The Speechwriter’s Life: Former gubernatorial writer Gary Pearce
August 30, 2015
How to avoid the "Sears catalogue" speech—and other hard-earned tips.
When I give a speech, I always wind it up by lifting the audience up. I may have a dozen ideas in a speech about what we need to do, but I see it as my responsibility to ask myself, "What’s going to get people to do something about it? How can I encourage them, inspire them, motivate them?" —James Hunt, four-term Democratic Governor of North Carolina (1977–1985; 1993–2001), quoted in Gary Pearce’s Jim Hunt: A Biography
During his multiple terms in office, James Hunt delivered enough speeches and statements to fill four thick volumes. Former news reporter Gary Pearce assisted Hunt, North Carolina’s longest-serving-governor, in various capacities over those four terms, including as press secretary, policy adviser, political strategist and speechwriter.
“I was fortunate to work for Governor Hunt for so many years,” Pearce said. He described his former boss as “optimistic and uplifting—someone who believes you can always appeal to the best in people.” Pearce shared his good fortune by passing along some insights into his work as a speechwriter during a phone conversation with Vital Speeches of the Day.
1. Use the power of simple images.
“In 1999, Hurricane Floyd battered North Carolina. Following the hurricane, the Governor was set to deliver a live, one-minute talk to boost the relief effort that would air on every TV station in the eastern part of the state. I was not on his staff at the time, but I was drafting his speech for this appearance,” said Pearce.
“While working on the draft, I called Bob Shrum and asked him for some help. Bob asked me to explain the situation. I told him about the people living in the low-lying areas that had been hit, and the poverty of many of the communities there. He said, ‘Gary, they are at the low point of their lives. You need to be their high ground.’”
Governor Hunt went before the cameras on September 21, 1999, and at the end of his remarks said:
It will be a long and difficult job, restoring people and their communities to their normal lives. But we can do it, we will do it, and we won't quit until the job is finished. It is time to open our hands and our hearts to people who need help. They are at the low point of their lives. We must be their high ground. [Emphasis added] North Carolinians have always risen to the challenge, and together, we can do it again. Thank you, and God bless you.
“My dad called me and said, ‘When I heard that line, I jumped out of my chair,’” Pearce said.
“One of the secrets of good speechwriting,” Pearce laughed, “could be piracy. You never know where you will get a great line or a great idea. That said – I want to publicly acknowledge Bob Shrum’s role in the speech!”
“This speech taught me the power of a simple image, and that lesson has become something that I try to make part of everything that I write,” he added.
2. Speechwriting is a craft.
Pearce worked as a reporter at the Raleigh News & Observer before serving as Hunt’s press secretary and speechwriter during his first gubernatorial campaign in 1976. His colleagues at the paper provided him with his initial training as a writer.
“I had some great editors at the paper. One in particular was Bob Brooks, a classic, tough old cigar-chewing ex-Marine. He would take a piece of copy you had written and rip it apart. ‘You are not answering the tough questions,’ he’d say. Do that for a few years every night, and you get trained pretty good as a writer!”
Added Pearce: “A lot of [becoming a better] speechwriter is just doing it. As with Malcolm Gladwell’s 10,000 hours idea, there’s no substitute for just working on your craft, whatever it is. Writing is a craft that I’ve worked on my whole life, and I love it—I really enjoy the beauty and power and rhythm of language.
“I wrote a lot of speeches for Governor Hunt in his first two terms. I will tell you, as I look back now and have re-read some of the speeches—I don’t think I was a very good speechwriter at that time. I am judging my own performance here. I would always walk away never quite satisfied. But with experience, I learned how to say things more simply, more compellingly, the more I wrote. I don’t write many speeches now, but if I went back to it, I think I’d be an even better speechwriter today,” Pearce said.
“I have learned that great speechwriters are great mimics. You have to be able to capture the personality, the rhythm, the way that someone speaks. I had so much time to do that with Governor Hunt, and that helped me learn how to do it for other people. I can now listen to someone for an hour or so, and after that I can pretty accurately capture their rhythm of speaking.”
3. No good speech was ever written by a committee.
“The more people who get involved with a speech, the worse it gets. What ends up happening is that the strongest lines elicit the most discomfort,” Pearce said.
“Or, to paraphrase an observation by General Douglas MacArthur, the most scared voice is always the loudest. A committee just sands off the edges that make a speech great.”
Pearce conjured the following scenario: “Just imagine a committee saying to John F. Kennedy: ‘Well, Mr. President—this ‘ask not…’ stuff – do you think we really need it?’”
Continued Pearce: “It can be very hard to resist this pressure, which will turn a speech into mush. So what you need is to have someone [in the speechwriter role] who can listen to everything, all the input and sift for the essence of what’s good. And you also need someone who has the clout to tell the principal, ‘Let’s resist the pressure, and let’s make this a great speech.’”
4. Speechwriters need a good view of what’s coming at the speaker.
“I think that, because I was involved in so many things [in the Governor’s office, thanks to Pearce’s different roles], it gave me a better sense of what the Governor wanted to say and needed to say. I had a good view of everything coming at him. One of Hunt’s great strengths was to deal with all the conflicting demands [on him] and stay focused on all the things he believed were important,” Pearce observed.
5. Use public opinion research correctly when drafting a speech.
“The more sophisticated we become as to why people do what they do, and believe all that they do [through opinion research], the better we should be at speechwriting—you might think. But it seems that a lot of people don’t understand the real value of research [when writing a speech],” Pearce shared.
“The correct way to use [opinion research] is to look at how it helps us better explain what we want to do, and to persuade people. The best example of this in my experience is described in the Hunt biography.
“When the Governor launched his ‘Smart Start’ educational program (the best two words I ever wrote for him!), it faced a lot of attacks. Harrison Hickman ran some focus groups to help us respond to criticism that Smart Start represented undue interference in families by the government. Thanks to Harrison, we found that this line of attack fell flat with people—the great majority felt that the government could do even more to help the children we were trying to assist.”
In putting the program forward, “we could come up with 20 different reasons why to launch Smart Start. We found through Harrison that what really resonated was ‘preparing kids for school.’ So instead of throwing 20 things into a speech on education that we only guessed could help [make the case], we could focus on that one theme,” Pearce said.
“That’s the power of research—you can avoid the mistake of a ‘laundry list’ or ‘Sears catalogue’ approach to a speech.”
Note: For more insights into politics and campaigning, you can visit www.talkingaboutpolitics.com, a blog co-published by Gary Pearce and Carter Wrenn.