From the archives of The Influential Executive, 10/2008
The DNC Speech Factory: 60 Speakers, Five Days and a Little MajestyA veteran speechwriter was invited to work in the rhetoric sweatshop beneath the podium at the Democratic National Convention. Here’s what it looked like down there
Each team had a speech coach, writer and teleprompter operators. (The Democrats installed a hacker-proof, high-tech speech preparation and teleprompter network that transmitted and tracked every change in every speech from first draft through multiple revisions to rehearsal and, finally, podium delivery.) Mine was the White team, with speech coach Christine Jahnke and prompter operators Kristen and Shawn from Los Angeles.
We were out of sight, submerged with the production crew beneath the podium in space carved out of the Colorado Avalanche hockey team’s locker room. The players’ sauna was a one-desk office. Makeup was in the trainer’s room.
A few steps down the corridor, a bullpen of about a dozen mostly young, mostly male political speechwriters took over the Avalanche’s admin cubicles.
Our rehearsal rooms were the last stop before an open, black metal staircase up to the rear of that blue-draped thrust podium you saw on TV.
Before they reached us, the speeches went through three steps of vetting and polishing. The speakers, whether governor, member of Congress, party leader, or ordinary citizen, created their own first draft, drawing on message themes provided by the Obama campaign.
Drafts flowed into the bullpen for review. Writers conformed the remarks to thematic points from Obama strategist David Axelrod—e.g., environment, energy, economy, Iraq.
The challenge was to synch speaker and campaign messages. Most of the time it went smoothly. However, when political ego not unsurprisingly clashed with campaign control, the dispute bounced up the Obama ladder for resolution.
Blessed unity! It always was resolved in favor of the campaign.
By the time speech and speaker arrived in our rehearsal room, the text was 99 percent final. Our space (lots of cabinets; hockey team supplies perhaps?) was set with lectern and microphone, mirrored prompter screens, a notebook-size video screen on the lectern itself, and a large flat-panel on the opposing wall, simulating the Jumbotron speakers faced on the convention floor.
I was wordsmith of last resort. What needed to be done became apparent as speech coach Chris Jahnke led the speaker in a first “let’s see what it sounds like” read-through. Fix a phrase.
Plug in a soundbite. Strengthen the close. Trim to fit the time slot. We rehearsed about 60 speakers over five days. All took rehearsal seriously. Some were pumped up, some exhausted; some came alone, some with an entourage. A senator with wife and son. A military wife with 18-month-old daughter and Marine husband pushing the stroller. Most looked to family, not staff, for first reaction. All did well.
My favorite? Suggesting a phrase, “the majesty of the dream,” to Martin Luther King III. I was a 19-year-old college kid on the Washington Mall when his dad declared “I Have a Dream.” Forty-five years later—to the day—to hear the father’s tone and temperament echoed in the son’s voice and gesture was as good as it gets for this grizzled rhetorician. Truly poetic.
By Emerson Moran, freelance speechwriter
Behind the scenes at the Pepsi Center in Denver, Michael Sheehan, for 20 years the Democrats’ premier speech and debate coach, led three rehearsal teams—the Red, the White and the Blue. This was his sixth Democratic National Convention.