The Speechwriter’s Life: Gary Delsohn

Schwarzenegger’s speechwriter speaks about writing for a governor with good communication instincts.

From 2006 to 2009, veteran journalist Gary Delsohn shouldered a dream assignment for many speechwriters—he served as chief scribe to California Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger. “Perhaps it’s thanks to his background as an actor that Schwarzenegger has such a strong, intuitive sense of how to move an audience with a speech,” Delsohn recalled in a recent talk with Vital Speeches.

“He liked to begin almost every speech with humor, usually self-deprecating. He knows how to connect with people this way. You’ve got the audience in your hands if you can get them to laugh at the start of a speech.  On the flip side, he also understood that there’s no getting an audience back after you’ve bored them by starting a speech off with five straight minutes with minutiae and numbers,” he continued.

Delsohn knew a lot about Schwarzenegger’s speaking style from covering his first gubernatorial campaign and first two years in office. But once brought into the Governor’s inner circle, Delsohn gained additional insights into his new client’s approach to speeches. “The Governor would rehearse major speeches 20 to 30 times. Sometimes, he would even read the draft three or four times over the phone to you. I was really surprised by how much preparation he would put into his speeches.  It’s the same approach he used when he was preparing for a movie.  He told me many times that he’d rehearse his lines over and over until he felt comfortable with them, and he stuck to that approach even with a full calendar as an elected official,” Delsohn said.

And there was also the Governor’s habit of tracking how many times he rehearsed a speech, in the same way he once kept track of completed bicep curls or leg presses at the gym.

Delsohn found the transition from journalism to speechwriting a relatively smooth one. “Being a journalist means trains you to get to heart of an issue quickly, and then write about it at high speed. This means you’re accustomed over many years to get to essence of a topic and then organize an article on that topic. This emphasis on speed and writing to deadline helps you sort through dense documents, like policy statements, when drafting a speech. Through this experience, you bring a sense of how to cut through the details and to grasp, at a high level, what the speech should say,” he said.

“And I’ve also always liked reading and listening to speeches. I suppose my appreciation for speechwriting and oratory helped as well. It sounds obvious, but speechwriting is like any writing-related job. Any kind of writing that you’re doing, it just makes sense to study good writing. I would read Ted Sorenson’s speeches for JFK, or study Abraham Lincoln’s speeches, for example and others by Ronald Reagan or President Obama. You need to pay attention to other speeches and watch them, in order to learn,” Delsohn said.

Even with this preparation for his new role, writing speeches for the star of films like The Running Man, Commando and Predator brought some unexpected moments for Delsohn.

“When I went to work for the Governor, there was a strong belief among some in his office at the time that, when delivering speeches, he shouldn’t repeat any of those lines he made famous in his films. So I did not put them into any draft speeches. But, whenever he decided to improvise and use one of those lines, I would invariably receive an email from the chief of staff asking if I had inserted it into a draft,” he said.

One example of this came in 2007, when Schwarzenegger used a climate change conference in Florida to state that “[w]e have to say, `Hasta la vista, baby,’ to greenhouse gases.” Schwarzenegger used the same speech to publicly castigate some of his fellow Republicans for dragging their feet on environmental legislation—even after some staff had cautioned him against doing so.

“It just goes with the territory,” Delsohn observed. “A draft speech is really a template, and speakers will, when at the podium, embellish or improvise. As a speechwriter, you can’t take it personally, or fall in love with your own words. If you think a speaker is going to read your material verbatim, and then some other words come out and you feel upset, then you’re not going to last in the job very long.”

While Delsohn helped the Governor with a number of important policy speeches, the speech he remembers perhaps most fondly had nothing to do with matters of state. “It was a 2008 commencement speech the Governor was going to deliver at his oldest daughter’s high school, to her graduating class. It was very personal. He wanted to be funny, and provide something that the kids would be pleased with and remember – and that his daughter would like. I was in Hawaii on vacation at the time, but I knew how much this meant to him. We spent five days working on the speech, going back and forth,” Delsohn said.

In some ways, this commencement speech signaled Delsohn’s future direction—he now works as a speechwriter for the chancellor at the University of California, Davis.

What makes for an effective speech in Delsohn’s view? “It’s so basic, but you need to first ask yourself: ‘What is it I want to have this speech accomplish for the audience’s understanding of a particular issue?’ A speech needs a narrative arc—a good story that people will remember, with a beginning, a middle and an end. And the end should be a call to action. You want the speech to move people to a different place then where they started.”

Beyond the mechanics of writing speeches, Delsohn’s background in journalism proved useful in other ways after he became a speechwriter. Take the process of vetting the information presented in a speech.

“When you’re writing for a major public figure, there’s no margin for error in a speech. An error in journalism can be corrected. You still feel lousy about the mistake. It goes into your personnel file, and you have to explain what happened to everyone involved. But an error by a public figure in a speech can be a news story for days and days, and you feel totally responsible for it. So when you’re gathering information from the experts as part of a draft, you have to be good about tracking people down, sometimes even physically, and saying ‘I need this checked. The Governor needs this’ or ‘The University Chancellor needs this,’” he said. You have to be persistent, just as you would when checking facts for a newspaper or magazine article.

Another way Delsohn’s prior work in journalism has helped his speechwriting is that it equips him to act as a communications advisor. This advisory side of a speechwriting role isn’t often made explicit, Delsohn said, “but it really is a vital part of the job.”

“In journalism, you can write a great investigative story, and you don’t worry much about how people will react, or how they will take it. Their reaction is beyond your control, anyways. When writing a speech, however, you have to think about questions like ‘how will the audience take this?’ or ‘if we express things in this particular way to this particular group, what problems could it create for the boss?’” Delsohn said.

“The oath for speechwriters should include the oath for doctors – ‘first, do no harm.’ Journalists who have been political reporters, I think, have a sharp understanding of this part of a speechwriter’s work. This includes things like knowing a sense of the audience’s expectations of a speaker. It wasn’t always easy to find the time to do this while working for the Governor, but it is almost always helpful to call the point person for the group your boss is speaking to, to find out what issues the audience was cued up on. Sometimes, I would even ask the organizer ‘what would you like to hear the Governor say?’  You don’t need to always follow what they tell you, but you do need to know it.”

Delsohn’s final observation—remember that being a speechwriting/advisor means that you are helping your clients with their goals, not to advance your own. “Your suggestions, or your arguments for this or that change to a draft, need to mesh with and support the goals of the person for whom you are writing. Most speechwriters, but not all, understand the need to respect the agenda of the speaker – you’re writing for someone to support that person’s agenda, and not so you can push a personal agenda. If you were a journalist like I was, you have to leave that role behind.”

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