In 2016, Justin Carisio retired from a 35-year career as a speechwriter and company historian with DuPont. While continuous service with the same employer for that length of time is impressive, there’s something even more remarkable about Carisio’s CV. It’s that he came into speechwriting not from print journalism, or political science or law – but from poetry.
“When I look back on my education, the MA in the Writing Seminars that I completed in 1979 at The Johns Hopkins University was excellent preparation for speechwriting. My concentration was poetry, and I wrote poems for the better part of a year. All the things that go into the creation of a good poem are useful in the context of the elevated prose of a speech,” Carisio said during a phone conversation with Vital Speeches.
“Through poetry, you learn to master the English sentence. You learn to look for apt images, metaphors and analogies. When I write poems, I spend time reading them aloud, which is excellent practice for writing speeches,” he said. “Poetic forms are also instructive. I sometimes begin a workshop or seminar on speech writing with a Shakespearean sonnet. With its precise diction, rhetorical structure, argument and emotions, a classical sonnet displays all the power and elements of a successful speech…and it does so in 14 lines.”
Was this liberal arts background an obstacle to Carisio’s success at DuPont – a company steeped in chemistry, engineering and other scientific fields? Not at all. In fact, in some ways, it may even have been a career booster.
Observed Carisio: “I spent most of my life working with men and women who had formal training and professional experience in engineering and science. One advantage I brought to the task of writing speeches was that, not having a scientific or engineering background myself, once I grasped some technical point we needed to convey in a speech, I was good at finding the language we needed so that a non-scientist could also understand the concept.”
Following below are four additional career tips gleaned from Carisio’s observations about his experiences as a speechwriter:
1. Succeeding as a speechwriter requires more than writing ability – one must also bring tact to the role.
“While working with busy people who hold important positions, and helping them communicate what they need to say, tact and self-discipline in maintaining those relationships become critical. To succeed at speechwriting, it’s not enough to be a good writer. One also has to pay attention to this interpersonal aspect of the job,” Carisio said.
“I realize there may be places where speechwriters do not work directly with speakers and rely on intermediaries. But throughout my career, I was fortunate always to work closely with the person for whom I was writing. I could pick up the phone or go into that individual’s office. In such an arrangement, working tactfully to meet expectations and build trust is as important as having strong writing skills.”
2.Speechwriters should find opportunities to give speeches. There are some things you can learn only by getting out in front of an audience.
“Years ago, I met more senior speechwriters who offered this advice, saying it was the best way to get acquainted with all the pressures involved in having to make a speech. In my case, I have long been interested in Civil War history. I became involved with the Delaware Historical Society in the mid-1990s and began giving public talks about General Thomas Alfred Smyth, an Irish-born officer in the Union Army – one of many Delawareans who enlisted once the Civil War began. That led to more speaking engagements over the years on different topics related to Delaware’s role in the conflict,” Carisio said.
In 2013, Carisio published a book about the Civil War experiences of Henry Gawthrop, an officer of the 4th Delaware Volunteer Infantry Regiment, drawing on Gawthrop’s manuscript memoir to tell this Union veteran’s story – which led to additional public speaking opportunities. And last fall, Carisio delivered a lecture to the Lincoln Club of Delaware in which he looked at the Gettysburg Address from a speech writer’s point of view. “I enjoy public speaking, and it helped me become a better speechwriter,” he added.
3.Speechwriters need to hear the speeches they’ve worked on being delivered.
“I cannot overstate the importance of this – the speechwriter needs to be in the audience, watching and listening, and not just tuning in via conference call or watching remotely via webcast. Whenever I had a chance to sit in the audience, I watched for the listeners’ response to get a feel for how the speech was working. Were they engaged with what they were hearing – or did they seem to be wondering when it would be over? What was their body language? Were they engaged with the speaker, or were they rattling their spoons in their coffee cups?” Carisio said.
“Beyond observing audience reaction, the speechwriter learns first hand if the speaker has truly connected with the audience. Meanwhile, you learn important things about a speaker’s cadence and pacing. Perhaps the speaker adds a pause at the end of each sentence or has a habit of inserting adlibbed remarks,” he added.
“By being on-hand for the speech, you can time to the second how long it takes your speaker to deliver prepared remarks and calculate for future reference how many words he or she actually speaks per minute in front of a live audience. Most importantly, by being physically present, you get a sense of how authentic the words you have prepared sound in the voice of the speaker.”
4.The rise of social media puts extra onus on speechwriters to understand how audiences may react to a particular speech.
“Early in my career, after delivery of a speech, we would scan newspapers and other publications for print media pickup. That was the gold standard for leveraging a speech, and it could range from a reference in news stories, to mention in an editorial or op-ed page placement of the text,” Carisio said. “If broadcast media were present, you would also monitor for television or radio coverage.”
He continued: “Today, you still have a few hundred people in the room with the speaker, and you have to truly understand that immediate audience. They are the people who are going to respond to the energy of the speaker and to the message of the speech. They will lead the applause. But more than ever, we must write with the extended audience in mind – which, thanks to social media, is vast and varied. Today, a speech may be excerpted and disseminated by social media even as it is being delivered. People far removed from the event can respond in real time.
“You have to anticipate rebuttals of your main points and consider potential reactions across a broad spectrum of audiences. I always emphasize, don’t write in a vacuum. Talk to the event organizers. Spend time to learn about the audience’s hot-button issues. Who else is on the program? Will there be questions? Are media present? These are speechwriting basics, but you would be surprised how often they can be overlooked in the high-pressure atmosphere of speech planning and preparation,” he added.