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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How do I lose the academic writing style? —Frequent Questions

Q: How do I lose the academic writing style?
A: Stop writing.

I know my initial answers to these Frequent Questions tend toward the flippant, but with this one I’m dead serious.

One of the best ways to knock the stuffiness out of your writing style is to talk through your ideas. Write out loud.

Now, I’m not talking about improvising. Please in the name of all that is good, do not improvise your talk. Unless you’re a member of Second City or the Upright Citizens Brigade, in which case I wish you Godspeed.

But unless you speak like an academic 24/7, you should be able to find a more informal way to talk through your ideas. Try it as if you were chatting with a colleague. (But make sure it’s someone you like.) Record your conversation, transcribe it, and the next day go back and sort out the great stuff you can use as is, the stuff you can make great with a little tinkering, and the stuff that needs to go in the Outtakes folder I’ve written about before.

Once you’ve translated your thoughts into English from the original Academese, make sure the level of detail works for your audience. Have you fallen afoul of the Curse of Knowledge the Heath Brothers talk about in their book Made to Stick? If you think you may be getting into the weeds with details, find a bright 10-year-old (real or imaginary) and talk through your ideas again.

Academic writing won’t fly when you’re out of school

Academics are not the only people who write like academics. Anyone who’s been trained by an academic will write like one, too. At least until they hit the real world and realize no one’s reading what they write.

After I spoke at the conference last weekend, several people told me that writing frustrated them because they hadn’t been able to shake the academic writing style.

That’s an easy fix: Just write more. And not just about work. Go outside your lane once in a while and write something completely different—a poem, a silly story, a meditation on the letter U.

Just 15 minutes a day will make a huge difference over time.

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Curses and communication roadblocks

I’m not talking about curses like the F-word—although they certainly can be communication roadblocks. Nor am I talking about the kind of curses that require professional removal. I could be talking about that kind of curse, though, since I just listened to a delightful conversation in which Erik Vance told Tim Ferriss about the time he paid a Mexican witch-doctor to curse (and, a week later, un-curse) him.

No, I’m talking about the Curse of Knowledge, the phenomenon Chip Heath and Dan Heath so beautifully explained in their classic Made to Stick.

My clients create complexity, using their MBA-honed brains to dream up new products, services, and processes. And that’s fine, as long as they talk amongst themselves.

screen-shot-2016-10-28-at-3-25-34-pmBut when they need to reach a wider audience, they turn to me. Because, cursed with too much knowledge, they can’t explain their nifty new products, services, and processes clearly enough to a wider audience. They can’t reset their brains to “factory default”—the state of not knowing about this nifty new thing. But I can. Because I come to the problem with fresh eyes.

Communication roadblocks: Do as I say, not as I do

When I write for my clients, I can spot communication roadblocks like the Curse of Knowledge from 20 yards away. But in my own work…

[Shaking, as the kids say, My Damn Head.]

I wanted to help people discover how to improve their writing, so they can get to where they want to go in the business world. Great idea, right?

Yes—if you already love writing. But for people who don’t write, maybe it’s because they don’t like to write. Maybe they’re scared of it. Scared they can’t do it; scared no one wants to read what they have to say. Who knows, maybe scared of changing the ink cartridge in the printer. Doesn’t matter. What matters is they’re scared, and serene in the Curse of Knowledge, I completely forgot to explain writing in terms they can understand.

I used to be scared, too. Of course, now you can hardly tear my fingers away from the keyboard. I write for myself and for my clients, and I’m very happy doing it.

Writing takes courage, yes. But you don’t need enough courage to write an entire novel. All you need is the courage to place your fingers on the keyboard and press down gently for 15 minutes a day. Most of what you write will be awful. That doesn’t matter—no one needs to see it.

But press on that keyboard enough and some of what you write will start to be good. But I can guarantee it will never start to be good if you don’t start to write.