Who would you invite to an imaginary dinner party? My guest list changed after reading the article I’m writing about today. Welcome Jon Favreau, former Director of Speechwriting for President Obama; I hope you’re not an imaginary vegetarian.
I’ve been a Favreau fan (a “Favan”?) for a while now. The podcast he and some cronies from the Obama Administration cooked up—Pod Save America—restores my sanity twice a week. I thought for sure I’d already blogged about their interview with President Obama, the last media interview he did as president. I will correct that oversight ASAP.
But another oversight I will correct immediately: Jon Favreau’s co-conspirators on Pod Save America are speechwriters Dan Pfeiffer, Tommy Vietor, and (I’m sure he would describe himself as) the indispensable Jon Lovett.
I feel some affinity for Lovett, who will surely go through life being mistaken for Jon Lovitz. (Has the letter H somehow become a pariah? Um, “paria”? Whatever happened to “John”?) But at least Lovitz is a real person; I’m fated to remain second in the Google search to a sitcom character.
Jon Favreau—not just a pretty face
Favreau’s invitation to my imaginary dinner has nothing to do with his boyish good looks. Or the fact that, come to think of it, he too has a name doppelgänger, a movie producer.
Nope, I’m passing the dinner rolls to Favs because we think about writing in the same way. Clearly he’s a smart dude.
This LinkedIn post by Trevor Ambrose—“Obama’s Speechwriter Shares 5 Storytelling Tips”—summarizes some of what makes Favreau’s speeches so effective. But they’re not just valuable tips for speechwriters: any writer can and should embrace these best practices.
1 – Story is key
Ambrose quotes Favreau:
“In my experience communications too often focuses on finding the right words. Of course words are important at some point in the process. But the first question you have to ask yourself is: what is the story I’m trying to sell? That is essential, and should be the starting point.”
“What is the story I’m trying to sell?” Focus on telling a story and the facts and data will slot themselves in, reinforcing the narrative. Focus on reporting facts and data and you’ll never get to the story—and the idea you’re trying to convey will never take root in the listeners’ or readers’ minds.
Too many people believe that facts are the story. Too many people end up creating boring, eminently forgettable work.
2 – Short & simple
“…a speech about everything is a speech about nothing. Narrow your story down to the essential point.”
Easier said than done, especially when you’re trying to incorporate language and feedback from many stakeholders. Even when you have only one client to please, it’s a tough sell. People seem to feel that the more they talk, the smarter they’ll sound. I’m still working on the right way to convince them otherwise. Jon Favreau and I will surely trade war stories about this over imaginary dinner.
3 – Inoculate yourself against criticism
“You should find [objections] and address them during your speech.”
I believe I let out an audible whoop when President Obama inoculated himself against critics of his efforts to halt climate change. This passage comes from his 2015 State of the Union Address. And I guess the fact that I remember it two years later negates my argument that speeches stuffed full of ideas can’t be memorable. No speech gets stuffed fuller than a State of the Union; perhaps it’s the exception that proves the rule.
Anyway, in 2015 President Obama told Congress:
“I’ve heard some folks try to dodge the evidence by saying they’re not scientists; that we don’t have enough information to act. Well, I’m not a scientist, either. But you know what — I know a lot of really good scientists at NASA, and NOAA, and at our major universities.“
Unfortunately for our planet, the current Republican administration is defunding those “really good scientists.” Unfortunately for our language—and our liberties—the current president inoculates himself by spouting blatant lies. Convince enough of your base that the mainstream media lies and can anything they say or write damage you? I look forward to the imaginary discussion Favs and I will have on how (whether?) we can counter this strategy.
4 – Understand and speak to your audience
“You have to know what the world looks like when you are in [the audience’s] shoes. One of the reasons why Obama’s speeches are so successful is because they are written in the language that his audience understands, addressing the issues they are facing.”
I often run into clients who are eager to show off the bright, shiny idea their company came up with. But “Isn’t this cool?” doesn’t work as a speech premise. You have to show the audience—and note that I said show, not tell—how the cool new thing will solve their problems. And you have to do it in language they understand.There’s no point in extolling the virtues of your new creation if no one knows what it is or what it does.
Political writers have an even harder job—they have to bring abstract, often complex concepts to life in ways that resonate with audiences who have a wide range of backgrounds and experiences. Oh, and if you don’t do your job well, the polar ice caps could melt and drown Miami. But, hey—no pressure.
5 – Jon Favreau wants to connect
Of course I mean he wants his speaker to connect, and inspire. And what’s the best way to do that? See #1: Tell stories. But not just any stories:
“The best way to connect with people is through stories that are important to people’s lives.”
What’s with the dinner party, anyway?
Sometimes I ask my webinar participants to imagine their own dinner parties. I love the exercise because the first time I did it (hat-tip to Samantha Bennett, my imaginary cousin and an inspirational teacher), the reveal at the end just gobsmacked me. If you’d like to try it for yourself, I’ve uploaded a clip of it to Vimeo. Enjoy.