‘A Writer Writes, Always’; with these words from ‘Throw Momma from the Train’, Billy Crystal sums up the scribbler’s trade. We admire great orators for their ability to persuade, move and motivate their audiences. We extol the virtues of rhetoric for being able to take complex material and make it comprehensible. We look to leaders to change public opinion through the power of words. But it’s the speechwriters who know their masters voice who often toil away behind the scenes for that perfect word or phrase.
How does a speechwriter best capture their leader’s aims, their tone, their phrasings? Take Barack Obama; even his opponents would concede that he is a powerful orator, while for most of his supporters, he is a brilliantly authentic speaker. Yet are we any less enthusiastic by knowing that Jon Favreau writes many of those great lines and rolling cadences? Arguably, it makes no difference. But the speechwriter, to be effective should adhere to the following guidelines:
1) Know your speaker. Be true to his or her values. Don’t have them saying something that sounds fake and written for them.
2) Humour. The average voter wants their politician to smile and tell the occasional joke; write to character.
3) Never Dumb Down or Talk Down – stick to clear, unambiguous language.
4) Allow for ad libs. The speaker should feel comfortable to follow a theme that’s hitting home.
5) Know your audience. Is it the world-at-large or a local trades union? Who am I trying to communicate to?
6) Included alliterative sentences. But don’t overkill will asinine alliteration.
7) What is the speakers main goal? Strategically, what does she or he want to achieve.
8) Is this a media-driven event? If so, do the sound-bites actually communicate what you want to cover?
9) Down with jargon! If you have to look up a word yourself, then generally avoid putting it in the speech.
10) Finish on a positive, preferably a cadence. Leave them wanting more!
By sticking to the above, the Speechwriter keeps the focus on the speaker. If that happens, they’ve done their job. Their boss will get praised and the writer can move onto his next subject, happy working in the background. Getting neither power or glory, they are happy to have written a speech that seems natural when spoken by someone else. The Ghost Writer can move on, remaining as anonymous as they wish to be.