The Speechwriter’s Life: Dr. David Niven
May 01, 2016
Veteran Democratic speechwriter says, "You get to take people on a journey with nothing but words."
Whatever the outcome of this year’s presidential contest, speechwriter David Niven believes, we know one thing already—voters are taking more direct interest in the prospective candidates’ speeches than they have in many years.
“I think everyone has noticed in 2016 the willingness of throngs of people to go straight to the candidates to hear their messages, whether it’s in person, on Facebook or via Twitter,” Niven observed during a phone call with Vital Speeches
“Another part of the 2016 story in how little mileage candidates are getting out of TV ads—Jeb Bush spent just under $3,000 per vote in Iowa, for example. It appears that it’s getting harder and harder to force people to listen to your message. At the same time, it’s getting easier to reach those people who are interested in hearing what you have to say, and will make an effort to hear it—‘voluntary message contact,’ if you want to get technical. So it becomes more and more important how you present yourself, either virtually or physically, to the people who show up on your doorstep.”
Niven’s analysis combines his work as a University of Cincinnati political science professor with his perspective as an experienced speechwriter. From 2005 to 2007, he scribed for Mike Coleman, the mayor of Columbus, Ohio. From 2007 to 2011, Niven wrote speeches for Governor Ted Strickland (D-OH). More recently, he was a speechwriter for the presidential campaign of Gov. Martin O’Malley (D-MD).
“There are not many words that you can type as a speechwriter that give you goose bumps, but typing ‘I declare that I am a candidate for President of the United States’ in a draft of Gov. O’Malley’s announcement speech certainly did,” Niven said.
“One aspect of speechwriting I especially enjoy is how, through a speech, you get to take people on a journey with nothing but words. It’s 2016, and with their handhelds, people have all the gizmo firepower in their pockets that they could ever dream of—and yet, through a speech, we’re going to have them sit there and feel something,” Niven said.
He added: “Another aspect I enjoy is to take complex concepts and synthesize them into their essence. It’s like magic when it comes together. Often times, you’re not telling people about something they don’t know—rather, they already know it, and you’re making it so clear that they can look straight at it and focus.”
It was through his work for Gov. Strickland that Niven was twice able to take part in what he calls the “World Series” of American political speechwriting—the national political convention cycle.
“In 2008, I had literally just one night to write a speech for Gov. Strickland’s Democratic convention appearance. I was very excited about having a chance to take a little step in putting something into national awareness through the speech. The speech got some play from prominent people like David Remnick and Peggy Noonan, who said it had the best line of the entire convention.”
It was the following bit that grabbed national attention:
You know, it was once said of the first George Bush that he was born on third base and thought he'd hit a triple. Well, with the 22 million new jobs and the budget surplus Bill Clinton left behind, George W. Bush came into office on third base, and then he stole second.
In 2012, Niven hit another home run with Strickland’s Democratic convention speech that year.
“I thought that the speech had some good lines that would get media attention and serve the campaign and the Governor well. I had settled in on the theme of economic patriotism, and included a reference to Mitt Romney’s money needing a passport,” Niven said.
Here’s what Gov. Strickland said:
Mitt Romney has so little economic patriotism that even his money needs a passport. It summers on the beaches of the Cayman Islands and winters on the slopes of the Swiss Alps. In Matthew, chapter 6, verse 21, the scriptures teach us that where your treasure is, there will your heart be also. My friends, any man who aspires to be our president should keep both his treasure and his heart in the United States of America. And it's well past time for Mitt Romney to come clean with the American people.
Commented Niven: “I thought of this at the time as a good applause line that also underlined what, to me, was a key issue in the campaign. I didn’t think that the President’s team would think of economic patriotism the same way. But that’s what happened, and the Obama campaign picked up that theme and it became part of the President’s closing argument.”
Two other speeches that stand out for Niven from his work with Gov. Strickland include the 2007 and 2010 State of the State addresses.
Recalled Niven: “My daughter was born just days before the 2007 State of the State. While waiting for the blessed event with my wife in the hospital, I took another look at the speech. I added the words ‘a new Ohio awaits,’ as I was awaiting the arrival of a new Ohioan.” (Given this, it’s perhaps no surprise that Niven’s daughter is very interested in her father’s speechwriting.)
Niven remembers the 2010 State of the State for a different reason: “That year, Ohio and practically everywhere else was in a recession. Just before the Governor’s speech, Frances Strickland, Ohio’s First Lady, came into my office and handed me a headline from a story about the Governor of Kentucky’s State of the Commonwealth speech. It read: ‘Tepid Speech, Chilly Attitude.’ She didn’t say it directly, but the gist of her visit was—‘Don’t let that happen here.’”
“To me, the very definition of a speechwriter is to make sure things like that don’t happen. I threw myself into the speech. Although we had little new to announce, the theme I settled on was ‘I believe in Ohio’ and every part of the speech reflected this. The headline in the Columbus Dispatch the day after the speech was: ‘State of Optimism,’” Niven said.
Niven credits part of his success as a speechwriter to what he learned as a staff writer with The Other Paper, a free weekly paper in Columbus. “Because it was free, no one had an obligation to read it. Because it was weekly, we couldn’t be the fastest with the news. So the main value we had to was to write in a way that grabbed people and made them want to read the paper. I mostly wrote about politics, sports and media. My time at the Other Paper helped me learn to look at a piece of writing and say, ‘well, there’s nothing wrong with this — but there’s nothing right about it, either.’ This experience gave me chances to take my writing further to make my work more interesting to readers,” Niven said.
This experience complements Niven’s time in graduate school. “Having written a dissertation is a good background for a speechwriter. It gives you the ability to sort, sift and look at a mountain of information and not run away crying—especially when writing a big policy speech,” he said.
Graduate school also gave Niven a helpful level of comfort with the use of public opinion research when writing speeches.
“What I like to do is get the data as early as possible in the writing process. Data can help you decide what’s the bottom-line message, and what are the pillars that support the message. I then like to put away the data and write up the story. Data can tell you the pieces that have to be in the speech, and you can decide how they fit together,” Niven said.
“When using data, the speechwriter has to be able to show how things fit together. You can’t send the speaker out with, say, seven very popular but totally unconnected ideas. The audience wants to hear something about you, and how you relate to those ideas. So your job as speechwriter is to relate the ideas, and the speaker, together.”