The Speechwriter’s Life: John Russonello

A career's worth of experience yields two essential tips: Know your purpose, and know your audience.

Drawing on his four decades of involvement in political campaigns and speeches, John Russonello offers prospective scribes the following rules of the road:

Know the purpose of every speech – and know your audience.

“When you sit down to write, it’s important to know why this speech is being delivered, so you can go in with a purpose. It’s going to be hard to write well if you don’t know why your speaker is attending a particular event, or has decided to speak to a particular audience,” Russonello said.

“And you also need to know where the people you are speaking to are coming from. Your words have to make sense to them and be sensitive to them. You’ve got to pay attention to why they’ve invited your speaker. It goes back to knowing the purpose. If you know why someone has invited you, and keep that in mind as you draft, then you will ultimately write a speech that resonates in positive ways with people,” he added

To demonstrate the importance of knowing your audience, Russonello referred to two cases – one drawn from Florida and the other from California.

“For one gubernatorial candidate in Florida, we had a line in a speech about how ‘taxes should be fair to everyone – and that means you pay according to how much you earn.’ I thought the line would get nods, if not applause,” Russonello said.

“But when the candidate delivered the line, you could hear people in the audience rumbling and getting upset. And the candidate’s opponent replied by declaring, ‘I heard what you said, and that sounds a lot like an income tax to me!’” he added.

“This is a good example of not knowing your audience. It was so obvious to me that it was a decent line, but it was too liberal for Florida – which has no state income tax,” Russonello said.

“In the California case, I was writing for a Senate candidate in 1988. I had a series of lines criticizing George H.W. Bush. Things like: ‘The Republican Party’s childcare policy is: marry a stockbroker and stay at home.’ Another was ‘Republican health care policy is: don’t get sick.’’ One more was ‘Republican educational policy is: ‘don’t worry – you can be a janitor.’ We were playing off Bush’s controversial remark on the campaign trail that week, when he told students at an inner-city high school in Los Angeles that ‘you don’t have to go to college to be a success [because America needs] people who do the hard physical work of our society,’” Russonello recalled.

In some circles, Bush’s remarks became known as his “you too can be a janitor” speech.

“The candidate and I thought this was a good little riff, but the last part almost became a disaster. We pulled up at the event where the candidate would speak, and I saw a large crowd of union members with signs saying ‘Justice for Janitors.’ And I knew the candidate was too busy to make the connection between the signs, the people holding them and the need to immediately change the speech,” Russonello said.

With a lump in his throat, Russonello dashed to the podium and, seconds before the candidate was to speak, made a change to the speech. “The line about education became ‘Don’t aim that high,’” he said.

“I’ll say it again – know your audience in advance!” he repeated, with a laugh.

If you have access to polling data or focus group data, use that information cautiously in speeches.

“Focus group and polling data are hard to use in a speech effectively. I would stay away from over-using polling data directly in a speech. You could have maybe a few numbers or statistics in a speech. Speakers sometimes think everyone in the audience can follow all the statistics they cite, but I have found this isn’t effective in getting a message across.”

If your speaker seems uncomfortable with part of a draft, find out why.

“When you’re writing for someone else, you may find that speakers don’t want to tell you that they are uncomfortable with a particular line. And when they get up on stage, they will not hit the line correctly. You may hear words like, ‘Good speech! But there are just a few things…’ Stop everything, ask them what they mean and work through their concerns. Get them comfortable with the speech, and they will hit those key lines,” Russonello said.

Long after a speaker’s tweets are forgotten, their speeches will endure.

“The spoken word is very powerful. And it is very much determinative of how people make up their minds about speakers. Look at Bernie Sanders. His speeches are probably too long, too-policy heavy – but those speeches, with their complete thoughts and whole paragraphs, have turned on a whole new generation of voters. And look at Donald Trump. In both cases, their speeches turn some people on, or turn others off.  The essence of Sanders’ and Trump’s speeches will be remembered long after all their tweets have been forgotten,” Russonello observed.

Russonello’s initial experiences as a speechwriter came via his years as a staffer for two prominent Democrats – Congressman Peter Rodino (D-NJ) and Senator Alan Cranston (D-CA).

“I was very lucky to work with these two remarkable men – both men of integrity, and intellectual honesty. Both knew what they wanted to say – they had strong views and were not afraid to express them.  In the case of Alan Cranston, he had real vision, always thinking about new ideas to move pubic policy in a progressive direction.  For me, that was the dream person to write for. It does not happen that often in politics. Sometimes you may find yourself in the unfortunate situation of writing for people whose opinions reflect the views of the last person they spoke with,” Russonello said.

A student intern in Rodino’s office in 1975, Russonello returned to the team in 1976, initially as a press relations contact. He then started writing speeches – “shorter ones at the start, mainly for groups in Rodino’s district, like the Boys and Girls Clubs,” Russonello said. Over time, Russonello worked his way up to more substantive topics, writing speeches for Rodino on topics such as gun control and President Reagan’s push for tax cuts and a balanced budget.

While this experience with Rodino’s office was helpful, “I did not hit my stride as a speechwriter until I worked for Senator Cranston, when he was running for President in 1983-84. I feel that was when I became a more effective writer,” Russonello said.

“I worked on Cranston’s basic stump speech, known as ‘Peace and Jobs,’ which was about the nuclear freeze issue, combined with a call for full employment. It was very effective with his Democratic base. I was fortunate to work with Cranston, a former journalist and a good writer himself, and Harris Wofford, who was the campaign chair. A smart and passionate man who cares deeply about issues, Harris taught me a lot about what makes an effective speech, including boiling things down, and using different techniques to give a speech some emotion, such as cadences and rising or falling rhythms. It was a real education!” recalled Russonello.

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