A speech writer's take on important speeches, and the craft of writing for an audience.
Friday, October 15, 2010
A Speaker's Blunder
A single speech created a major controversy in the race for Governor of New York this week. Drafted by a Brooklyn Rabbi, and delivered by a Buffalo candidate, it conveyed some harsh opinions about homosexuals.
Few campaign speeches gather much notice. Most are given to small groups of people, with little fanfare, and for the most part, are designed to please as many people as possible.
So, how did Carl Paladino wind up in a firestorm, then pour gasoline on it, then make things worse by disavowing something he never should have said in the first place - angering those who agreed with his original remarks? It begins with his speechwriter!
As it turns out, Mr. Paladino does not normally use prepared speeches. That’s always a mistake, especially for a statewide candidate venturing out into territories where he is not well known. Yes, the local town Supervisor probably can speak off the top of his head in front of the local Lion’s Club. It’s a friendly situation, and probably everyone there knows each other. On a larger stage - say, the third largest state in the country, a little more preparation is called for.
To compound this lack of preparation, the speech Mr. Paladino did give in Brooklyn last weekend wasn’t written by his staff - people who share his goals, but by a local Rabbi, Yehuda Levin, who had his own political agenda to promote.
A speechwriter is tasked with crafting the words that convey the speaker’s beliefs. Often, the writer and speaker share the same beliefs, but it is not necessary that they do.
But whatever beliefs are expressed in a drafted speech, they must convey what the speaker wants to convey. Not only in terms of the speaker’s beliefs, but also in terms of the speaker’s goals. It is the writer’s duty to know what those are, and put them down in appropriate language so the audience will come away knowing what they are.
Prior to addressing the group in Brooklyn, Rabbi Levin handed Paladino the speech he had drafted for the occasion. Apparently, Paladino did some cursory editing, removing some passages that even he found uncomfortable (imagine how offensive those must have been), then gave that speech to a group of people he did not know. The result - a small forest consumed to produce the newsprint used in reporting the aftermath, along with enough blog posts to keep Google’s search engines occupied until election day.
If you’re not willing to stand by the things you’ve said in your speech - and in the end, Paladino was not so willing - then you shouldn’t be saying them.
It calls to mind a more general problem in the political world. Too many political candidates, having worked their way up from the Lion’s Club circuit, believe they are better at speaking off the top of their head. They seldom are. I know, I’ve listened to far too many of them.
Here’s a suggestion for every politician. Sit down and write a stump speech - a general speech about the problems your community, district, county, state, whatever - is facing, and the solutions you have to offer. Show it to a few people you trust to give an honest opinion - not your spouse - and hone it. Learn the basic points and a few solid lines, rather than memorize it.
In six months, repeat the process. That’s how fast the political world changes.
Better yet - hire a speech writer from your campaign account. For the cost of a few television spots, you can get some solid help. For Carl Paladino, it’s going to take thousands of television spots to undo the damage from one “free” speech.
And even they are unlikely to help.
From The Bully Pulpit - Tom
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.