The Speechwriter’s Life: Al Sandner
September 13, 2015
Advice to speechwriters: Don't try to hit a homer every time up, and give yourself time to get better.
From the experiences of Al Sandner, former journalist and speechwriter for Gov. William G. Milliken (R-MI), comes the following list of helpful insights into life as a speechwriter.
1. A speech doesn’t have to be a rhetorical grand slam to succeed.
“At the time [I worked for Governor Milliken], we thought of speeches as things we had to do at certain times, for certain groups. My feeling was, and is, that the most important thing [in any public appearance] was for him to be out there, be himself and for people to see him for what he is and that he is such a nice guy—like Bill Clinton would later do,” Sandner said.
“This would include any appearance that gets across the spirit, the personality of the man, whether a formal speech, or a question and answer session, or walking in a parade, or delivering some off-the-cuff remarks at a cherry festival.”
2. Good speechwriting begins with a love of reading.
“The greatest thing for any kind of writer is a love of reading, and appreciation for and the ability to recognize good writing, whether it is Shakespeare or Dorothy Sayers or Kurt Vonnegut, Jr. At the base of it all is probably to love the structure of a well-written sentence, and the flow of a thought,” Sandner said.
“At college, I majored in philosophy with a second major in English, and both prepared me for whatever speechwriting I did. My work as a journalist, with The Detroit News, and especially my early training with the Associated Press, was also a key. Most of my journalism I learned from on-the-job training in good, clear expository writing. You could get on a flight of fancy once in a while in your writing, but you’d better have a damn good reason for it.”
Sandner’s reporting also gave him a strong practical knowledge of how political/government processes work, which helped him as a speechwriter.
3. Give yourself time to learn your speaker’s voice and style.
Sandner started in Governor Milliken’s office as assistant press secretary and was later promoted to press secretary. “In that initial role, I was the factotum. Whatever the task that came up, there was a bit of ‘give it to Al—like Mikey, the young boy in the Life breakfast cereal ad, he’ll eat anything,’” Sandner recalled. This came to include speechwriting duties.
“Early on, when you’re getting used to the rhythm of the person’s speech patterns, you can leave it to the speaker to add his specific tone and inflection to a draft. But after that, you will learn, for example, not to group words in a certain way—or not to get too staccato. Eventually, you get to the point when you’re sitting at your keyboard and you can literally hear the person—but that comes only after experience together,” Sandner said.
Draft speeches, once shared with Governor Milliken, came back to Sandner with relatively few changes. As to the changes, Sandner said, "I always figured it was his program that was on the line, and that my opinion in that case did not matter."
“I don’t think I ever constructed anything that Governor Milliken truly wasn’t comfortable with. There was one time when he attended the Frankenmuth Bavarian Festival and I tried to get him to say ‘Gemütlichkeit’ in his remarks, a German word that translates as ‘geniality’ or ‘joie de vivre’ – and he was having no part of it,” Sandner laughed.
On humor in speeches, Sandner said: “I learned quickly not to write jokes for the governor—he always told his own jokes, and the audience always laughed. The jokes tended to be a bit old fashioned, but very gentle stuff."
4. Speechwriters sometimes have to just grin and bear it.
Following Governor Milliken’s retirement, Sandner went to work at Michigan’s Tourism Bureau, and was eventually promoted to Acting Director. Speechwriting continued to be part of his regular duties, which were focused on media relations.
Towards the end of his career at the bureau, Sandner wrote virtually all the speeches scheduled as part of a three-day annual conference on state-wide tourism—including a speech he would personally deliver, a speech for the current governor and a speech for the chair of the state travel commission.
“I was proud of the speech that I wrote for myself for the event, and I chanced to show it to the travel commission chair. She said, ‘Al, this is good! Can I have it?’ So I had to write myself a new one!” Sandner said.