous the first time? Probably. I could definitely have done it the second time—but I enjoyed faking out the audience. I worried that by the third time the “thank you” would be as obvious as an 18-wheeler barreling down the highway. But apparently not.

Why not? How was I able to sneak the final set-up for my thank you into the speech? Because I embedded it in a story. And that story fit seamlessly into the body of my speech.

That’s what I mean by adding value with every element of your speech. By the time I got around to the obligatory thank you, it served three purposes:

  1. Express gratitude
  2. Highlight an important aspect of my Smith experience
  3. Demonstrate a speech technique

Your “thank you” might not accomplish all three of these things—I was fortunate to be speaking about how to give a great speech—but it can definitely do more than just express gratitude to specific people.

How can you use your gratitude to enhance your audience’s experience or their understanding of your material? It takes more thought up front, but your audience will remember—and appreciate—you for it.


Shape your stories to make them memorable—discover how in my hands-on editing workshop. Click here and I’ll let you know when we launch.

It’s all about story at Smith College Women’s Leadership Conference

It was a full day of speechifying at the Smith College Women’s Leadership Conference yesterday: I listened to five and gave one. Most of the presentations were good; a couple were downright excellent. Mine was standing room only, and punctuated by a sustained round of spontaneous applause. But I digress.

The theme of the conference is “Pushing Boundaries,” but the throughline running through all of the talks I saw was storytelling. Regular readers will know this warms my heart.

Stories are the saline solution of the word world. They can transport any kind of information straight to our hearts. Okay, that’s an icky metaphor. Sorry.

My point is whether you’re delivering inspirational advice, like the 23-year-old marathon swimmer who spoke at lunch, or helping people see how they can effect diversity and inclusion in their organizations, or dismantling the patriarchy with a laugh and a smile (you’ll hear more about that speech once I’ve processed it a little longer)—the medium for all of these messages was storytelling.

Even introverts can tell stories, as the impressive Tori Murden McClure ably demonstrated. I blogged about her gripping memoir seven years ago. And look at what I called the post: The Power of a Story.

As I said in that ancient blog post,

“Whether it’s something that has happened to you or a story with a good moral that you’ve plucked from history or literature , the story has to have a tangible effect on you—the speaker—if it’s going to have an impact on your audience.”

I said pretty much the same thing today (it’s nice to know I’m intellectually consistent). And all of the speakers whose presentations I most enjoyed put that advice into action.

When you speak, your audience gives you their attention. Well, okay, you have to earn it. But if you want to make a good speech—and why in the world are you up there talking if you don’t?—you owe them something more than a bunch of words. You owe them a piece of yourself, a real connection, a window (however wide you care to open it) into what makes you tick and what might in fact make them tick.