A speech writer's take on important speeches, and the craft of writing for an audience.
Tuesday, July 7, 2009
A Speech Writer’s Nightmare
He’s only one man. He doesn’t spend his entire day giving speeches. So why does the President need an entire team of speech writers?
Today’s state visit to Russia should illustrate the answer quite nicely. His schedule included one major speech lasting half an hour, two others of more than ten minutes each, another of at least five minutes duration, and brief remarks with both President Medvedev and Prime Minister Putin.
When the President of the United States speaks, it is not just to the people back home. It is not only to the people in the audience he is addressing, or of the nation he is visiting. When the President speaks, the whole world listens. Every word has implications. Sometimes, even, direct consequences.
Consider what is involved in producing each of these speeches. Someone has to sit and do research before even making a preliminary draft. That means researching the policy, the group to whom the speech will be given, and the foreign policy implications. Then a first draft is made, and circulated around different offices of the White House. It might go to the Communications Director, the Foreign Policy Advisor, maybe even the National Security Advisor - just as examples. Their revisions are incorporated.
Then it is sent to the Department of State, where different desks - the Russian desk, the Office of Protocol for example, make more revisions.
If the President is mentioning something related to, say, agriculture or education, those Departments will probably be involved. Then, it’s back to the White House for more honing by the speech writer.
In all this, the speech writer must keep the words true to the President’s individual voice - his way of speaking. The danger is that with too much input from various interests, the whole thing will sound like a disjointed mess. It could make the President sound unauthentic.
Finally, shortly before the trip itself, the near-final draft is circulated at the highest levels of the White House, more changes made, and the final draft loaded into teleprompters. Except for last-minute changes!
It’s a nightmare. That is why you need a stable of speech writers for just one man.
As for the substance of what was said today - I am rather shocked the President said this - during his meeting with opposition leaders in Moscow: “And we obviously still have much work to do with our own democracy in the United States, but nevertheless, I think we share some common values and interest in building a strong, democratic culture in Russia as well as the United States.”
Really? We have much work to do with our own democracy in the United States? We need to build a strong, democratic culture in the United States? This is the oldest functioning democracy in the world. The oldest government of any kind, as a matter of fact. Thanks to that democracy. How much more democratic culture do we need to build?
Even if you think that’s true - Why go to Russia and say it? I think it’s a mistake, and I wonder if anybody here at home will pick up on it. Such are the dangers when the President speaks.
Following is the President’s schedule and transcript as posted by the White House, with links.
A veteran writer, researcher and lecturer, with more than 25 years experience in politics, political communications, and public relations. I’ve studied speech writing at NYU, and authored a number of published articles on the practice of lobbying as well as topics in American history.
My lecture on the War of 1812: 1812 – Uncle Sam’s First War, is now a lecture in the New York Speakers in the Humanities bicentennial commemoration series.