If the State of the Union is the Super Bowl of speechwriting—the most-watched, most-hyped, and most-dissected address of every year – the presidential nominating conventions are the rhetorical equivalent of March Madness. Wall-to-wall speechifying night after night, ping-ponging emotional highs and lows, no end of cable TV replays and hot takes . . . all viewed through the prism of getting to the Big Dance.
But now that balloons have all been cleared away, and convention bounces have been registered, it’s an apt time for communicators to take a cold-eyed look at what went down in Cleveland and Philadelphia, what technical tips we can take away, and apply the “what stuck” test from the Mouthy Madness.
Not surprisingly, out of all the constructive (think Michelle Obama’s legacy-defending euphoria) and the destructive (think Donald Trump’s scary dystopia) messaging, the most instructive moments in this anti-Washington, anti-immigrant climate came from two non-pols who also happen to be non-native speakers: Melania Trump and Khizr Khan. But not for the reasons their respective speeches received so much attention.
Let’s start with the most obvious doozy of speech don’ts: Melania’s plagiarism. The Trump Campaign’s inexplicably incoherent response to the controversy dominated the discussion for much of the convention—until the whodunit of who copied it took over. But Team Trump’s cardinal sin was not speechwriting sloppiness or crisis comms malpractice—but the far more mundane mishandling of the staffing.
Some context: the Trump campaign has very little in the way of communications infrastructure in general and speechwriting staff in particular. So they had to find outside help for the especially sensitive challenge of preparing a speech for the potential first lady’s first high-stakes public address. To fill this void, they did exactly what 2008 GOP nominee John McCain did for the similarly sensitive assignment of drafting Sarah Palin’s convention coming out—they hired two top Republican hired guns, former Bush White House scribes Matthew Scully and John McConnell.
In theory, this made perfect sense. I know McConnell and Scully, and they are outstanding speechwriters and widely respected across partly lines. Just as importantly, they have been through this drill before. However, in practice, hiring them was a dumb decision, because they were clearly a bad match for the task of working with the insular Trump family—which was evidenced by the fact that Melania dumped them after reading their first draft. She then turned to her husband’s in-house ghostwriter, who had never written a major political speech like this before. Cue the miscue.
What this episode shows above all else is that the most important element in choosing a speechwriter and having a successful collaboration is trust. It doesn’t matter how good the speechwriter’s resume and chops are. If they don’t mesh with the principal, and there’s not a baseline comfort level, then the relationship is not going to gel, and the words won’t win.
A case in point is the pairing of the last GOP nominee Mitt Romney and former Reagan speechwriter Peggy Noonan, one of the most celebrated and highest-paid wordsmiths in the country. According to the Boston Globe, Romney hired Noonan to write a speech for him to deliver at the opening ceremonies for the 2002 Winter Olympics in Salt Lake City, which Romney helped organize. But Romney did not like the draft she delivered so, much like Melania, he scrapped it and wrote his own.
This is a lesson I learned first-hand working on Capitol Hill for a decade and inside two presidential campaigns, but did not fully appreciate until I started my agency, which specializes in custom-matchmaking between speakers/thinkers and writers. As good a judge of speechwriting talent as I like to think I am, the one thing I could never control for was chemistry—or what I like to call the click factor. So I quickly figured out that the best way I could help our clients succeed in finding the right writing partner was to give them an array of hand-picked options and then let them screen for their own priorities and preferences.
If the Trump campaign had thought more carefully about this, and valued trust as much as credentials, they most likely could have avoided the whole mess. They never would have gone with outsiders in the first place. And they never would have to be in the vulnerable position of having to plug in a political rookie at the last minute, when mistakes are most likely to be made.
Khizr Khan, by contrast, did not have to worry about the staffing process. According to the New York Times, the Clinton campaign asked Khan whether he needed speechwriting help or any coaching. “I said: ‘I really don’t, I have my thoughts in my head,’” Khan recounted. ‘“I won’t make it an hourlong speech, just let me say what I want to say. It will be heart-to-heart.’”
Successful speechwriting can be boiled down to a few core rules—what I like to call the Four Knows. With this quote, Khan shows he had the first rule down cold: he knew exactly what message he wanted to communicate about Donald Trump. Indeed, so much of the effectiveness of his speech had to do with power of clarity. To make his point, he did not need a lot of words or flourishes. That would have just obscured the force of his conviction.
But just knowing your message is hardly enough for most speakers to succeed. Khan’s speech was a model for several other reasons—he clearly knew and embodied the other Knows. To wit:
- He knew the mission. Khan was not there to validate Hillary Clinton (whom he had no real connection to). His objective was to expose Donald Trump’s views as un-American. That was what he was uniquely qualified to do, given the stark contrast he was able to draw between Trump’s ant-Muslim bigotry and his son’s supreme sacrifice. And that’s what his speech focused on.
- He knew his audience. He didn’t just intend to talk to people in the room or to Democrats. He wanted to connect with the larger American community and the values of tolerance and respect that cross party lines. That’s why there was not one partisan word or wink in the speech that would turn off Republicans. And that’s at least partly why so many Republicans rose to Khan’s defense when Trump reflexively criticized him.
- He knew his limits. Khan recognized that, unlike most of the speakers at both conventions, he would be better off without professional help. More importantly, in preparing and delivering his remarks, he did not try to be something he was not. His halting delivery and simple language only accentuated his authenticity and the emotional resonance of his story. It was right—and ripe—for the moment, his moment.
Whether he knew it or not, Khan followed another core rule of speechwriting: sound-bites matter. Yes, they help for getting TV play, but more importantly, they are essential for making speeches great, because they make speeches sticky. Martin Luther King’s speech at the March on Washington and JFK’s inaugural were momentous, times-defining addresses. But we remember them first because they included defining lines—“I have a dream” and “Ask not what your country can do for you”—that captured the essence of their message and the imagination of their audience. I doubt any elite speechwriter in DC could have topped Khan’s searing encapsulation of Trump: “You have sacrificed nothing . . . and no one!”
Maybe the world will little note nor long remember Melania’s misfire or Khan’s six-minute speech (which was reminiscent of another concise, conscientious address from another deeply divisive time). But prose pros of all fields would be wise to keep them in mind for years to come as they try to assemble speeches that transcend the madness.
Dan Gerstein is a former speechwriter for Senator Joe Lieberman (D-CT), is Founder and President of Gotham Ghostwriters.