Speechwriting as an Art and a Science
Eric Schnure is a former speechwriter for Vice President Al Gore who has been a freelance writer and communications consultant for over 20 years. Eric has spent his career helping elected officials, business and nonprofit executives, and entertainers hone their public speaking. He is known for incorporating humor into his speechwriting which led him to cofound the Humor Cabinet, a communications consulting firm. Eric is currently an adjunct professorial lecturer at American University. We chatted with him about the latest edition of his book The Political Speechwriter’s Companion to get his insight on writing a great speech.
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1. It seems like speechwriting is an art as well as a science to an extent. What are the key ingredients of an effective political speech?
Part art and part science is a good description. The blend is where you get effective political speech. Does a speech have a structure people can follow? In the book we focus on one in particular—Monroe’s Motivated Sequence. Does it have language that people understand and remember? Does it have a story to put a human face on issues? Does it make the case credibly and convincingly, using evidence that is interesting and varied? Does it have concrete detail instead of platitudes or what we call profundity by abstraction? Basically, all of the things Aristotle talked about 2,000 years ago.
There is something else, too. The most effective political speeches create and reinforce the connection between speaker and audience. I like to say that every speech should have a “howdahell” moment. That’s where the audience says to themselves, “How the hell did she/he know that about me, my school, my town, my hopes and fears?” I don’t mean that in a Big Brother kind of way. Instead, it's about creating a moment of community and commonality. When a speaker achieves that—it can be powerful stuff.
2. What is one recurring mistake or bad habit when it comes to public speaking that you’ve noticed over the years?
The easy answer is the worst recurring mistake is that people don’t rehearse. The better answer is forgetting it’s what you say, not how you say it.
I coach public speaking from a content-first approach. Do speakers understand what makes an audience respond? What makes them believe and trust? What inspires people to act? I start there because there are a lot of recurring mistakes we see in delivery. A speaker may look at their text too much, avoiding eye contact with an audience. Another might speak too quickly or in monotone without variation. Still another may slouch or hold onto the podium so tightly their veins start popping. Or maybe they have hand gestures that instead of complementing the words only serve to distract. We can fix all of these issues by addressing the one problem that leads to all of them: lack of practice. It’s no different than a golf swing or playing the piano. Repetition makes you better.
But these bad habits are not the biggest mistake you can make. Why? Because audiences, for the most part, forgive these mistakes. They understand public speaking is hard. People fear it more than death; as Jerry Seinfeld said, they’d rather be in the casket than delivering the eulogy. What audiences don’t forgive is boring. For me, the biggest mistake or bad habit is ignoring content that resonates with audiences. Are you saying something meaningful to the audience? Are you addressing their needs, not just yours? If you’re not, that’s a habit you’d better break.
3. Did writing speeches for others come naturally to you? Did you ever struggle with public speaking yourself?
I don't know if I would say writing speeches came easy, particularly when I first started writing them. I think back to those days, and boy, did I have a lot to learn. Still do. But I do think I tend to write conversationally. That serves me well as a speechwriter because speeches are supposed to be heard. They should sound more like a dialogue than a policy paper, even when they’re about policy.
Also, writing and speaking are good cross-training. Writing speeches makes me a better public speaker, and speaking often (and constantly reminding myself to do what I teach) makes me a far better writer.
4. What are some examples of really effective political speeches that you use as examples in teaching folks how to approach the writing process?
We have more than 250 speech excerpts in the book from both sides of the aisle, some historical, but most from the last few years. I say "excerpts" because it’s not always a full speech that teaches us something useful. There are loads of speeches from which you can pull a single example or technique worth trying to emulate. In fact, there might not even be anything else notable but for that one moment.
I have favorites, though—“go to” speeches for showing what we teach. Ted Sorensen’s partnership with President Kennedy, for instance, transformed speechwriting. The inaugural address uses more rhetorical devices than you can list. There is also the speech at Rice University. It’s famous for the soundbite that uses antithesis (“not because they’re easy, but because they’re hard.”). But if you want to see a really creative use of a figurative analogy, look at the beginning.
Peggy Noonan’s skill in finding and using story complemented perfectly with President Reagan’s skill as a communicator.
More recently, we can point to Michelle Obama’s use of concrete detail—in her 2016 convention speech, she talked about how her girls went off to school with their “little faces pressed up against the window.” It’s so effective because it gives listeners an image, but it’s a sharp and much-needed contrast from the abstract language too many people mistakenly call “lofty.”
Oprah Winfrey’s speech at the Golden Globes shows how you don’t have to start with the traditional, and painful, five minutes of thank yous and acknowledgements. Instead, you can grab an audience from your very first sentence.
President Obama, with help from his writers, was a master at using litany, a repetitive series or list, as a way of building power as he spoke. But it's also a device Emma González, one of the Parkland students, used just as effectively.
Can you tell I like talking about this? I can go on.
5. Throughout your experience speechwriting and consulting, the dominant communications mediums have changed. Have the strategies for giving an effective speech changed along with the mediums?
David Murray, founder of the Professional Speechwriters Association and editor of Vital Speeches of the Day, likes to remind people that a long time ago we needed speeches. Before modern communication, having people gather in one meeting place was the most efficient way to relay a message. That is certainly not the case anymore. In fact, today speeches might be the least efficient mode of communication. Why put people out by asking them to interrupt their lives and gather to hear someone talk? Can’t you just tweet the main point? Post it on YouTube or some other channel and let people can watch it on their own time?
We can do that, of course. But there's simply no replacement for the eyeball to eyeball contact—and connection—between audience and speaker, between voter and leader.
6. You’ve worked with NASA as well as GE in speechwriting and developing communications strategies. How does operating in these contexts differ from doing so in the realm of politics?
It’s an interesting question and one I get a lot. People want to know if the lessons in The Political Speechwriter’s Companion (Available on Amazon! Sorry.) apply to the private sector or for nonprofit work. The answer is “yes, absolutely.” Pretty much everything we talk about in the book—from understanding what Aristotle said about rhetoric and persuasion to how you apply that understanding to writing a great ending—has just as much use in corporate life as it does in politics.
There is one difference, though. It’s that corporate speech is not as contentious. In politics, you trash the other side. For some, that’s the appeal; it’s fun. For many others, that's what they hate about politics. And, of course, there is a big group resigned to the middle.
But corporate communications are not nearly as personal. Executives rarely, at least not in public speeches, attack competitors. The CEO of GE never said things like, “Siemens won’t keep their promises,” and the company didn’t run ads with ominous music and headlines about Honeywell not sharing your values. Corporate leaders still have to persuade, though. Shareholders. Customers. Employees. And for that, the techniques are much the same.
7. You talk about the ethics of speechwriting in the book. How do you go about pinning down the line between a persuasive speech and a potentially unethical one?
Don’t steal. Don’t cheat. Don’t lie. Seems pretty easy doesn’t it? Yet, here we are.
Politicians still get caught up in plagiarism scandals because they think they’ll lose credit for adding, what, three words (“like Joe said…”)? They won’t.
Politicians still rely on a host of fallacies when even a little research can help avoid them. For instance, they'll create a strawman by saying "Some believe…” Really? Tell us who. That makes us believe.
And politicians—okay, the president—still not only distort and mislead; they lie. They shouldn’t. It's not okay. We cannot normalize it. And writers share in the responsibility to argue points credibly.
1. Do you have any tips for knowing your audience, particularly when it comes to figuring out how to incorporate humor into speeches?
When it comes to humor, knowing the audience is really important. As it is for any speech, really. But I’d say there are two other things—maybe even more important. I like to think of them as the golden rules.
The first is to be self-deprecating. Audiences like leaders who take their jobs seriously—but not themselves. With self-deprecating humor, you can show both modesty and wit without the harshness of hitting others with a hammer.
That leads to the second point. Always remember the motto of the Gridiron Club, a longtime Washington institution: “Singe, don’t burn.” Leave making fun of people to John Oliver. People don't want mean politicians; they want the people charged with improving their lives to be compassionate.
That's why politicians and their writers should want to use humor. It can help make a point memorable, change the pace in a speech, diffuse a situation. Mostly, though, when done right, it characterizes a leader as likeable. That’s a pretty important quality for someone who relies on votes for job security.
2. Any advice for young people in particular who are interested in getting into political speechwriting?
Yes! Again, two things.
First, write and read a lot, and not just speeches. Write for the school paper. Write in a journal. Just write as much as you can.
Second, volunteer for a local campaign. Chances are they’re not going to have a dedicated speechwriter. Ask if you can give it a shot; they might surprise you. Then you can surprise them!
3. Have you read any books or listened to any podcasts recently you would recommend to our readers?
There used to be a joke about August being the best time to be in Washington—because there was baseball and no politics. And that was when the baseball team was known for losing. Still better! With that in mind, I’ll recommend a book I’ve been trying to push on my 15 year old: Last Days of Summer by Steve Kluger. It’s not entirely about baseball; it’s about innocence and relationships and nostalgia. It’s a great story told in an imaginative way. My 15 year old doesn’t take any of my recommendations, but maybe you will!
Oh yeah, you should also pick up The Political Speechwriter’s Companion, 2nd edition. I hear good things.