The Speechwriter’s Life: Frank O’Hara

"You can write a newspaper article and be informative, but you don’t get the same persuasive aspect as you do with a speech."

Frank O’Hara has worn many hats during his career—he’s been a planner and a policy advisor, and has written speeches for clients including Maine governors Joseph Brennan, Angus King and John Baldacci.  Below are four tips for fellow scribes, gleaned from a conversation between O’Hara and Vital Speeches.

1. When drafting a speech, there’s a temptation sometimes to use public opinion research like a cudgel. Try to resist it!

“You sometimes hear speeches with lines like ‘80% of people want this particular policy, and that’s an argument for doing it.’ But I don’t think that’s a road you necessarily want to go down. Public opinion research like that isn’t a cudgel to bat someone else on the head with and say, ‘you’re a minority—forget it!’” said O’Hara.

“Using public opinion research has to go beyond saying ‘my position is supported by 75% of Americans.’ That’s information, but not insight.

“Sometimes a speaker wants to use public opinion information like this to close an argument, when you can use it to open an argument. I like public opinion research that gives some insight into why people think like they do—information like that can surprise people and get their attention.

“Too much data numbs an audience. You need a variety of evidence to make a persuasive speech. People don’t make up their minds by data alone. You need a variety of evidence. Good speeches offer information, poetry, anecdotes, evidence, quotes and so on. Many things go into the mix when people make up their minds about something, and speechwriters need to be sensitive to that.”

2. If at all possible, have the speaker read drafts aloud as part of the editing process.

 “The way speakers express themselves, their style of speech—you can’t capture that the first time around with an initial draft, so by reading it aloud, the speaker will identify ways to refine it further.

“I love getting to the second, third and fourth drafts of a speech and working with the speaker to tighten the ideas and sharpen the emotions. It’s about refining the speech so that it is closer and closer to what the speaker is about.”

3. Never forget the unique aspects of a speechwriter’s role.

“I’ve worked as a press secretary as well as speechwriter. The press secretary is always concerned about what you say on a particular day. A lot of people in a governor’s inner circle are like that—very reactive to daily pressures,” observed O’Hara.

“That means the speechwriter has a special role and responsibility in a governor’s office—the speechwriter is likely the only person who can engage the governor on questions involving legacy and vision, or the accomplishments for which the governor would like to be remembered, and how all this can be incorporated into speeches.

“The speechwriter has a duty to push back on the reactive reflex in the office, and help the governor articulate a vision, which in turn can form the architecture of a legislative program that informs the governor’s speeches and messages.

“As a speechwriter, I was initially a little embarrassed to be asking for time with the governor, as important people gathered around him, pressing for immediate action on some issue. I found however that governors can get tired of this constant pressure, and like to talk about speeches and their overall vision.”

4. When you need to persuade an audience, nothing beats a speech.

“You can write a newspaper article and be informative, but you don’t get the same persuasive aspect as you do with a speech. And through social media, you can ‘like’ a statement by someone you agree with, so it tends to confirm your biases, rather than create an opportunity to change views. As an aside, I like how social media makes it possible for people to watch speeches online, “ O’Hara said.

“A great speech moves you, as a listener. You were in one place at the beginning of the speech, and you are in a different place at the end. As a speaker, when you are using your own voice and talking directly to people, so there’s a personal connection with the audience, an element of you winning over listeners, transforming their views with your words.”

***

One of O’Hara’s most memorable moments as a speechwriter involved a 1985 speech by Governor Brennan to the state legislature, calling for painful but necessary cutbacks to Maine’s worker’s compensation system.

“This was a difficult speech for the Governor. It became a ‘Profiles in Courage’ moment for him, as he got the votes he needed to make the changes. He ended the speech with a strong quote from William Pitt Fessenden, a 19th century US Senator from Maine, talking about how in politics you have to do the right thing, no matter how it might influence your chances for re-election.”

The quote was drawn from Fessenden’s remarks delivered during the impeachment proceedings against Andrew Johnson, and appears below:

“When…a man becomes a member of [the United States Senate] he cannot even dream of the ordeal to which he cannot fail to be exposed; of how much courage he must possess to resist the temptations which daily beset him; of that sensitive shrinking from undeserved censure which he must learn to control; of the ever-recurring contest between a natural desire for public approbation and a sense of public duty; of the load of injustice he must be content to bear even from those who should be his friends; the imputations of his motives; the sneers and sarcasms of ignorance and malice; all the manifold injuries which partisan or private malignity, disappointed of its objects, may shower upon his unprotected head. All this…if he would retain his integrity, he must learn to bear unmoved, and walk steadily onward in the path of duty, sustained only by the reflection that time may do him justice, or if not, that after all his individual hopes and aspirations, and even his name among men, should be of little account to him when weighed in the balance against the welfare of a people whose destiny he is a constituted guardian and defender.”

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