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.

The busiest person I know

You need to meet my friend Marlena. She’s a delightful person and very good at her work—which may be why every time I talk to her she says something like, “I couldn’t possibly take on another client; I’m completely booked.”

If New Yorkers are the busiest people in the world, Marlena is a New Yorker on steroids.

But there’s one thing she always makes time for: my 5-day writing challenge.

Marlena knew how to write before she registered for her first challenge, of course. But she wasn’t doing it. She didn’t have the time.

Now? She makes the time, even if it’s just 15 minutes.

This is what she told me the other day:

“It’s a heartbreakingly wonderful accomplishment to put words on a page. That’s all it takes, and you are a writer. So many people yearn to write—it’s their heart’s dream. And you help them do that.”

Don’t you deserve a “heartbreakingly wonderful accomplishment”?

Join the 5×15 Writing Challenge. That’s five days of writing for 15 minutes a day. If Marlena Corcoran, Ph.D., CEO of Athena Mentor can find the time, you can too.

Next challenge starts on Monday. Sharpen your pencils and join us.

“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.

“…until it starts writing itself”—the mystery of creativity

“You never know what you’ll want to write until it starts writing itself in your head.”

"you never know what you'll write until it starts writing itself"Today’s wisdom comes from erstwhile sheep farmer and president of my alma mater, the elegant writer Jill Ker Conway. If you have not read her memoir The Road from Coorain, rocket it to the top of your reading list right this very minute. As a matter of fact, I think it’s time to buy the iBooks edition for myself and read it again.

“You never know what you’ll want to write until it starts writing itself…” This may sound like balderdash, especially to Type A types who never write a word until you’ve got an outline almost as detailed as a finished book. And it’s true, many successful writers make rigorous outlines. I’ll be blogging later this week about novelist Ken Follett, an inveterate outliner.

There’s nothing wrong with being prepared, but suppose the passage you’ve planned for Section 10 really wants to be the opening of the piece?

Leave some room for inspiration so when you get the idea, you can run with it. At least for a while. Unless you’re writing on a very tight deadline, what could it hurt?

“Writing itself” works in all genres

I heard writer MB Caschetta read from her short story collection a couple of days ago. She said that as she was writing one story she noticed that all of the female characters were named after her brothers. That’s what she said, they “were named”—not “I named them.” Even though she did—I mean, she wrote them into existence; who else would have named them?

Caschetta said she had no idea why the characters were named after her brothers,

“But I knew enough not to change it.”

She just kept writing and eventually she recognized what her subconscious had been doing.

Trust your instinct—whether you’re writing fiction like MB Caschetta or nonfiction like Jill Ker Conway. If it doesn’t work—so what else is new? Not everything we write works; that’s part of the drill. But if it does work, well, your work may be writing itself something magical. Something you wouldn’t have had if you stuck to the plan.

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.

Daily writing practice —consistency breeds success

Some people practice yoga. Other people practice their golf swing. Me, I practice writing. Every day for the last 511 days (as of yesterday). That’s what you call a daily writing practice.

Why is a daily writing practice important? Two reasons:

  1. Consistency and
  2. Consistency

First, consistency: a daily practice makes you better at whatever you’re doing—the old 10,000-hour rule. I’ve written about this a lot (here and here, among other places) so I won’t revisit the discussion.

The second point of consistency, though, is not for you. It’s for your audience. You might call that the Field of Dreams rule. And my friend Melissa Smith is a shining example.

Daily writing practice leads to 1400% more readers

daily writing practice
Daily writer Melissa Smith

Back in March, her blog had about 250 subscribers. She says she remembers the date well “because that’s when I was sure it couldn’t still be just family and friends.” Six months later—with zero marketing—she’s at 3600. That’s more than 1400% growth. With—did I mention?—zero marketing.

Melissa says:

“When people ask why I have been having success with my blog I tell them the single biggest reason is because I write and publish every, single, day. They would rather me give them magic answers, tips, tricks, and awesome SEO. It’s so much easier and so much harder for them as well.”

I added the emphasis there: Every. Single. Day. No, it’s not magic; just work.

If you show up, people will show up with you. Of course, then they’ll expect you to keep showing up. Meet their expectations and you’ll develop a relationship with your followers, sustained by your daily writing practice.

Melissa runs—an excellent matchmaking service for VAs and employers like me—but it’s not her work blog that’s attracting so much attention. Melissa is documenting her year as a “Roamer,” a group of entrepreneurs settling in a new country every month. It’s not shiny travel porn, and that’s key to its success. Melissa is a real person writing about her real life. The homesickness. The joy of discovering new places, new pursuits. The friendships she’s forming. It’s like a one-woman Amazing Race.

I don’t know what Melissa plans to write about when her year of Roaming ends. But I do expect she’ll be writing. Once you’ve seen what a daily writing practice can do, there’s no going back. That’s why I hit Day 511 yesterday and why I’ll do all I can to make sure I hit 512 today.

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.

Equity & shoes – a memorable metaphor

I learned a new term listening to Deray McKesson’s Pod Save the People today. And just when I was getting around to berating myself for not knowing it, actress Tracee Ellis Ross needed to be schooled in it too.

It’s “equity,” the latest term of art in inclusion. McKesson’s other guest, the mayor of Minneapolis, Betsy Hodges, defined it memorably for me: “Equality is ‘everybody gets a pair of shoes’; equity means everybody gets shoes that fit.”

Yes indeed, equity is the way to go.

The mayor used another great analogy to explain how she describes equity to her white constituents who seem worried that life is a zero-sum game, that if I’m not winning then I’m losing, do I sure don’t want you to win. She said it’s like you’re in an elevator and another elevator passes you and you think you must be standing still but in reality your elevator is rising too. Well, or something like that.

I’m not sure how McKesson felt about the shoe metaphor. He was gracious but wary with the mayor—which is understandable, since her city just went on full high alert when the police shot a white woman; a significantly more proactive response than they’d had a few years ago when a black person got killed. Mayor Hodges said the response was different this time because of all she learned the last time. She seemed humble enough to me—owning her past mistakes. I thought she did a great job. But of course a podcast interview is a different thing than actually governing. 

But the metaphors—that’s what I wanted to talk to you about today. Especially when you’re explaining a concept like racial inequity—a concept that might scare some listeners, or cause them to shut down. We need even those people to at least begin to understand what justice looks like, so shoes. Who doesn’t like talking about shoes?

Tick tick blah – when motivation flags 

“I’ve been writing for 456 days in a row,” I told my amazed 90-Day Challenge writers this morning. “And some days I wonder, is it really worth it?” Motivation flags sometimes; that’s life.

This is one of those days for me, as it happens. For the second time in four days I’m blogging on my iPhone while sitting in a theater waiting for a show to start. 

I could be doing lots of things. Like reading the program. Or, I don’t know, breathing. But I’m committed to 15 minutes a day and by God, that’s what I’m doing. (10 to go; I might even get them all in before the curtain.)


The thing about any commitment that takes longer to fulfill than, oh, 10 seconds, is that you’ll go through a period of wanting to give up. Seth Godin wrote a whole book about this; it’s called The Dip. And once you know about the dip, you know (or try to remember) that all you have to do to get out of it is keep moving forward.

My 15 minutes of writing have been happening later and later in the day. Not a good sign. O, predictably, when I sat down in my theatre seat near the end of another far-too-hectic day, I actually thought about not pulling out my phone and writing. I thought, 456 is a very respectable number. Why bother to keep going? 

And then I remembered the Dip. And Reader, well, you know the rest.

Motivation flags, commitment carries

Inspiration doesn’t arrive every morning, like the 7:08 train to the city. Actually, the 7:08 doesn’t arrive some mornings until 8:15 so maybe this is an imperfect metaphor. Or maybe not. Because even if the train doesn’t arrive, you still need to get to work. So you get in your car and drive. Or you call your boss and say you’ll be telecommuting that day. You do what you need to do to get the job done. That’s commitment. That’s what carries you through the Dip.

When motivation flags, let commitment carry you. See you on the other side of the Dip.

Writers understand

I hadn’t seen my friend Tina in probably a year. But after we hugged hello late Friday night, practically the first words out of my mouth were, “At some point before midnight, I need to write for 15 minutes.”

She said, “Absolutely! I have a poem to edit.”

And we sat in her living room on our respective laptops, putting off our gabfest until we’d done our work.

Did she mind? Not one bit. She’s a writer, too.

Writers understand.

I’ve been around plenty of people who didn’t. Every writer has at least one story about a friend or family member who wondered when they’d get a “real job.” And if they don’t think it’s real work, then they’re not going to respect your need to write instead of watching a TV show, or going to the 4th of July picnic. Or using every available moment to catch up with a dear old friend on a Friday night.

Tina and I caught up plenty that night. We pulled out our knitting and laughed and talked for hours. But first I wrote and Tina edited. We honored our commitment to ourselves, recognizing that we couldn’t be fully present to each other until we did.

They say you’re the sum of the five people you spend the most time with. If at least one of your five isn’t a writer, you’re missing out. We know from commitment. And we’re damn funny, too.

The Young People’s Concerts — Song for a Sunday

Have you heard about Leonard Bernstein’s “Young People’s Concerts”? They were legendary, and I recently came across a discussion of them in a fairly unlikely place: Nancy Duarte’s book Resonate.

Okay, maybe it’s not such an unlikely place. Duarte’s subject in Resonate is creating memorable presentations. And Bernstein was nothing if not memorable. And he did it all before PowerPoint. Can you imagine?

Bernstein taught his tiny audience—well, a large audience, but of mostly tiny humans—about relatively simple matters like the different sounds of the instruments in the orchestra. And about more complex things like just what the heck the New York Philharmonic Orchestra was doing up there on that stage.

My piano teacher led an expedition to the Young People’s Concerts three times a year. My father helped her out by chaperoning the trip. I can’t help thinking I would have taken in more information if I’d been wearing less formal dress, more comfortable shoes, but that was how one went to the Philharmonic back in the day. And my father brought along special butterscotch candies for me, which went a long way toward canceling out discomfort.

I may remember more about the Callard & Bowser’s butterscotch than I do about the concerts, but Maestro Bernstein was a compelling presence, a Star. Duarte quotes Variety’s description of him as having

“…the knack of a teacher and the feel of a poet. The marvel of Bernstein is that he knows how to grab attention and carry it along, measuring just the right amount of new information to precede every climax.”

Duarte points out how Bernstein explained the complex concepts of symphonic music by comparing them to everyday concepts we children would be familiar with. 

“How does development actually work? It happens in three main stages, like a three-stage rocket going into space. The first stage is the simple birth of an idea. Like a flower growing out of a seed. You all know the seed, for example, that Beethoven planted at the beginning of his [fifth] symphony, “dunt dunt dunt duuuunt.” Out of it rises a flower that grows like this [plays piano].”

I cannot embed a video for you, but find some butterscotch candies, click on this link, and revel in the power of metaphor—and the power of music.

What’s wrong with crazy? Frequent Questions

Q: What’s wrong with “crazy”?
A: This may seem like a crazy answer, but—it depends.

I recently blogged about Warren Buffett getting caught in a time warp with one of his folksy stories. Karma’s a bitch, because I got caught in the same time warp when I delivered my Writing Unbound class last week.

Looking for some good examples of passive verbs to edit, I came a blog post called “Why Adverbs Stink (and the Magic of Editing).” The writer, identified only as Henneke, offered this example:

“Henneke is a very crazy girl.”

Well, I guess she would know. I edited that down to:

She is a very crazy girl.

Then I walked my writers through the process of eliminating redundancy—the pronoun tells us the subject is female, so we can lose the word “girl.”

We looked at ways to translate “very crazy” into a more colorful adjective without the dead weight of “very” hung around its neck. Henneke had offered

“…is insane.
“…is loony.

And an analogy:

“…is nutty as a fruitcake.”

But if we eliminate the passive verb, we open ourselves up to a much richer vocabulary.

“She acts like a crazy person.”

The crazy thing about “crazy”

And so we arrived at the point of the lesson:

Passive verbs are to be avoided.
Avoid passive verbs.

About five minutes after class ended, one of my writers sent me a note reminding me that “crazy” is not just another adjective; it’s an adjective that has been used to label and stereotype people. It’s not the kind of word one should use casually, as I did.

Now I knew this. That’s the thing—I knew this! Only the night before I’d been listening to Devon Handy and Sarah Lerner discuss this on their Hellbent podcast. They have routinely closed their show with a “Gratitude & Sanity Check”—a way of reminding us that even though many scary forces may be loose in our government, we continue to resist efforts to gaslight us. We still have things to be grateful for. Going forward, it’ll just be a Gratitude Check.

But even with that discussion fresh in my mind, I never thought twice about copying and pasting the sentence for my class. I apologized to my writer, saying I hadn’t intended to be able-ist. But she had another take on the situation: why, she wondered, is “craziness” so often ascribed to women?

In my case, I used a female example because I adapted it from a sentence I’d read in that blog. And the blog’s example was female because the blogger was talking about herself.

But my writer noted that Google’s definition of the word uses a female example when discussing mental illness and a male example for the part of the definition that connotes enthusiasm (“He’s crazy about her.”) Think the sexism of the tech industry doesn’t warp our perspective? Think again. Gender bias is so endemic we barely notice it. And I’m in the business of “noticing” words. Go figure.

Still one day this will change. We should probably just be more patient, right? After all, my writer notes:

“…it’s only been 116 years since the Victorian era ended…”

Want to avoid passive verbs? Click here to keep in touch—and I’ll send you my “$100,000 Writing Lesson” as thanks.