Ask Kerry Tymchuk what he enjoys most about being a speechwriter, and he has a clear, confident answer—“It’s when you see a speech work and succeed the way it was intended. The applause line gets the applause; the laugh line gets the laugh; and people walk away feeling impressed with the speaker.”
Tymchuk’s speechwriting journey began in his hometown of Reedsport, OR. While in high school, he helped out with speeches delivered by his father, Reedsport’s then-mayor. During college, Tymchuk worked as an assistant to Bill Markham, a member of the state legislature; his duties included writing floor statements.
Tymchuk next completed a law degree. He said: “I did not begin my career as a lawyer thinking I would become a speechwriter, but that’s how it worked out. I spent my first year of full-time practice in a courtroom, working for a district attorney’s office. I spent a good deal of my time preparing and delivering closing arguments to juries. A lot of political speeches are like closing arguments, so this experience proved helpful later when I was structuring speeches.”
Based on his courtroom experience, Tymchuk observed that: “Giving speeches helps you write speeches. You learn what language to look for, and what phrases to look for. You realize that every speech has some purpose, whether it is to motivate, to entertain, to persuade, or something else. Also, it reminds you that every speech involves a little bit of acting, a bit of theatre, that aligns with the purpose.”
For example, Tymchuk collaborated with Richard Norton Smith to assist Senator Dole with the eulogy Dole delivered at President Richard Nixon’s funeral.
Tymchuk also assisted the Senator with his 1996 farewell speech to the US Senate. “Of all the speeches I helped Senator Dole with, this one meant the most to him and to me. He was saying goodbye to the Senate, which had been a big part of his life for a long time.
“This was happening just as he was preparing to become the Republican Party’s presidential nominee. There was pressure to make this a political speech, but the Senator very much did not want it to be a political speech. The hallmark of his Senate career was that he worked across party lines, and I worked with him to ensure the speech kept to that theme.”
While Senator Dole had a written text at hand for the farewell speech, Tymchuk shared how “I knew he would want to speak off the cuff at a few points, so I left places where it would be easy for him to stop, share some unscripted memories, and then easily work his way back into the main text of speech.”
In terms of speeches for Elizabeth Dole, Tymchuk recalled working on her 1991 inaugural speech as President of the American Red Cross as a memorable experience. The inaugural speech represented “a transition in Mrs. Dole’s life and career. It was her first day on the job, before an audience that she very much wanted to impress. The speech helped her get her years at the Red Cross off to a good start.”
The speech included the following lines:
The Red Cross was built by volunteers. And our tradition of trust was built from the grassroots, in communities across the country. Our assistance is not delivered by strangers or faceless bureaucrats; rather, it’s given by friends and neighbors. The Red Cross patch can be found on the arm of the merchant on Main Street or the retired teacher, two houses down…
I’ve thought a lot about that patch, and the over one million volunteers who wear it today. I’ve thought about how I wanted to get the message out that it is the volunteers who are the heart and soul of the Red Cross. And I decided that the best way I can let volunteers know of their importance is to be one of them—to earn the patch on my sleeve. Therefore, during my first year as president, I will accept no salary. I, too, will be a volunteer.
Tymchuk also helped Mrs. Dole with the speech she gave at the 1996 Republican Convention, when she left the podium to speak while strolling among the delegates. “We worked together a long time on this speech, which was the first time anyone had delivered a half-hour, televised address at a national political convention without any cue cards, notes or teleprompter,” Tymchuk said.
Drawing on his considerable experience, Tymchuk shared three handy speechwriting tips:
1. Be there when your principal speaks—don’t stay in your office once the draft is done.
“Stand at the back of the room, watch the audience reaction and learn what works and what doesn’t. You can also help your principal by checking up on the arrangements in the room, to make sure they are OK. And you can provide some stage direction/logistics support as appropriate. Make sure, for example, that the waiters don’t serve the dinner during the speech, as this creates distractions,” Tymchuk said.
2. Work with event organizers so you know how your principal’s remarks fit into the overall schedule, and then plan the speech accordingly.
“If your speaker is talking later in the evening, after a dinner where wine has been served, for example, then you probably want to keep the remarks short. As I’ve said before—ideally, you want the speaker to stop speaking at the same time that the audience stops listening.”
3. Help speakers who can ad lib play to their strengths—don’t over-script them
When I went to work for Bob Dole as a speechwriter, he was already a pro—he had been in the Senate for 22 years, and was comfortable speaking off the cuff,” Tymchuk said.
So when he was addressing, say, an association’s annual convention, I would prepare a blended speech for him—a mix of talking points, with some opening jokes and humor, and then a list of the five issues this particular audience wanted to him to talk about. And I would often add a note saying ‘this audience is more interested in asking you questions, so keep the speech short and open it up to some Q and A.’”