Capturing a speaker’s voice matters

This post argues that speechwriters shouldn’t worry about capturing a speaker’s voice. Structure the speech well, Mike Long argues, and it’ll all come out in the wash.

And while I understand that all the tailored turns of phrase in the world can’t save a bad speech, or turn a mediocre speaker into a great one, I can’t agree with Mike’s premise. (Not that I don’t want to; I want to agree with anyone who has Steely Dan lyrics in their Twitter bio. Maybe next time.)

Here’s what I said in response; I’d love to know what you think.

I get what you’re saying, Michael — and I heartily agree you should get the fundamentals right before you even begin to think about voice. And it’s amazing how often a speaker will say you’ve “captured their voice” just by writing in a conversational tone.

But you can definitely make a speaker feel more at home with speaking notes that reflect their vocal patterns and preferred word choices. It isn’t all delivery. Some speakers are far more at home with bold, declarative statements than others. They express emotion in different ways. They use idioms that reflect their age, gender, race, culture, social class, life experience… and it’ll all be different.

And if your speaker lacks confidence, experience or time to revise? The more comfortable they feel with your text from the start, the better.

So yes, get the fundamentals right. But once they’re nailed, time spent reflecting your speaker’s authentic voice will be well worth it.

Audrey McLaughlin leadership campaign button - here's how I became her speechwriter

Origin story: how I became a speechwriter

People often ask me how to get started in speechwriting. I have a long answer with some practical advice (it’s a decade old, but still valid), but the short answer is that there’s no one route in; there’s no formal career path for a speechwriter to follow.

There’s no Speechwriting Academy on the lookout for promising young high school speechwriters, offering them generous scholarships to their four-year post-secondary program, and then on completion apprenticing them to established speechwriters for a few years of grueling labour (“Fetch me more adjectives, apprentice! And be…” “…snappy? expeditious? swift?” “Yes!”) before they finally get their certification that allows them to be formally listed with the Registrar of Speechwriters.

As far as I know, anyway. Maybe you know different, and like an idiot I did this the hard way.

* * *

In April of 1989, I was working with a non-profit peace group. While we were tackling a range of issues, the most politically salient was our campaign against Canada’s planned purchase of three nuclear-powered submarines.

We’d built a lot of support, but it still came as a shock when the federal government abruptly announced they were scrapping the purchase. It came as an equal shock when, within a week or two, donations to the organization slowed drastically. Apparently, our victory prompted our donors to take their own equivalent of a peace dividend, and soon I found myself without a job.

Meanwhile, a campaign was underway for the leadership of the federal New Democratic Party. Ed Broadbent had stepped down in March, and a convention to replace him was slated for December. And an exciting candidate, Audrey McLaughlin, had just opened a campaign office in downtown Ottawa.

I found it on Bank Street, through one of those easy-to-miss doors between two storefronts, up a narrow staircase and into the makeshift office. The campaign was still very much in its startup phase: the chairs, desks, tables and filing cabinets were hand-me-downs brought in from union offices and supporters’ basements. The walls were mostly bare except for some contact lists and emergency phone numbers. The windows looked onto a fire escape overlooking a dark, unpromising alley. And “looked” was all they did: they were latched shut, and a sticky note warned that opening them would trigger an alarm.

I sat down on a wobbling chair with campaign manager Valorie Preston (who’s now an accomplished artist), and volunteered my services as a communications flunkie, offering to write news releases (I was only a year out of journalism school) or leaflet copy.

“Actually…” she said, “do you have any experience speechwriting?”

* * *

In my first year of high school, I discovered debating. I got to be pretty good at it, even winning a provincial championship and going to the national high school finals. The first-prize scholarship offered by the University of Ottawa’s high school tournament paid for a year’s tuition. Debating taught me an awful lot about how to construct a persuasive spoken argument.

But those were mostly five-to-seven minute speeches. I’d only had a few occasions to speak for longer than 15 minutes or so, and I almost always went to the lectern with a fistful of scribbled notes—some prepared in advance, the rest in response to my opponents. I’d also run twice as an NDP candidate, but even that involved only a handful of short speeches, mostly at all-candidates meetings. I could count the number of prepared, formal speeches I’d ever written on the fingers of two hands: to count the ones I’d written for other people, I wouldn’t need any hands at all.

* * *

“Sure,” I told her.

After all, I had plenty of experience in planning an argument, structuring a speech and putting it all to words… in the moment. True, I was missing that middle step of writing those words down before they were spoken, but I was confident it couldn’t be all that difficult.

I told her all of that, but I started with “Sure.” I was hired (as a volunteer) on the spot, and found myself the speechwriter for a national leadership campaign. And the next six months became a crash course in political communication—starting with just how collaborative campaign speechwriting could be.

I drafted my first speech expecting to get a set of line edits back. Instead, I got direction from multiple sources, ranging from “can we say ‘they’ here instead of ‘people’?”-level tweaks to two-page think pieces with strong views on what the speech should be (summary: my draft wasn’t it).

It didn’t take too long for me to hit my stride, and for the campaign’s feedback cycle to tighten helpfully. Fast forward to early December, and Audrey made history when she won the leadership… and my career as a speechwriter was formally under way.

* * *

How many ways could my speechwriter story have gone off the rails?

  1. Valorie might have looked askance at this kid, barely out of university, and called up any number of veteran writers to come aboard instead.
  2. She could have pried a little more closely behind that “Sure,” determined that I’d never written a speech for anyone other than myself in my life, and gone to step 1.
  3. Audrey could have taken one look at me and my resumé, and told Valorie to go to step 1.
  4. I could have answered less confidently, sending Valorie to step 1.
  5. I could have turned down the job, because it was so far out of my league.

But none of these things happened. Valorie and Audrey (a political outsider herself) were willing to take a chance on me, and I was willing to take a chance on myself. And it didn’t hurt that I was there at exactly the right time.

Becoming a speechwriter: lessons learned

  1. Start with something you care very deeply about. A project that matters to you can go a long way to keeping you going during the more frustrating periods that come with doing something new.
  2. Go where you are needed. As the saying goes, a friend in need is a friend indeed. An organization that doesn’t have the resources to hire an experienced, full-time speechwriter may well be a lot more open to bringing in some fresh, new, untested talent at the entry level. Smaller organizations at an early stage are often your best bet. If I had just walked up to Parliament Hill and into the Leader’s Office and said “Hi, I want to write speeches,” I wouldn’t have had nearly the same warm reception as I did from a leadership campaign that was just getting going.
  3. Consider — cautiously — working for free. This is tricky, because there are plenty of folks out there who would be happy to exploit a novice speechwriter who’s looking for experience and, God help you, exposure. If you are going to write for free, that exposure had better be freaking spectacular… or you should be writing for an organization you care about enough that the experience will be worthwhile, regardless of whether it catapults you onto the national stage. I believed strongly in Audrey as a leader, and wanted to do whatever I could to see her elected. And often it’s the organizations that can’t afford to pay you (or pay you much) that have the opportunities for a beginner; see #2.
  4. Think in terms of the next step. Not in a mercenary way: there’s nothing more demoralizing than working for a cause or a company you care about, alongside someone who very clearly sees it as unworthy of their talents. But understand in your mind how this experience will prepare you to reach for the next rung on the ladder. In social movement terms, have a theory of change.
  5. Be your own best friend, not your own worst enemy. I could so easily have told Valorie “No, I’m not qualified. You should look for someone with more experience.” A lot of us have that little demon of doubt sitting on our shoulders, but you don’t have to give that demon voice when you’re talking to other people — and certainly not when you’re being offered a life-changing opportunity. What you owe to them is to be honest: I felt I was ready. Whether through youthful arrogance or not, I felt I could pull it off — and as it turned out, I was right.
State of the Union screen capture, with a sharing icon overlay

The State of the Union is social

There’s a point I’ve been hammering for years now (and I do mean years): the rise of social networks and easily-shared media should mean a profound change in the way speakers and speechwriters approach our craft: at once both broader in scope and more conversational in approach.

But there’s still surprisingly little uptake. Maybe speakers put their Twitter handle on an opening slide, or post their deck to Slideshare, but that’s often about it.

Maybe that’s you. And maybe the thought of getting more social with your speaking (or speechwriting) has intrigued you before, but you weren’t really sure where to begin.

If so, then have a look at how the Obama White House handled the State of the Union speech last week.

Big audience, broad approach

Granted, they had an audience far larger than anything you or I are likely to tackle (this week, anyway!). But the techniques they used to engage the audience — including, crucially, the audience that wasn’t tuned in to the speech itself — can apply to the more day-to-day speeches we’re accustomed to handling.

Writing on Medium, Obama’s Chief Digital Officer, Jason Goldman, pointed to a wide range of ways the White House planned to extend the SOTU beyond the walls of Congress and the reach of TV. The goal: “meeting people where they are.”

But “where they are” varies a lot, he added. “Even people following on two screens don’t just flip back and forth between a TV and a smartphone. We jump from different social media platforms.”

All the platforms. (Maybe not Peach.)

The White House drew on their already-formidable array of online presences with “video excerpts released in real-time on Facebook and Twitter” and media ranging “from live GIFs on Tumblr to 6-second videos on Vine and photos on Instagram.” The speech even got its own trailer video, starring the President.

True wonks could dive into Obama’s past SOTU speeches, supplemented through the Genius web annotation service; visitors could add their own annotations, with the prospect of perhaps having theirs highlighted by the White House. And a partnership with Amazon Video made those speeches available for viewing through the company’s app, if the White House YouTube channel didn’t suit.

Once the speech was underway, the official SOTU web page became a hub, hosting shareable video clips and graphics elaborating on each of the four major themes of the speech. Especially worth noting: each section has a e-mail list subscription form — neatly pre-identifying a relevant interest area of the folks signing up.

Screen capture from White House SOTU page

After the speech, the White House kept the ball rolling. They quickly rolled out an enhanced version of the speech on YouTube, with crisp, nicely-designed graphics illustrating and underlining the President’s points. A day later came a day-long Twitter chat with administration officials and the First Lady, anchored on the hashtag #BigBlockOfCheeseDay. (That comes from a fictional White House consultation event on The West Wing — an indication that Obama’s web team knows at least part of its audience very, very well.)

And with a cancer research initiative as the speech’s most prominent announcement, the page links to a “share your story” feature with a form where visitors can tell their story to Vice President Joe Biden.

Did all that work pay off? Obama’s team were probably doing far deeper measurement than likes and shares — but at least by those superficial metrics, there was plenty of engagement: 32,000 likes for one Instagram photo, 1,300 likes and ten times that many views for the YouTube trailer. 921,000 views, 27,000 likes and 15,000 shares of the full SOTU video on Facebook. You’d want to go a lot deeper than that to measure success, of course, but given that they’ve done a similar full-court social media press during past SOTU addresses, we can probably assume they have… and were happy with what they saw.

Toward a more social speech

For speechwriters, speakers and communications shops who feel jazzed about this and want to try something similar, I hope you do. Here are some ways to put the same kind of approach to work:

  • First, a note of caution for us civilians: what the White House does can’t serve as a template. You’ll kill yourself — and your communications shop — trying to reproduce the swarm of tactics the White House deployed. (Handy hint for smaller organizations: any comms shop that can ask“Would this work better if we did it on the deck of an aircraft carrier?” just may have more resources than you do.) Think of this instead as an inspiration board: a collage of ideas to choose from to engage a broader audience with your next speech. And focus your efforts where you’re most likely to meet your audience.
  • The White House made it visual, from charts and graphs to the big block of cheese on Labour Secretary Tom Perez’ head. And that one Instagram of Obama apparently reaching to shake your hand on the floor of Congress… for a political junkie, that’s the good stuff, even if it was from the 2010 SOTU. Look for opportunities to express your ideas in compelling images, and to use visuals to make a human connection with your audience.
  • Connecting to the White House’s social channels made you feel like an insider, giving you a peek behind the scenes and a look at how they created past speeches. You can use social channels the same way: to give your audience not just more information, but a look behind the curtain.
  • They never forgot their core message; their narrative thread runs unbroken through all their tweets, Instagrams and Vines. Similarly, don’t go chasing cat memes if it pulls you away from the central story of your speech.
  • They built their networks over time. Granted, that can go a lot more quickly when you’re the President; but a lot of work goes into building and broadening their following on every platform they use. If you’ve been building that platform as well, great; if not, well, remember what they say about the best time to plant a tree.

One thing you can do that’s a lot harder for the White House is real conversation (which, apart from #BigBlockOfCheeseDay and post-SOTU interviews with three prominent YouTubers, they didn’t really attempt).

Whether that’s soliciting anecdotes from your LinkedIn network, previewing speech themes in a blog post and elaborating in comments, inviting and using image submissions via Facebook or Twitter for your slides, addressing the venerable Twitter backchannel during a presentation, or taking part in ongoing group discussions on your network of choice, there are plenty of opportunities to turn your speech from a one-way monologue into a richer, broader and more enduring exchange.

(Oh—and of course, Slideshare.)

The messy bedroom closet trick

How Obama’s messy closet saved the State of the Union speech

State of the Union speeches are often messy, sprawling things. Countless constituencies and interests — within and outside government — vie to hear their priorities reflected in the President’s words. And even without their lobbying, the scope of governing is vast, offering potentially thousands of agenda items.

That’s why so many SOTU speeches (and their siblings in legislatures around the world) sound less like inspiring calls to action and more like grocery lists.

Yet last night, President Barack Obama delivered a remarkably tight speech. Structured around four major questions for America’s future, it included very little of the obligatory box-checking that plagues speeches like it. There was a focus to it that practically guaranteed the ensuing news coverage would center around its key messages.

Part of his success was a certain amount of ruthlessness in refusing to include a lot of content altogether. But there were several obligatory topics that would have been very conspicuous by their absence if Obama hadn’t included them.

So he did — without dragging his speech off-course.

To pull that off, Obama and his team relied on a speechwriting trick borrowed from generations of teenagers. I’ve used it for Throne Speeches, budget speeches and annual reports, and I call it the Messy Bedroom Closet.

Think back to your teenage years, and your horrifically messy bedroom. (If you were a tidy teenager, think of your messy sibling.) Sooner or later, a parent’s patience would pass the breaking point, and you’d have to clean it up right the hell now, buster. And once you’d done the obvious stuff (sorta-kinda make the bed, fling the laundry into a hamper, shelve a few books), time would start ticking down with a lot of stuff left to put away.

The solution? Shove it in the bedroom closet.

Obama’s speech had several little closets, but there was one big one early in the speech… right after he said he’d “go easy on the traditional list of proposals for the year ahead.” When he added “Don’t worry — I’ve got plenty,” that was him opening the closet door.

Into that closet went immigration reform, gun violence, equal pay, paid leave, and the minimum wage. Every one of those elements would have raised eyebrows (and hackles) if it had been missing; none of them really fit the structure of the speech. But once they were in the closet, the speech was clean and tidy.

And, by the way, pretty powerful.

The next time you hear a broad-reaching speech that sounds surprisingly tight, look for the bedroom closet — I bet you’ll find one.

And the next time you have to write a broad-reaching speech, do what Obama did. Find your narrative. Throw out everything that doesn’t fit, and doesn’t have to be in there. And then start building a closet.

What makes a presentation awful isn't a boring template. It's boring content.

Punch up your presentation deck (before you jazz up your template)

In the last post, I tackled a Business Insider article that claimed the reason most PowerPoint presentations aren’t effective is that they use boring templates.

My response: what makes presentations awful isn’t boring templates. It’s boring content (slide or spoken), poorly structured and badly delivered.

So what could you do with your presentation deck instead of jazzing up the template?

Before you do anything else, do this:

  • Set the deck aside and look at your speech. Give your speaking notes one more good poring over. Make sure they tell a crisp story in crackling good prose with a strawberry finish and floral notes. Only then do you move on to the presentation deck.
  • Consider dumping your deck. If you’re going to use slides, be sure they can pull their weight and then some. Because slides do have weight: they’re a distraction, competing with you for your audience’s attention. So they’d better have a purpose.
  • Make sure your deck covers the basics. No text-heavy slides. Every slide should drive the central narrative of the speech, or it gets canned. (That awful slide your manager insists has to be in every presentation? Tell them I said you could kill it.)

Now: one moment of template self-indulgence:

  • Check the design. It should be clean and professional, and shouldn’t get in the way of your content. Indulge yourself with one (1) understated design element to reflect the theme of the event or your presentation.

Okay—all of that’s done? You’ve eaten your broccoli? Good on ya. Now here are some ideas you might use to give your slides and your speech some added zing: Continue reading

Out on the Wire

A great podcast for speechwriters (and other storytellers)

“Tell a story” is advice you’ll often hear about speechwriting. Telling a story—and telling it well—can be a key to connecting with your audience, and making your message memorable.

What you won’t hear as often is how to tell that story, and how to tell it really, really well. How to keep your audience leaning forward, eager for the next word. How to make yours a story they’ll repeat to their friends.

Good news: now there’s a podcast to help you do just that, and an accompanying workshop to put what you learn into practice. Better yet, Jessica Abel’s Out on the Wire often focuses on the world of audio and the spoken word, which are pretty much next-door neighbours to speechwriting. Continue reading

Boring slides aren’t what’s wrong with PowerPoint.

Kindly allow me a short rant. Because this article from Business Insider is driving me a little nuts:

PowerPoint presentations are the standard for presentations in the workplace.

Except that they kind of suck …. It’s not really Microsoft’s fault. PowerPoint gives you all kinds of templates and graphics tools, but all anyone ever uses is boring bullet points on a white background.

PowerPoint gives you all kinds of templates and graphics tools, but all anyone ever uses is boring bullet points on a white background.

Today, Microsoft is introducing a pair of new PowerPoint features, Designer and Morph, that make it a lot harder to create a boring presentation ….[Designer] suggests slide layouts and features based on the content…. [Morph] makes it much easier to do simple animations in your presentation.

Dammit, people: this isn’t what’s wrong with presentations.

The very last thing you should worry about with your PowerPoint (or Keynote, or Presi, or Google Slides) presentation is how exciting your slides are. Or how pretty. Or whether they move.

Nobody’s presentation sucks because they chose a dull template.


On Earth.

In recorded human history.

What sucks about PowerPoint isn’t the default template. What sucks about PowerPoint is that so many people use it so very, very, very badly. They…

  • use PowerPoint for speeches that don’t need it at all.
  • overload their slides with words that they then read aloud, basically delivering a document with narration rather than a speech
  • focus relentlessly on their slides without thinking about their actual message and story
  • focus on the individual slides without thinking about structure

Only once you’ve addressed those questions should you even begin to think about templates.

Because if you have a compelling, relevant speech with great content and a rousing call to action, very few people will gripe that you were using black Verdana on a white background.

And if people are noticing your slides are boring, you have much bigger problems. The kind of problems no lovely layout or zippy animation can solve.


A joke that gets a good laughbut stops the flow of your speech deaddoes more harm than good.

How to use humor in a speech (without getting burned)

One of the best perks of speechwriting is the way it lets you indulge your sense of humor. Nearly every time you sit down to write a speech, there’s a chance to tell at least one joke.

That’s not something most other communicators get to do nearly as often. (Try slipping a one-liner into the annual report some time. Let me know how that goes.)

And it isn’t an indulgence—or at least, it isn’t just an indulgence. Humor has real communications power. It humanizes your speaker, builds a rapport with an audience and can help overcome hostility, suspicion and resistance to new ideas.

But written or delivered badly, a joke can work against your speaker. Which gives us a responsibility to use humor carefully and sensibly. Continue reading