The Speechwriter’s Life: David St. John
October 11, 2015
"Being a speechwriter enabled me to get into the room where decisions were being made," says political and union speechwriter, "many years ahead of my colleagues of the same age."
“My job is done well,” says communications consultant and speechwriter David St. John, “when people don’t know I really exist—when they assume that the speech was written by the speaker.” St. John’s past speechwriting clients include AFL-CIO leader Lane Kirkland, US Labor Secretary Bob Reich, EPA Administrator Carol Browner and Senator Ernest Hollings (D-SC).
St. John summarized his general view of speechwriting during a call with Vital Speeches:
“I’ve never seen my job as parachuting into someone’s office and announcing, ‘I know how to stir people up’—and then writing for the speaker in some other voice, different from how the speaker normally talks. I’m at the other end of that spectrum,” he said. “I have always approached speechwriting thinking that as a first step I have to figure out the speaker’s voice and get that person comfortable with me, so the speaker does not later receive a text that he doesn’t recognize as something he would actually say.”
After college, St. John worked in radio at KMOX in St. Louis, MO. Among the lessons he brings from his radio work that have proven useful in speechwriting is the art of assessing and assimilating information on short notice, and then quickly filtering out what doesn’t need to be said at that particular moment.
St. John added that speechwriting has been a great way for him to work at the center of important decisions—including in Washington, DC, which he jokingly called “the center of the center.”
“Looking at how my career has panned out, being a speechwriter enabled me to get into the room where decisions were being made, many years ahead of my colleagues of the same age. Being a speechwriter was a way to get at the center very quickly. As early as my mid-20s,” St. John, referring to his work as a speechwriter for the U.S. Senate Committee on Commerce, Science and Transportation and for a number of national politicians, “I repeatedly found myself on teams that had to respond to an issue on short notice with a brief statement or speech. Sometimes, we had 20 minutes to produce a three minute statement.”
“There would be concerns expressed and anxieties shared by people in the room. We’d have a discussion, and I’d come up with a draft. We’d refine it, get it done and get it out in public. And I’d remember the policy experts in the room asking me, ‘how did you do that?’—as if I’d performed a magic trick. And I would explain to them that my job was to take what they wanted to say and put it in a way that everyone outside the room can understand. And we do that by working together.”
One highlight of St. John’s work in Washington was helping Bob Reich prepare for a 1996 roast of TV newsman Sam Donaldson. “I remembered the old line: ‘don’t write jokes—steal them!’ I looked up some jokes in Google, which was a new thing then, and reworked what I found. Reich’s appearance was later aired on C-Span, and people talked about it on the radio as well. What I enjoyed about working with Reich was that that he was very good at delivering a prepared text —he had participated in acting groups in college and had that kind of training. It was really a pleasure hearing him read a speech, he would nail all the lines and put emphasis squarely on the right words and in the right places.”
Another highlight was the seven years St. John spent writing speeches for Lane Kirkland. “Lane was the best boss I ever had. Part of that was his personal warmth, which was wholly in contrast to his public persona as a gruff union leader,” St. John said.
“I learned a lot from Lane. He could speak well extemporaneously, and he also liked a well-crafted speech. He loved sound bites, but he also knew he could not simply string them together into a speech. He could give a stirring speech about the importance of supporting striking union members, but he also saw his job and his message as more nuanced. He was fond of saying ‘we have a lot of great strike leaders in our movement but we also need good settlers, as well. After all, our ultimate goal is not to strike but to get people working under a fair contract.’”
“So Lane liked to present an argument in his remarks, like a very good lawyer can make an argument in front of a judge or jury. He was always looking for a way to clinch his point and get it across. He would spend time with drafts, editing and adding sound bites. Between the two of us, we could craft very decent speeches,” St. John continued.
“Of course, Lane was a much, much smarter and more experienced person than I was, and he could have done my job in his sleep. But he had the trade union federation to run. He let me know that he was relying on me, and I appreciated that and tried to rise to the challenge.”
While the world of executive communications has changed a great deal since St. John first wrote speeches in the early 1980s, he believes there’s still a crying need for well-crafted speeches in the social media age. “For an individual leader, or for an organization, the speechwriting process itself continues to offer a valuable discipline. When a leader of any kind has to collaborate with a speechwriter and with subject matter/policy experts to distill complex technical information and other points into language that non-expert audiences can understand, I think that’s always going to be a useful and healthy process.”
“I’m not talking about dumbing things down; nor am I talking about ‘spinning’ the facts. I mean expressing your points accurately, so that they have impact on and are persuasive to people who may not know the subject matter well.
“The speechwriting process forces you to distill, refine and focus how you present the purpose of your organization, or, in a government setting, the purpose of a particular policy. Even with social media, you still have to get up on a soap box and explain who you are, and what you’re about,” St. John said.
“The discipline of going through this process can then branch out into more targeted approaches through social media and other channels to other audiences, based on the content of the messages. It’s not a case of only doing speeches or only doing social media—rather, it’s about speeches helping inform the content of the social media effort, which gives the speech impact beyond the immediate audience that heard it,” he added.