Speechwriter’s Life: Keel Hunt
April 17, 2016
"You've got to be believed to be heard." And other tips from Lamar Alexander's longtime scribe.
From Keel Hunt, a public affairs consultant and former speechwriter to two-term Governor Lamar Alexander (R-TN), come the following insights into how speechwriters can help speakers to succeed:
1. For a speaker to connect with an audience, “you’ve got to be believed to be heard.”
“We’ve all heard the line ‘you have to see it to believe it.’ Well, when it comes to speakers fostering a level of trust or interest with listeners, we need to remember that ‘you have to be believed to be heard,’” Hunt said in a conversation with Vital Speeches.
“What I mean is: at the outset of a speech, how do you develop that open channel with an audience, so people are willing to give you the benefit of the doubt? The best speechwriters I know think about this a lot—and it’s not just about jokes to clear the channel to the audience, or to open the channel.”
“There’s a lot more to this, beyond jokes. It comes down to intelligently and thoughtfully matching words to audiences, to get a speaker’s message across. In my public affairs work these days, I very much enjoy assisting people to reach their key audiences, by helping solve these puzzles,” Hunt said.
2. Speechwriters need to be prepared for their roles to evolve, as speakers’ needs change over time.
In 1977, Hunt marked a decade of work in print journalism at the daily Tennessean—an environment filled with excellent senior colleagues, he said, who provided him with “encouragement, feedback and, more importantly, good editing—because that’s how we learn as writers.”
After 10 years, however, Hunt was ready for a change; and when approached, he agreed to join Lamar Alexander’s gubernatorial campaign.
“Lamar asked me if I would specifically help him with research, messages and speechwriting. Part of the campaign plan was for him to walk across the entire state of Tennessee, and so part of my role became to help him identify what would be key local issues that he would highlight day to day. These could involve, for example, a local school, or an old bridge needing repairs or a rural issue.”
“We’re talking about walking more than 1,000 miles, across 46 counties. We had to map this journey well in advance, so we started planning in November 1977. We wanted not only to touch a lot of people who wouldn’t otherwise be touched, and to produce news coverage—but we also were able to create a frame of reference, through the walk, for the entire campaign,” Hunt said.
“Later on, at the campaign HQ in Nashville, I remember talking with Lamar about speeches. He knew that if he won the election, he would need help getting out his daily messages because, as governor, he would have a lot of other things on his plate. Both of us knew that my role would therefore evolve, based on the tasks with which he needed a hand.”
“And Lamar said, ‘when it comes to speechwriting, I used to do this myself—but you and I should try to work on this together like how I worked with US Senator Howard Baker (R-TN),’ whom he had served as a legislative aide,’” Hunt continued.
“He explained how Baker had once told him: ‘Lamar, you can write whatever you want to write — as long as I get to say whatever I want to say.’ Lamar then said, ‘that’s what we should do.’”
“’Yes, sir’, I said—and it turned out to be a working relationship that lasted almost 8 years, his full 2 terms as governor. I was on his staff as policy assistant and speechwriter and so forth, up until the summer of 1986. By that time, I had figured out how to do for people in the private sector what I had been doing for Lamar,” Hunt said.
“It was a great working relationship, and I still highly value Lamar’s advice and the experience of working with him.”
For Hunt, some highlights of those years working with Gov. Alexander include his televised State-of-the-State addresses, annual budget messages to the state legislature and speeches to joint sessions of the legislature.
3. A complete script, or a set of numbered talking points, or a single page of bulleted key phrases—speechwriters should know what speakers want to take up to the podium.
“Virtually all speakers have a different preference for what they want to have in hand when giving a speech,” Hunt observed. “As essayists, we speechwriters sometimes think we are going to come up with a long narrative document that will be read aloud by the speaker after arriving at the podium, but that’s rarely the case.”
“What the speaker ultimately needs in hand at the moment of delivery will usually not be in that form. Instead, that long narrative document is often rendered, after a lot of work and back and forth, into an outline of some kind. That outline could be written out on notecards, or a single 8.5 by 11 sheet of paper with bulleted or numbered talking points. Or the points might appear on a TelePrompTer.”
Another interesting highlight of Hunt’s work with Gov. Alexander was their collaboration on speeches promoting the Governor’s Better Schools Program in 1983 and 1984. This plan included reforms to the state’s board of education and a merit-pay component for high-performing teachers and principals.
“This was a very complicated set of policy initiatives that needed to be understood both by lay people and professionals,” Hunt said. “Now, recall what I said earlier about matching words to audiences. Our work on the Better Schools Program taught me how important it was to be able to deliver the same message to various audiences, but in different words, using language that was suitable for those specific audiences. It was about being able to switch gears between, say, a speech to the National Education Association or Tennessee Education Association, and an address to a group of parents living in West Knoxville or East Memphis—or a talk with a group of policymakers, or a group of students.”
Added Hunt: “It was not a matter of saying different things to different people, but of saying the same thing substantively to different people who had different levels of background regarding the issues involved.”
“Being able to help the Governor navigate this was very satisfying to me. A personal high point was when the Governor addressed a meeting of the American Federation of Teachers (AFT) in Los Angeles in 1983, Here was a Republican governor talking about using differential pay to reward good teachers—and he got a standing ovation, after being interrupted 20 times with applause. It was a surprisingly well-received speech. I remember this as a good chance to collaborate with the Governor and make suggestions along the way,” Hunt said.
Note: Keel Hunt is Chairman of The Strategy Group, a Nashville-based public affairs consulting company that he also founded. And he is the author of Coup, the fascinating inside story of how Tennessee Republicans and Democrats worked together in 1979 to oust the sitting Governor, Ray Blanton, ending a corrupt scheme to sell pardons for cash. He can reached via email at: [email protected]