As far as she can tell, Cheryl Normile was the first female speechwriter on the Secretary’s staff at the US Department of Agriculture. She started at USDA in the early 1970s and first began writing speeches for Don Wilkinson, who was Administrator of USDA’s Agricultural Marketing Service under Secretary of Agriculture Earl Butz during the Nixon Administration. In the late 1970s, Normile worked in USDA’s Speechwriting Office as part of the Carter Administration. When the Administration ended, she left USDA to work in the US House of Representatives for several years.
After a break of about a decade to look after a growing family and aging parents, Normile returned to USDA in 1992 and retired in 2015. During this time, she was part of the Speechwriting Office that wrote remarks for Secretaries and Deputy Secretaries of Agriculture in the Clinton, Bush II and Obama Administrations. Most of these officials came from agriculture backgrounds of all types. They included lawyers, former governors, former congressmen, and federal and state agriculture officials.
“Writing in the voices of people with such diverse backgrounds was a challenge,” Normile said. “But each had a story. Connecting that story to the message of a speech kept the job changing and stimulating.”
During a recent phone conversation with Vital Speeches, Normile shared some speechwriting tips gathered during her years at USDA.
Have some basic guidelines in mind while you draft a speech.
“In 1980, US Secretary of Agriculture Bob Bergland visited the Verendrye Electrical Cooperative in Velva, ND to make a speech. [NOTE: Normile wrote for Bergland as a USDA political staffer in the Carter Administration, not a career official with the Department.] I’ve always remembered this speech because of a written comment I still have from someone in the Secretary’s office, who had to clear the text that I prepared. He wrote: ‘This is one fine speech. It hits all the local stuff, and has some heart,’” Normile said.
The “local stuff” included starting the speech with an acknowledgement that Velva, ND is the birthplace of American broadcasting legend Eric Sevareid.
“I don’t mean to toot my own horn by sharing this story. I was young and this official’s comment became a guideline for me. To succeed, a speech has to achieve some emotional connection with the audience. For me, this means doing a lot of research to find the ‘local stuff.’ This is what taps the audience’s sense of pride. Listeners are perceptive about speakers who come with a speech that relates to them personally, versus those who come with a canned speech. When they feel the speaker has prepared carefully, this tells them that they are an important audience. That personal touch of coming to intelligently and thoughtfully speak face-to-face to an audience is always appreciated. A video message is second best, if face-to-face is not possible,” Normile said.
A speech has to be more than just a list of facts or statistics, or a compilation of information.
“I’ve often thought that a speech is like a puzzle. The Secretary and Deputy Secretary were not simply speaking to audiences. They were bringing together information on many different subjects through their speeches. When drafting, I would jot down all the specific points a speech would have to cover. After outlining the points, I would search for something – an anecdote, an observation, and so on – that would help weave all this information together,” Normile said.
“USDA has responsibility for a vast number of missions. One of the toughest challenges in a complex speech is transitions. A goal – which I didn’t always achieve – was not to detour abruptly to a new subject by saying, ‘Moving on to the next point…’ Smooth transitions should build on your central message and can make a speech flow and inspire.
“By extending the matters discussed in the speech up to the national level, for example, you ensure the speech is more than just a list of facts. You’ve put the speech on a higher plane, so that it sings at the end, and that the audience feels like they are part of something bigger. It feels very satisfying when you’ve achieved that,” she added.
You need to know your speaker’s view of a speech’s purpose.
“Graduation speeches could be daunting. In one case, an official gave me guidance for a speech in one word: ‘Integrity.’ Writing this speech for a college audience was memorably difficult because I didn’t know where I was headed. After way too much time and angst, I wrote remarks that filled the 20 minutes. But knowing this individual, his interests and fondness for inspiring stories, things turned out well. He sent me a note after the speech, saying it was a hit and ‘captured’ the way he speaks.
“During the Clinton Administration, I wrote mainly for Richard Rominger, who served as Deputy Secretary of Agriculture for eight years. He came from a big farm in California and had been that state’s Director of Food and Agriculture. Because of his deep ties to the family farm, I drew on his personal commitment to conservation issues, among many other issues.
“Secretary Ed Schafer, in the Bush II Administration, made clear from the start that speeches were important to him. He met with his three speechwriters every Friday to discuss upcoming speeches. We came prepared, having researched the audiences and knowing their interests and problems. He discussed how he wanted to approach each speech and asked us to allow five minutes at the start of every speech for his personal opening with the audience. He was very specific, drawing on his experiences as Governor of North Dakota, and this was extremely helpful. He was good on feedback, too, letting us know what did and did not work,” Normile said.
As Normile recounted, a speech by the Secretary or Deputy Secretary of Agriculture can touch on many complex topics – the specific issues confronting producers, conservation, rural America, feeding a hungry world, the state of the rural economy, nutrition, and climate change. And successive Secretaries of Agriculture, dating back to Secretary Bergland, have participated in cross-country listening tours, with basic stump speech in hand, holding dialogues across rural America.
As appointed political officials, the Secretary and Deputy Secretary also need to use their speeches to outline administration goals for the many sectors USDA serves and garner support for upcoming legislation before Congress – or explain how recently-signed legislation will be carried out and will benefit a particular sector.
And then, Normile added, the Secretary and Deputy Secretary must shoulder “all the regular communications duties of leaders of a large organization.” The Department of Agriculture employs nearly 100,000 people across 4,500 global locations, and encompasses 29 separate agencies. In addition to working on speeches to external audiences, Normile’s duties involved working through the Department’s in-house broadcasting center to script recorded messages (videos, podcasts, etc.) directed to USDA employees on topics such as serving the public efficiently in a time of shrinking budgets.