What I Learned When a Client Put Me on the Spot

Being a speechwriter is fundamentally about being prepared for anything and everything that could be thrown your way. In a time of increasing specialization in the workplace, speechwriters remain a generalist breed – required to respond in a nimble fashion to requests touching on everything from high-level strategy to the most base level of logistics. (Can the AV monitor support these files? What stage of the stage is the podium on?)

Speechwriters are increasingly called upon to be equal parts graphic designer, content strategist, logistics coordinator, and hand holder. This unusual mix of the mundane and the strategic can be dizzying, but also one of the most interesting aspects of the job by my lights.

Still, you can never be entirely confident of what might be thrown your way. I was reminded of this truth on a recent client engagement.

If all those hats weren’t enough - sometimes you’re called upon to be a performer yourself.

I was contracted to work with the CEO of a large utility agency on a high stakes keynote. Her talk would need to help firmly position herself as a leader in fostering innovation in her industry and share insights from major wins on her watch – without coming across as self-congratulatory or boring the audience with a recitation of technical hurdles her team overcame. We would need to share vivid stories that helped to clearly articulate the stakes of her challenges – and we would need to come in under a tight 15 minute mark.

No small task!

Over a matter of works, I teased out the most important key message from my client. I was fortunate to be afforded full access to experts from throughout her organization who could provide me with invaluable insights on their work – and who were gracious enough to take the time to fact check my draft. (For one thing, I learned that I should be referring to the world of water as a “sector” – not an “industry”.)

In a very important sense, this client was a speechwriter’s dream; she didn’t simply pay lip service to the idea of preparation, but actually carved out time on her hectic schedule to practice her remarks. Even with all of the important responsibilities on her plate, she recognized the value of investing time in maximizing this speaking opportunity. I suspect that some speakers shy away from finding the time for practice because they see it as an exercise separate from their core duties as a leader.

As you might guess, I disagree. One of the foremost responsibilities of any leader is to serve as an effective advocate and voice for their organization. But it isn’t enough to accept speaking requests if one isn’t willing to also do the tough work of ensuring they are prepared for the big moment in the spotlight. An executive may be running a multi-billion dollar operation, but that doesn’t mean they can delegate the hard, crucial work of inspiring their workforce and persuading the world of the importance of their mission. As more than one speechwriter has advised a client, if the President of the United States can set aside time for speech prep and rehearsal anyone can. (That is to say, being 2019, most Presidents.)

My client also recognized that the optimal time for rehearsal isn’t hours before the speech during a sound check, but weeks in advance – when course corrections can still be made if something is found to be amiss.

I was grateful to be included in the rehearsal and showed up at her offices, ready for the always strange sensation of seeing what were once at least partially my words filtered through the voice of another person. If I’ve done my job right, I won’t hear my voice at all – I’ll only hear the voice of my client.

But this rehearsal was to prove a bit of an exception.

I arrived to find her staff ready for their boss, video camera on hand to record her session. Right on time, she entered the room with the typical dominant but accessible presence I had grown accustomed to over the course of our prior meetings. I greeted her and asked if she had any last thoughts from reading through my draft before we launched into practice.

“Yeah, I read it,” she said. “But I need to hear it aloud first.”

A staffer had hinted that she may have this reaction, but I didn’t take him seriously. That was my mistake.

The room turned to me. They were accustomed to this request as part of her process; some of us (myself included) internalize a piece of material most effectively by reading it over and over again. Others need to hear it aloud.

And so I found myself in front of the room reading my speech aloud for an audience.

It’s Speechwriting 101 – writing for the ear is very different than writing for the eye. Lots of lyrical prose can quickly devolve into a garbled mess if read aloud, especially if the occasion is something fairly quotidian like the 10th anniversary of the local Rotary Club. (“Quotidian” doesn’t exactly roll off the tongue either.) A solid rule of thumb for writing a speech is to read it aloud to see how it plays, how the rhythm flows – and if it sounds like something an actual human being would say to someone at, say, a bar. If you read it aloud and it sounds more like a McKinsey white paper, it’s time to go back to the drawing board.

To be deadly honest, any speechwriter toiling under deadline can sometimes cut corners and neglect the work of actually reading their work aloud. This impromptu rehearsal was a good reminder for me of how urgent it is to never shirk this step – and a humbling reminder of the trust that speakers place in their speechwriters. We are rarely the ones left to succeed or fail on stage, one of the most vulnerable positions a person can find themselves in most industrialized countries now that we have evolved from the hunter-gatherer era.

This rather unorthodox request may actually be one of the most effective ways of holding speechwriters accountable. I no longer had the option of hitting “send” and washing my hands of the material – I was now left to move the audience with my own material.

We found some bumpy patches. (And some unintentionally comic ones: “As the first woman to lead this organization…”)

I was also reminded of how often the rules we operate by on the keyboard can play out differently on stage. I generally operate under the rule of thumb that most speakers average around 130 words a minute; while not a perfect science, this typically helps me keep my general presentation length on track. (A 15 minute speech, for example, should clock in at around 1950 words.)

I had indeed followed my playbook by the letter, but I could tell in the moment that the speech was dragging. I instinctively found myself skipping over asides that had seemed crucial during the writing process and utterly superfluous during the actual event. (In retrospect, I didn’t need to delve as deeply into the genealogy of all those horses and their dental records during this particular speech on innovation.)

It wasn’t the most comfortable experience delivering an impromptu speech to my client and her advisors – but growth and creativity is rarely comfortable.

What's in a name?

David Murray of the Professional Speechwriters Association recently posed an interesting question for how speechwriters prefer to identify themselves.

 A veteran corporate communications headhunter is on her first search for a pure exec comms role,and asks:

“Is there a preferred title for executive communications professionals? Do they prefer to be called speech writers or exec comms something? My new client keeps calling this role speech writer, but it is definitely more than just writing speeches. It’s about creating the appropriate themes and platforms for the CEO, writing articles, board and customer correspondence, helping with media interviews, managing the CEO’s social media, and being a trusted advisor.”

But nobody reports to the person, so the recruiter wonders if “director” is appropriate?

“Maybe Executive Communications Leader? Senior Exec Comms XXX? I want to position the role appropriately.”

I've personally found at many of the organizations where I have worked, the term "speechwriter" tends to hold a cachet internally that "executive communications" does not. Many folks have never met a speechwriter before, as evidenced by the usual "West Wing"/Trump line of conversation they pursue next. It is a unique role and they tend often seem to give it a bit of deference as a clearly defined skillset, as opposed to the more generic-sounding "executive communications."

As for interacting with external folks, I often tend to more vaguely refer to myself as part of the communications team or as an executive communications professional. This can vary on the organization and context, but I tend to be discreet about the idea that the boss may, horror of horrors, have someone putting words in their mouth.... or that they actually draws on support from advisers in preparing strategically for events. I appreciate that discretion is the name of the game in speechwriting. (I never blinked when a client delivering a college commencement speech added an additional aside that it was challenging to “write this speech all on her own”; after all, the scribe is here to be heard, not acknowledged.)

I'm also aware that certain types of organizational partners or customers can look dimly on the idea of paying someone to write speeches; just look at the never-ending headlines we'll all seen bemoaning the temerity of a speechwriter drawing a paycheck above poverty wages. (From this week: Seema Verma employs a team of private consultants who write her speeches, polish her brand and travel with her across the country.)

Bottom-line for me personally; identification as a speechwriter internally brings a lot of benefits in helping one to carve out a distinct niche and lane of influence. As for what to represent myself as to the outside world, it's more of a mixed bag.

That said, I always prefer the title "speechwriter." It's cool. And it's to the point. 

Rewriting is the Name of the Game

A major aspect of speechwriting in the modern era is working effectively with graphic designers. If you are the rare hybrid talent who can combine a gusto for writing with a flair for visual design, you may be able to retain ownership of all aspects in a presentation yourself – more than likely, you will be coordinating the efforts of a team.

I have learned this should be more of a collaborative process than simply jotting down instructions on what you want a presentation to look like. The more that you can involve one’s colleagues early in the conceptual process of creating a presentation, the more invested they will feel as creatives.

I learned an important lesson on setting expectations upfront when working with a graphic designer once. I have long operated under the working assumption that anything I create will be thrown out or altered entirely. It goes with the turf of being a speechwriter. Over time if you stay in the profession, you take it in stride when remarks became an entirely different product by the time they reach it to the podium. You grow accustomed to sending out documents labeled “Version 23”. And you learn to not view discarded drafts as wastes of time, but as important markers along the journey to creating the right product for the speaker.

Veteran speechwriter Mike Long captures the sentiment well when he describes the practice of writing a first draft for yourself. Consider that first version you send it the one that captures your vision for the speech – and then move on. Even if you have disagreements about changes your speaker wants to make – and even though you are expected to offer your counsel – you are ultimately working for someone else. Pride of ownership must go out the window.

Not everyone uniformly shares this perspective on their work, however. In one particular instance, a graphic designer grew angry when I requested changes to a presentation we were developing based on client feedback. It had taken her considerable time and energy to produce what she now seemed to consider wasted work.

My lesson was to involve those I work with earlier on in the creative process – and to better set the expectation that in presentations, we create a first draft for ourselves. We must then accept that we often must throw out some of our great ideas and begin anew. Rewriting and re-imagining is simply the name of the game.

Can’t They Write Their Own Speeches?

Just about everyone thinks their profession is misunderstood at one time or another. The difference with my profession is that a comparatively small slice of the population are actually full-time speechwriters, leaving media portrayals to feed the vacuum.

You’ll learn after enough networking events and holiday parties that a few variations on the same questions will come up again and again when you tell someone you’re a speechwriter.

For one thing, most people think speechwriting is a cool gig. And they’re right! Probably not as glamorous as they imagine though – few speechwriters are huddling in the Oval Office or charting history. More of us are on Capitol Hill or the private sector. We’re more likely pouring through old corporate annual reports in search of interesting stories or interviewing company old-timers to learn more about the people behind those sepia-toned photographs on display in the lobby.   

Along with that wave of interest, there is often some skepticism – less about us, more about our bosses. The same questions stand – are speechwriters really necessary? We hear echoes of this question in the news articles that surface from time to time, shaming some elected official for hiring a speechwriter or – God forbid – giving one a raise. This is usually contrasted with some pressing public need that is going unmet – the clear message contrasting unmet government responsibilities with the “spin” and artifice of speechwriting. (Just this month, from across the pond - "Tory Justice Secretary whose department cut legal aid for domestic violence victims has found thousands for a SECOND speechwriter".) It’s a viewpoint that assumes little value in the work of communicating organizational priorities to the public.

Steeped in programming like House of Cards, most people seem to instinctively grasp that a politician likely works with a speechwriter – less because of demands on their time, as much as the widespread working assumption that many elected officials are puppets, blindly following a script laid out in front of them. But why do executives and non-profit leaders need a speechwriter? It plain rubs some people the wrong way. If you’re attending a TedTalk or a keynote address, isn’t it reasonable to assume that the speaker has actually wrote her words on her own?

I tend to emphasize that speechwriting should not be seen as a solitary exercise as much as a collaboration. The role of the speechwriter isn’t to dictate a message verbatim, but to work closely with a speaker to craft the most effective message possible on behalf of their organization. We don’t expect busy executives to have created the graphics or visual illustrations that accompany their presentations. We don’t expect them to have personally crunched the data featured in their presentations. Yet we seem to cling to the notion of executive as auteur when it comes to the words in their presentations.

The reality is that most executives are torn in a thousand directions. Delegating and communicating a vision for specialists to implement are important skill sets in management. By working with a speechwriter, a speaker isn’t showing their disdain or lack of effort – on the contrary, they’re signaling that they truly prioritize the craft and thought that go into rendering an effective argument.

Our culture values authenticity today - and that’s a good thing. With the B.S. detectors that audiences have developed from years of media saturation and analysis, it’s harder than ever to sell spin, even in the era of fake news. This trend toward greater authenticity can lull some speakers into the assumption that they are their most authentic selves by “winging it” in front of an audience. The truth, however, is that careful planning and forethought are what ultimately allow the best speakers to use their limited time effectively, retain the attention of audiences, and allow their authentic selves to be seen.   

What Hollywood Gets Wrong About Speechwriting

It’s a prerequisite for every fresh-eyed new arrival in the DC political world. If they want to hold their own with pop culture references at the never-ending carousel of office happy hours, they have to watch The West Wing.

Aaron Sorkin’s political fantasy series has probably done more good than harm on average. In a time of deeply ingrained cynicism for every American institution, there’s something sweetly inspiring about the earnestness and good intentions of his characters. In an era when dark conspiracy stories like House of Cards and Scandal dominate the popular imagination when it comes to political shows, I’m left with nostalgia for such a straightforward paean to the democratic process.

Where shows like The West Wing can lead viewers astray is failing to separate narrative convention from reality. Many would-be speechwriters have gleamed a vastly outsized idea of the influence that real speechwriters play. The reality is often a much more bureaucratic process than a lone tortured artist cranking out high rhetoric late into the night.

The biggest misconception that movies and televisions often push about speeches is that they solve challenges on their own. This can have harmful real-world consequences – as we arguably saw throughout the Obama presidency, in which the administration often seemed to overtly rely on the boss’s powers of oratory – overestimating his ability to persuade large swaths of the country that consume all coverage of his speeches through an ultra-conservative media echo system. Obama’s staff was famous for jokingly calling for a “race speech” when any given issue reached a boiling point, harkening back to the President’s widely lauded Philadelphia speech on race relations that helped ease concerns about extremist views held by his pastor. The difference between campaigning and governing – and by extension, between entertainment and reality – is that the final achievement can be supported by a great speech; but the speech itself cannot be the final achievement.

This is where movies lead us astray by positioning “the big speech” as the climactic moment. It’s an understandable device for screenwriters telling stories that can’t easily be resolved by a car chase or shoot-out. As far as stories with talking heads go, speeches are inherently dramatic events – especially when the speaker is telling hard truths or breaking decorum to call out an opponent directly.

Think of Sorkin’s screenplay for The American President, in which Michael Douglas finally ends his political rivals’ relentless assaults on his personal life – and wins back his girlfriend - with a rousing appearance at a press conference. His speech is laced with the finely-tuned barbs that have made Sorkin the rare screenwriter who is a household name.

America isn't easy. America is advanced citizenship. You've gotta want it bad, 'cause it's gonna put up a fight. It's gonna say, 'You want free speech? Let's see you acknowledge a man whose words make your blood boil, who's standing center stage and advocating at the top of his lungs that which you would spend a lifetime opposing at the top of yours.' You want to claim this land as the land of the free? Then the symbol of your country cannot just be a flag. The symbol also has to be one of its citizens exercising his right to burn that flag in protest.

Sydney Ellen Wade has done nothing to you, Bob. She has done nothing but put herself through school, represent the interests of public school teachers, and lobby for the safety of our natural resources. You want a character debate, Bob? You better stick with me, 'cause Sydney Ellen Wade is way out of your league.

And if you want to talk about character, Bob, you'd better come at me with more than a burning flag and a membership card. If you want to talk about character and American values, fine. Just tell me where and when, and I'll show up. This is a time for serious people, Bob, and your fifteen minutes are up. My name is Andrew Shepherd, and I AM THE PRESIDENT!

 Phew! No doubt this speech would indeed light up Twitter and YouTube today. It would doubtlessly dominate water cooler discussion and late-night monologues for the week.

But would it alone solve the President’s credibility and trust issues in real life? What movies don’t have the narrative space to highlight are all of the attacks that would follow after the end credits have rolled. We don’t see the right-wing media cabal pointing out hypocrisies in the speech; we don’t see the voters who simply turn the channel and tune out any words from a politician they have already decided to hate.

In short, movies condition us to overestimate how persuasive big speeches can be.

You even see similar instances in romances, like Jerry Maguire, in which Tom Cruise can ease months of marital strife with a heartfelt impromptu speech. (“We live in a cynical world…)Would this smooth talking alone be enough to fix a deeply dysfunctional marriage?

The lesson we should take away is that speeches can create big moments that move audiences to take action – but they aren’t enough on their own. In the real world, they have to be supported by action.  

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.

Ransom Letters

Confession - I’ve never been the most organized person in any classroom or office I’ve been a part of. You could usually pick out my spot by looking for the overcrowded locker or desk drawer crammed with old files. It drove my teachers nuts, but as I began my tenure as a speechwriter, I’ve mostly been able to write off my lack of fastidiousness as part of the messy creative process.

Over time, I have made a deliberate effort to keep my files better organized, especially when it comes to storing writing samples digitally. I never know when I’ll be quickly called upon to produce, say, an example of a speech for a corporate board of directors or a sample eulogy - it’s far better to be prepared for these requests by improving how I keep my records.

When I go through my old samples, I can always tell right away if one was written for one particular boss of mine. I can tell with a quick glance.

Size 44 font.


The margins are very particular – custom settings, 0.6 all around.

And throughout, the giant reminder to


On first glance, it almost looks like a ransom note. Nobody could bear to read a book or article in this format – the page count would easily run into the thousands.

But my boss wasn’t reading a book. He was delivering a speech. And he had learned, through his own extensive experiences as a speaker, what format worked for him. He didn’t want to have to frantically scan the page looking for his place. He didn’t want to see huge gobs of dead white space eating up the pages. And he didn’t want to forget to slow the rush of his words and


Speechwriting is about writing for the ear, not the eye – and part of that process is learning what works for your boss’s eye so that it can effectively reach the audience’s ear. I could devote hours of research and thought to the most cogent speech of my life, but it would be sent right back to me if I had forgotten my boss’s preferences on how to use margins.

A speechwriter working with a new client has a lot to learn – their voice, their priorities, their sense of what is important. And they should be sure to ask how their boss likes to format their words. Those small finishing touches in Microsoft Word can make a world of difference in helping a speaker to succeed at the podium.   

The Speeches That Endure

When asked to name a speech that has profoundly influenced us, many of us tend to return to the same touchstones. Gettysburg. JFK’s Inaugural. “I have a dream.”

So many of the speeches that first spring to mind invariably come from a handful of watershed political and civic events. (Of course, today’s corporate leaders increasingly also look to Steve Jobs’ product rollouts as sources of inspiration.) It’s understandable that politics looms large in our conception of the craft, given the prominent role that speeches play in advancing policy agendas. But we should remember how often the speeches that leave the largest mark go unnoticed by the world at large.

Weddings. Funerals. Graduations. These events mark some of the most significant moments in our lives, days that echo in our memories after much of the politics in any given moment have largely receded. Even with all of the technological change our society has seen, all of these events still tend to have something in common – someone is asked to stand up and say a few words to mark the occasion.

It’s here – in rural churches and modest football fields and backyards – that some of the finest speeches are delivered. They are seldom recorded for posterity and rarely appear in headlines. Much of their meaning might be practically lost upon an outsider, unfamiliar with the in-jokes and local references that give these words meaning for all of those who do get them, as they chuckle or nod their head in recognition. We may not know it at the time, but these words can often change the direction of our lives far more than the meticulously crafted rhetoric of any national leader.

For me, a speech that has endured is one that I heard just once – all the way back in 2005. It was a commencement speech of sorts for a very unique educational experience – a study abroad program called Semester at Sea. It’s hard to imagine now how fortunate I was to participate; the program allowed a few hundred college undergraduates to study on a cruise ship for a semester, with multi-day stops in countries on three continents. (The program administrators always took pains to call it “a voyage, not a cruise”.) It was an enthralling experience, in which I was exposed to more incredible sights and feelings than I ever could have imaged growing up in small-town Pennsylvania.  I was exposed to ideas and concepts that seemed to come from other worlds. I camped overnight on a safari, walked the Great Wall of China, and even stayed overnight in the home of the guy who invented the pacemaker. (Very long story there.) Our group also had the unique distinction of riding out an especially hairy winter storm, a potentially near-death incident that led to us donning our life jackets at 5 am (later featured on an episode of The Weather Channel’s Storm Stories).

That semester was a turning point for me in many ways, ultimately leading me to a stint in the Peace Corps and several years working in public service. Even now, words seem inadequate to really summarize the semester without reverting to the normal travel clichés – and I’m supposed to be a writer. Perhaps I know that I couldn’t capture the zeitgeist of that moment nearly as well as Professor Larry Meredith, who sent us away at semester’s end with a rollicking, heartfelt, profound, shaggy dog of a benediction speech.

Dr. Meredith was probably the most beloved professor on the ship’s faculty – a retired professor of religious studies at California’s University of the Pacific. A native Texan who never lost his drawl, Meredith was well into his seventies with several previous voyages under his belt when he sailed with us that semester. Meredith was a favorite of the student body – for one thing, he had a fairly risqué sense of humor for an evangelical Christian. And for another, he spoke from what seemed to be a boundless reservoir of wisdom as he shared his personal journey from a self-described “narrow” view on morality to someone who had grown to find great meaning in all of the world’s religions and perspectives. I probably had no more than one or two passing conversations with him myself, yet I still think of him often. At the time, we were just a few years removed from 9/11 – a belief in reconciliation and finding unity in our differences was the kind of hopeful message I needed to hear. It still is today.

In short, he was the perfect choice to close out that incredibly formative experience for my classmates (sorry, “shipmates)” and I. I’m reprinting his speech below (thanks to a copy I retrieved from the blog of a fellow alum). I 

It no doubt contains many references that are too specific to hold meaning to the outside reader – after all, specificity to the moment is one of the hallmarks of a great speech. But it also contains other elements that would resonate with the reader who never set foot on the ship. Decades of lecturing to students clearly gave him an innate sense of how to connect with an audience.  He organizes his message into a neat structure, summing up the semester in four overarching lessons. He tells specific stories that place the reader in the moment, describing what he was feeling at the moment of the storm we experienced on the roiling North Pacific. And finally, even as a towering intellect, he speaks from the heart.   

Charles Beard, the famed Columbia historian, was once asked if he could sum up what he learned from history in one sentence. He replied: “I could not do it one sentence, but I might do it in four.” 

1. The mill of the gods grinds slowly, but it grinds exceeding fine. 
2. Whom the gods would destroy, they first make mad with power. 
3. The bee makes honey from the flower, but it also pollinates the flower. 
4. When things get the darkest, the stars come out. 

If I were asked to characterize this voyage, I might also do it in four sentences. 

1. When my eldest son and I were traveling through India in 1978, we stayed at an ashram in Rishekesh on the upper Ganges. One evening we listened to an old guru, who shared with us this remarkable bit of wisdom: “The secret of life is to shoot an arrow into the air, and whatever you hit, call it the target.” 

Pittsburgh’s way of putting the same point is “flexibility.” And the first half of this voyage has seriously stretched out our notion of flexing. San Diego, Vancouver, North Pacific, “angry green angels of the sea,” the Poseidon adventure, Midway, no way, Aloha way, Semester-at-Air to California, nine hour Impracticum in the San Francisco airport lounge, Shanghaied to Shanghai, Panda bearing in Hong Kong, and multiple world hoteling in Ho Chi Minh City shooting arrows in every direction. Fill in your own flexibility multiple choice target. 

2. I am because you are.

Which is the Buntu version of Tennyson’s famous line: “I am part of all that I have met.” [Ulysses ] A scary thought, that. If I am part of you then I’ll have to get a laptop, a digital camera, a cell phone, an I-pod, a tattoo just above my posterior, and four piercings (two you can see and two you can’t). May I have your attention please! I carry my valuables down there among my valuables, where no one goes without my permission! Good grief! Well, you better enjoy it, Kenn, because one of these days, no one will go there—even with your permission.

But its true. We are part of each other now. We always were, but we didn’t realize it until January 27. That is what we celebrated April 20, with song, dance, and satire—including The Dong Diaries’ testosteronic response to a women’s night of “Nothing Could Be Finer Than To Speak Of Your Vagina,” and a circle of deans, faculty and staff all dancing to the Beatles, singing “All You Need Is Love” –while Peter Baofu’s body was taken over by aliens. 

3. If you haven’t been to Waxahachie, you haven’t been to Waxahachie. 

My old ethics teacher at Southern Methodist University used to say that. He was an existentialist, which meant that actual existence was prior to the abstract essence of a thing. Waxahachie was a little town about thirty miles south of Dallas—and the point was plain. If you haven’t been there, you haven’t been there. You can watch slides and movies, hear speeches and lectures, read hand-outs. But the experience of Waxahachie will elude you. You have to go there. 

Now I doubt if John Tymitz or Max Brant or C.Y. Tung ever heard of Waxahachie, or thought much about existentialism for that matter. But their vision includes the idea that education can be as epic as Homer’s Odyssey: the great Buddha in the mist at Lantau Island, Varanasi at Shiva’s birthday, the killing fields in Cambodia, the Cu Chi Tunnels in Vietnam, the prison cell on Robben Island that held Nelson Mandela, the Slave Church in old Salvador, not to mention the paroxysm of sight, sound and apocalyptic yellow and green that is Brazilian soccer Semester-at Sea was born in this proposition: the sense of place is irreplaceable. 

It is not exactly a secret that SAS is difficult to administer. We all know that Utopia quite literally means “no place.” But our adventures in learning around the world can begin to break open our absolutes, and end our cultural apartheid. 

Not that this openness is automatic with travel. Some of us have remained intentional tourists, trying on different cultures like so many changes of dress, but remaining untouched by the fundamental differences we have encountered. 

Some students on this voyage have never ceased to ask me how a Christian can remain true to the belief that Jesus is the only way to salvation and still accept other faiths as genuine paths to God. Or to say it differently, at what point does tolerance become treason? 

What does the phrase “multiple world views” really mean? It means just this: facts don’t determine what we think of as true. Our world view determines what we are willing to accept as fact. Facts are located by an angle of vision, and when the angle is different what we label as act is different. Did the sun rise on our shipboard Easter morning, or did the earth turn? Unbiased opinion is more rare than the opening of the Red Sea, and True Believers have no sense of irony. Ask any Muslim what he or she would accept as evidence that God did not dictate the Qur’an. Even such a question might be taken as blasphemous. 

Voyages are no guarantee of new vision. But just for a moment, when the usual cultural cues are missing or rearranged, when the full force of liberal education is pressed up against our prejudices, when what we are seeing no longer matches what we are feeling, transformation may be possible. Psychological studies suggest that children, until they are ten or so, think the whole world revolves around them. Make that twenty or thirty-six or sixty. Seventy-five, even. 

The Original Sin is exactly this: the whole world revolves around me. And I do mean me. Oh, I’ve run for God, but I’ve never been elected. Most of those who know me think I’m not even in the right district. This difficult and dangerous experiment in education, this Semester-at-Sea, moves us into so many places of consequence that we just might see how paralyzed we are by our cultural, intellectual, and religious autism. 

4. Socrates said that the unexamined life is not worth living, but he doesn’t get the last word tonight. I say that the unlived life is not worth examining. 

And that takes courage. Not just the courage to sail, but to give up your comfort zones, to move into the unknown, and study under difficult circumstances. I mean real courage: the courage to give up your clichés: inscrutable Chinese, primitive Africans, idol-worshipping Hindus, fanatical Muslims, decadent Brazilians, treacherous Vietnamese. 

A booze cruise IS a ship of fools, insulated by consumption, and simply carrying the person you were around the world untouched. Semester at Sea is dedicated to making that difficult—if not impossible. We can risk growing up: as Zorba said “cutting the rope and being free,” as Joseph Campbell said “following your bliss,” or, as I would say it, risking openness on the open seas. 

And I am part of you. When the Titanic wave hit and baptized us into community, many of us were looking heavenward for a little assurance. Now the Lord and I have been close for years, and I remember sliding around on the seventh deck and saying, “Lord don’t you think we’ve had just about enough?” And a voice answered back—I have to tell you this was the real Voice— “Larry,” — we’re on a first name basis—“isn’t about time you renewed your commitment to live the life given you more abundantly?” “Abundant” is the right word. It refers to the waves of the ocean, undulating, never ceasing, always rolling on, wave after wave…after wave…after wave. Life. Abundantly. 

And during this adventure I have renewed my sacred promises and, as the last moment of my teaching career, share them with you now:

I promise to exercise my freedom by helping all others to be free, and to show my compassion by using things and loving people, rather than loving things and using people.

I promise not to impose my idea of morality on any other human being, engaging instead in probing discussion, honest exchange of views, and consensual allegiance to the common good.

I promise not to equate my nation’s cultural values with divine standard of behavior, or my own faith with absolute truth, believing that in the vastness of this one world there are many sacred paths.

I promise to give thanks every day for the life of the mind, for the gift of reason, and every community of inquiry that audits our ignorance.

And I promise to always have a little madness in my life, that I can pray and party at the same time, and that in the midst of the laughter, continue to love my family and the family of Earth.

So now, with some inspiration from Robert Frost, I say to you all:

The ocean is vast, dark and deep,
But I have promises to keep,
And miles to go before I sleep,
And miles to go before I sleep. 



Involve the Experts Early

There are plenty of benefits that come along with the life of a freelance speechwriter or external communications consultant. Along with the freedom of working from a coffee shop, you get to tackle a variety of subjects and work with a range of different speakers. Given the natural curiosity of most writers, this diversity of material can be enormously stimulating.

There is a sizable downside, however. Gaining access to a speaker can prove to be a challenge, leading to endless games of phone tag. I’ve personally worked with some clients with such busy schedules that I was left to entirely coordinate their speech with a staff member or advisor – a relief on the schedule of a busy executive, but not ideal for helping me to gain a sense of their voice.

I’ve been fortunate to have worked on both sides of the coin in my speechwriting career – at various times as both an outside consultant and an in-house speechwriting staffer. While the scope of subjects might not be as varied as a freelancer’s portfolio, there is much to be said for all of the resources at your disposal. For one thing, gaining access to your principal is a much easier question when their office is just down the hall.

Best of all, a resident speechwriter normally has access to a wealth of institutional expertise and knowledge. As a speechwriter for various officials at the State Department and Energy Department during the Obama years, I had the luxury of being able to call upon subject matter experts throughout the agencies when I needed to conduct research for speeches – and I was able to name-drop my boss to help open doors that would be closed to a writer toiling alone at home.

I have learned a lot over the years about how to gain the most from these experts in crafting a speech. Managing a speechwriting process is fundamentally a question of managing relationships – not only with your primary principal, but with all of the other voices who weigh in during the journey of drafting remarks.

For one thing, a speechwriter should always remember their primary value – they know how to craft a good story. This can doubtlessly sound like a hazy skill, until you’ve had the experience of crashing and burning during a presentation. Speechwriters bring unique value to helping to translate knowledge and expertise into a pitch that will make for a compelling speech.

Own that skill.

As I began my career, I would often be intimidated when meeting with, say, a senior policy expert on human trafficking at the State Department or solar subsidies at Energy. In time, I learned to respect this expertise – while also recognizing what I brought to the table: a sense of narrative, an understanding of my boss’s priorities, a sense of how to write about biofuels in a way that won’t lull an audience to sleep immediately.

While most accomplished professionals develop a competent sense of writing, it doesn’t necessarily translate itself well to speechwriting. There is a world of difference between writing for the eye and writing for the ear - the most cogent and persuasive memo would likely be a disaster if read aloud in front of thousands of people. 

I learned this distinction firsthand when I asked for details or information from experts, who often responded with dumps of raw data or indecipherable clouds of jargon. It was invariably always more effective for me to call a meeting in order to get the most useful research – in a face-to-face scenario, they couldn’t respond with an avalanche of statistics. Instead, I could engage them in a real conversation. Why does this issue matter? What does this audience care about? How would you explain this issue to a friend at a bar in casual conversation?

Not everything I learned would be gold, or especially interesting to an audience. But it would give me context. And occasionally, a real gem of an insight would emerge.    

The trick is to engage experts early on. The State Department, in particular, has a culture of requiring a number of offices and experts to “sign off” on speeches before they are approved. (Or at least it did in the days of the Obama Administration, when the expertise across the Department was highly valued.)

However, waiting until this late stage of the drafting process to solicit input from experts was typically a fruitless exercise. The simple reality is that most government officials are busy. (Disregarding what you may have observed at your local DMV.) With only so many hours in the day, few experts will have the time to thoroughly dissect a speech that appears to be a fully formed product. If an expert is asked to review a near-finalized speech draft, they’re going to likely have one of a few reactions. They may be peeved that they weren’t consulted earlier. They may approach the remarks purely from the perspective of a fact checker – amending incorrect statistics, but not adding a strategic sense of what message would have the greatest impact. Or worst of all, they may see a draft that looks damn near complete and simply approve without a second thought: “This looks good.”   

By engaging with experts early – even before you have finalized the structure of your speech – you can ensure that they feel like valued collaborators. And you will be far more likely to learn great stories that can bring the final product to life.

A final note on working with experts - don’t settle for one view. Most of your speechwriting process should neat and tidy, with clear lines of review and authority. An exception, however, can be in the very early drafting stage. I have learned to not ask just one policy expert for information, when I can consult with several – sometimes without them even knowing that I have cast a wide net for input. It might not be a best practice in terms of hierarchy on your organization chart, but there’s no reason that your early research process needs to depend on the perspective of one single expert.

My favorite president, Franklin Roosevelt, maintained a famously chaotic management approach in which he played advisors off of each other with unclear lines of reporting. As Doris Kearns Goodwin writes in her FDR biography No Ordinary Time, “Though divided authority and built-in competition created insecurity and confusion within the administration, it gave Roosevelt the benefit of conflicting opinions…with different administrators telling him different things, he got a better feel for what his problems were.”

There’s a lot of wisdom there – something that’s sometimes lost in bureaucratic organizations like federal agencies and large corporations. So, my advice to any speechwriter is to not settle for talking to the division boss or chief of staff – also spend time talking to people lower in the ranks, closer to the ground. You may be surprised at what you’ll come up with.  

Plagiarism? Or Message Discipline?

Can you plagiarize yourself?

That was the question raised by a recent Newsweek article, originally headlined “Ivanka Trump Plagiarizes One of Her Own Speeches in India”.

The headline immediately reminds the reader of last year’s widely panned debacle at the 2016 Republican National Convention, in which future First Lady Melania Trump lifted entire passages nearly verbatim from a Michelle Obama speech.

Speechwriters routinely walk a perilously thin line on what actually constitutes plagiarism – it’s one of the inherently weird parts of a job putting words in someone else’s mouth. But this particular comparison is especially not fair to Ivanka Trump, who delivered an address this month on empowering women at the Global Entrepreneurship Summit in Hyderabad.  

As Newsweek’s Chris Riotta writes, “…it appeared the breadth of her talking points were recycled from a previous speech she gave during a foreign trip earlier this year. Several lines the 36-year-old delivered Tuesday had been directly pulled from her poorly attended November 2 speech in Tokyo, where she attended the World Assembly for Women alongside Japanese President Shinzo Abe.”

As Riotta points out, several lines do appear as nearly identical in both speeches: “When women work, it creates a unique multiplier effect. Women are more likely than men to hire other women, and to give them access to capital, mentorship and networks. Women are also more likely to reinvest their income back in their families and communities."

I’m no fan of the Trump administration. But this is not plagiarism. This is staying on message.

Riotta goes on to note that re-using the same lines is a common practice for public figures, suggesting that the significance of the re-used lines is to underscore women’s economic participation as a top priority for Ms. Trump.  

However, Newsweek knows the reality that the casual reader in 2017 is unlikely to read far enough along to entertain that point. In the age of Twitter, most readers will skim past a headline associating Ivanka Trump with plagiarizing – and will continue to skim by, having their pre-determined notions about either the First Daughter or the press corps affirmed. Meanwhile, other sites quickly latch onto the headline as well – using it as a chance to bash her or attack the media’s scrutiny of the administration.

Many prominent voices on Twitter quickly called foul on the idea that a speaker can steal from themselves, leading to Newsweek amending the accusatory “plagiarize” in the headline to “recycle” – a softer term, if no less accusatory in the suggestion that Trump had phoned in the work.

As a speechwriter, my take on this is simple – Ivanka Trump (and her speechwriters) did nothing wrong. But when playing at this level, they should be more careful in order to better serve their boss. The writers obviously conducted extensive research in tailoring Trump’s remarks to be relevant for each country. The unfortunate reality is that hours of painstaking work will always be ignored in the face of an easy “gotcha” headline.

Riotta, whose beat at Newsweek is focused on covering the Trump family, is no doubt knee-deep in examples of his subjects dubiously flouting the law and American political convention. This is one particular instance in which his watch-dog instincts have proven overwrought.

As an in-house speechwriter for an Obama administration official focused on renewable energy and climate issues, I helped my boss prepare for as many as 10-12 speaking events a week. Unlike the comparatively broader portfolio for, say, a President or a corporate executive, we tended to be speaking on a more limited set of issues. We might be giving a speech on solar power one week and on biofuels the next, but our core portfolio of clean energy issues was consistent.

And so was our message.

Much of my work was in tailoring our message to best resonate with different audiences. That did not mean throwing out our messaging from scratch every time we had a new event. Over time, our team developed a standard stump speech that we had essentially perfected. Our boss could recite it from heart – allowing us more freedom to experiment and tailor it, now that we mastered a general structure of our story.

Over time, I could recite large portions by heart – or I wouldn’t even need to necessarily write parts of it in full. I could merely add a cue for my boss to “Tell the solar vet story” and he would launch into a near-perfected anecdote that he had delivered countless times before.

As the Newsweek article points out, this is standard operating procedure – most political candidates may vary their “topper”, or introduction of their speech, but essentially deliver the same standard speech everywhere they go. Not only does this practice allow speakers to refine their pitch, but it also negates the need to reinvent the wheel needlessly when most audiences will only see a particular speaker once.

And that brings us to the need for caution at the Trump speechwriting shop. Presidents, celebrities, and extremely high-profile figures operate under a different set of rules – one in which the media is indeed subjecting their every remark to extreme scrutiny. CNN’s Fareed Zakaria received similar treatment when he delivered very similar commencement speeches at Harvard and Duke.  Zakaria doubtlessly assumed that it made little sense to prepare two completely separate sets of graduation wisdom for similar audiences who would not be sitting through the same ceremony twice. What he failed to consider is the new media landscape we are living in – in which the real audience isn’t out there in the stage.

The lesson is to exercise caution if you are a speaker in the harsh light of media attention. The public relishes nothing like a story proving someone to be lazy – or, even better, a cheat.

One of the most important responsibilities of a speechwriter is to ensure that a given audience feels as though the speaker is fully present and has committed to learning something about who they are. It may make practical sense to repurpose messaging for a nearly identical event – but it can also rub an organization the wrong way if they feel that they are being viewed as interchangeable.

There are a number of tactics you can use to build a consistent message without giving offense or rewriting your entire presentation. One approach is to directly reference a prior event – for example, Ms. Trump could have said, “Just weeks ago, I spoke at a summit in Japan where they face many of the same questions. They are also very focused on the fundamental question of how to ensure that women are fully able to participate in the modern economy. In fact, I see this all over the world. Regardless of the cultural differences that we often dwell upon, we all face common challenges in unleashing all the creativity of everyone in our societies. I’ll tell you what I said to them…:”

At that point, she could re-use echoes of the message from the previous script – and she could do it willy-nilly, because she has essentially attributed her words to, well, herself.

And, of course, her team could always use anti-plagiarism software. Not a bad idea before the next RNC.