Access is Everything

Perhaps the most important word in any speechwriter’s vocabulary should be “access”. If you have set out to capture someone else’s voice – a very strange exercise if you aren’t in the habit of impersonating people on a regular basis – it is essential that you have as much insight as possible into how they think, how they talk, and how they carry themselves before an audience.

The upside of being a full-time speechwriter for a principal is that you  ideally have a greater opportunity to develop a relationship. When I served as a speechwriter at the Department of Energy, I was granted a great deal of access to my boss, demonstrated in the proximity of our offices. I made it a point to tag along with him to practically any local event, helping me to gain a greater appreciation of how he handled a room. When I couldn't make it to a trip or event, one of his aides would make sure to record his remarks on an iPad so that I could listen to  his remarks later. Our office maintained an open door policy for me to sit in on most of his meetings, where I could gain a sense of how he approached issues away from the dais. 

All that said, access remains a perennial issue when finding time with a busy official. You can make the point to your boss that even the President of the United States carves out time to review his speeches – yet sometimes it will still be difficult to remain a priority on a crammed calendar.

In the “ideal state”, we would find time to discuss his goals for a speech far in advance. I would go off and do my homework, reviewing what he has previously said on the topic, consulting with experts (another advantage of working within an institution, as opposed to freelance engagements), and brainstorming my way to a first draft. We would then review the draft together, incorporating his comments and suggestions – all well in advance of our deadline.

The reality is very often quite different – involving a lot more guesswork on my part, in which I need to determine what he would like to discuss based on intuition and conversations with other staff, followed by a very last-minute review – in which I’m given notes for updates the night before, or even morning of, the big event.

For the freelance or occasional speechwriter, I would advise them to simply gain as much background material on their speaker as possible. If even a brief call or meeting with the principal isn’t possible, spend the time to watch as many clips of them as you can find (you’d be amazed what you can track down on YouTube). The more chances you have to watch your speaker at work, the more likely you’ll be able to tap into the voice they are striving for.