7 Tips for Writing a Great Campaign Speech

7 Tips for Writing a Great Campaign Speech

James T. Snyder

PIONEERING NEWS correspondent Eric Sevareid, like the other stellar electronic correspondents of his day at CBS, considered himself a writer first — he called his several published collections of broadcast analyses “oral essays.”

Another CBS television peer, Walter Cronkite, in his autobiography entitled A Reporter’s Life, tells a story about Sevareid the “oral essay” writer at the 1952 Democratic Convention. As Cronkite relates: “That was the convention that nominated as its presidential candidate the reluctant Gov. Adlai Stevenson of Illinois, As we waited in the hall for him to arrive, an advance copy of his acceptance speech was passed out to the press. Eric Sevareid was sitting with me at the anchor desk, and we both began poring over the speech. I was deeply impressed by the beauty of Stevenson’s language, unmatched by any other politician in my time. Eric and I finished our reading,” Cronkite continues, “and as I looked toward that master essayist, expecting to hear a paean of appreciation, he tossed down the Stevenson copy with a look of disgust. And he said: ‘I’m not sure I’m going to enjoy covering a politician who writes better than I do.'”

Now it’s a fact of life that candidates running for political office at every level are surrounded by consultants and advisers. And each consultant, naturally, considers his or her particular area of expertise the most critical: the pollster knows that polling is the most important aspect of the campaign, the fundraiser is certain that fundraising is the most important and the grassroots GOTV organizer is convinced that direct mail and phone banks are the critical parts of the campaign.

And ultimately each may be — but only if the candidate has already developed a rationale for running, has fashioned a central message that unifies and fires his or her campaign, and has developed the skill and ability to communicate it in a strong, logical, beautifully written campaign speech.

I am constantly amazed at seeing so many candidates for every level of public office, of every political party, with campaign organizations running as smoothly as a Rolls-Royce V-12 engine, get up before a crowd of happy supporters and absolutely bomb when giving a speech. Boring. Flat Clicheridden. Jejune.

The reason is simple. Few in a campaign spend much time thinking about the candidate’s complete message. Rare is the candidate who sits down to do the hard work of hammering out an eloquent, well-crafted, intelligent stump speech that can be used throughout the campaign.

What a mistake. Because when all is said and done in the modern world of retail politics, what is actually seen or heard by the voters and the media at public events or on television? A candidate speaking. Oratory. A vocal message that captivates and charms, or falls flat on its face and turns voters away in disgust and disappointment.

The speech, therefore, is the thing. Or as William Safire calls it, “The Speech,” about which he says in his Political Dictionary: “When a candidate does not have his own speech by the end of a campaign, he has not figured out in his own mind what the campaign was really all about.”

Speechmaking ability — the speaker’s talent in connecting with our hearts and minds — is why the American people remember and admire Ronald Reagan, John F. Kennedy and Mario Cuomo, no matter what our political leanings.

Most candidates don’t have access to professional speechwriters who can write a startling new speech every day of a campaign. But the need for an excellent, resounding, memorable core speech remains for every candidate, no matter what political office is being sought.

The candidate’s central stump speech is the heart of the campaign. Memorized, it can be lengthened or shortened to fit every occasion. The introductory story and lesson(s) drawn can be changed to fit any audience. Like FDR’s unseen leg braces, the speech supports the exhausted or distracted candidate who hasn’t the time or energy to say something entirely new every night of the week. But with a minimal amount of work, it can be made to appear fresh and renewed on a moment’s notice.

And it can be used to draft ever more sophisticated, eloquent custom speeches for events of singular importance — the big fundraiser, the television debate, the Democrat-or Republican-of-the-Year award, and so on.

It also becomes the central philosophical document of the campaign. It is the Rosetta stone for the assistants writing the direct mail letters, forms the script outline for the phone bank volunteers and provides direction for press releases. And it ensures that everyone in a far-flung and highly fluid campaign stays on message — one message, the candidate’s message.

So, how do you accomplish this magnificent thing?

By recognizing, above all things, that successful speechwriting is an evolutionary process.

First, the candidate needs to sit down — alone — on quiet evenings early in the formative weeks of a campaign and determine why it is that he or she is running; come up with a cogent, taut, spirited rationale for running that can be articulated in 20 words or less to anyone who asks.

Second, the candidate has to thereafter meet with his or her advisers and consultants and hash out a central message built around that rationale, determining what particular issues need to be addressed every time in the speech.

Third, someone has to write the darned thing. To help the candidate accomplish that goal, the following are the “Magnificent Seven” rules for writing the perfect speech, distilled to their martini-dry essence.

Tip #1: Write for the Ear, Not the Eye

When we write, we write for the eye. When we speak, we choose words that are pleasing or familiar to our ear. This is the first basic secret of speechwriting and public speaking: When we talk, it’s different than when we read. Which leads directly to the second-most-basic secret of speechwriting: The ear is less interested in good grammar than it is in content and lyric.

The trick to writing a good speech, then, is to entertain the ear — by writing something that sounds spoken. To write for the ear, the speaker must write in a way that captures the usages, cadences, rhythms and intonations of humans speaking to one another. Drop the use of perfect grammar, tense and construction, which makes the written word sound stilted when spoken. Remember the old saying among speechwriters in measuring the success or failure of a speech: “If you can smell the ink on the page during the speech, you failed.”

Tip #2: Understand the Speech as an Essay

One of the primary reasons people struggle with speeches is that they have no no frame of reference within which to put the activity. What results is an almost always unsuccessful effort to reinvent the wheel. As evidenced by Cronkite’s story, experienced speakers and speechwriters know that a speech is essentially an essay An essay has a clear beginning, middle and end; it organizes disparate points into a single, coherent package.

At the same time, an essay is meant to touch a chord, ring a bell, punch a button, sing a song, paint a picture; it is a persuasive commentary about something meaningful to the reader. So too a speech.

A great public speaker is in every respect a proficient essayist. Fortunately, given that most of us have experience writing dozens of essays in school, candidates and their writers already have a firm intuitive grasp of the essay concept. The underlying approach to drafting any speech should now snap clearly into focus. Outline your speech/essay first, point by point, then flesh it out with short, crisp sentences that make your case.

Tip #3: Is the Speech Appropriate?

Make certain the candidate and staff can answer the following questions when fashioning a speech for a particular audience:

1. What is the time, place and expected manner of the speech?

2. Are there particular topics and issues the speaker must address? If so, what are they?

3. Determine the demographic picture of your audience – age, sex, educational background, geographic background, religious, ethnic and/or racial background, particular (or peculiar) interests and affiliations – and how many will attend.

4. Is the speaker expected to be in the teaching mode, the cheerleading mode, the information-imparting mode, the entertainment mode, or some other mode?

Tip #4: Find a Unifying Theme

Most speaking events fail because the speaker didn’t understand that in addition to imparting information, a speech must move people. The goal is to make the listeners think, care, respond, act. This is particularly true in the political arena. Every successful speech contains within it some image, idea or turn of phrase that touches the listener’s heart or mind.

It is critical for the candidate to find a single theme or vision that firs the content, tone and temperament of the entire speech. Change. Progress. Growth. Success. Rebirth. Reform. Survival. Finding that theme will help the speaker organize the speech logically. Develop one or two thematic quotes, stories and analogies – especially G-rated personal anecdotes from the candidate – insert them early in the speech, and develop the central message from the opening.

Tip #5: Master the Power of Language

The secret of a great speech is the originality and power of the language that constitutes it. Use clear, simple and expressive language whenever possible. Avoid slang or idiomatic expressions.

The following kinds of modern Orwellian ‘Newspeak” words should never find their way into a speech, political or otherwise: empowerment, rightsizing, reprioritize, facilitation, paradigm, excellence, futurism, benchmarking, new tomorrows, value-driven, feedback, visioning, focus, commitment, lifestyle, greatness, stakeholders, centered, continuum, compassing, interpersonal, win-win, quality time, team player, synergy, strategic, interdependence, networking, programmatic, new millennium, 21st century, impact, impacted, impacting, and so on.

Mastering Tip 5 is difficult, because even professionals in a campaign find writing such prefabricated, clich[acute{e}]-ridden jargon irresistible. Recall always George Orwell’s observation in this regard: “When you make a stupid remark its stupidity will be obvious, even to yourself.”

Tip #6: If It Ain’t Funny, Don’t Use it

When extolling the virtues of humor in public speaking, a famous old politician once said: “Laughter is the sweetest music that ever greeted the human ear, and the chief purpose of wit and humor is to produce laughter.”

Humor can be most effective in a political speech. It can break the ice with the audience, gel a line, deflect a candidate’s negatives, and provide the perfect thematic pitch so important to listener interest. But most of us – including political candidates – aren’t really that funny. Think of humor as campaign-ending nitroglycerin.

If a speaker does use humor in a speech, make certain the story, anecdote or joke is surefire funny with all listeners. Test it with a bright constellation of different folks for laughs. If the joke or story is dirty, off-color, of questionable genes or ancestry, or is offensive to some identifiable religious, ethnic or racial group other than Martians, leave it out.

Tip #7: Keep Your Speech Short

Experienced trial lawyers put food on the table with their public speaking. Trial lawyers know that a listener’s attention span is short. Even if a trial is a complicated one, most summations or closing arguments should not go for more than an hour, and half an hour is best of all.

Candidates must keep their speeches short. People will excuse all kinds of lousy speechmaking, just chalking it up to inexperience. But nobody – nobody – forgives the pain of a long speech. Twenty-five to 30 minutes is a long speech, 15 to 20 minutes is a medium-long speech and seven to 10 minutes is a nice short speech.

Finally, after the speech has been carefully crafted using these rules, it is time for the candidate to practice, practice, practice until he or she drops. Famous trial lawyer Gerry Spence says “the trick to delivery of the powerful argument, which as always, is a non-trick, is to feel.” Spence knows what all talented speakers know: actually giving the speech is theater. The performance should be focused, articulate, dramatic and passionate, with every effort made to move people, to use the candidate’s carefully honed emotions to make the audience feel – intellectually, emotionally, and spiritually.

Fortunately, as in theater, there are many opportunities to practice or rehearse the speech before the performance. So the candidate should be locked in the laundry room at home with a stopwatch to rehearse relentlessly – all the while sharpening and ruthlessly editing its contents. Video practice or live rehearsals before a friendly audience should only come after the candidate knows the speech inside and out.

Finally, at that critical early moment when your first great speech is ready, there’s a real campaign now underway.

On to victory in November!

James T. Snyder, Esq., was a speechwriter for Gov. Mario M. Cuomo of New York. He is now a trial attorney in private practice, and engages in freelance speechwriting, speech training and direct mail writing. He can be reached by e-mail at jtsnyder@twcny.rr.com.

COPYRIGHT 2000 Campaigns & Elections, Inc.

COPYRIGHT 2000 Gale Group