The Speechwriter’s Life: Landon Parvin, on the unique pleasure of this work
December 10, 2014
"When a speaker who may have been worried about a speech arrives at the podium and hits a home run ... you feel like you are in a partnership with someone."
To recite a list of Landon Parvin’s speechwriting clients is to recall much of the last three decades of American politics. Ronald Reagan, Nancy Reagan, George H. W. Bush, Barbara Bush, George W. Bush, Laura Bush, Newt Gingrich, Arnold Schwarzenegger—Parvin worked on speeches for all of them, and more.
Parvin recently spoke with Vital Speeches about everything from the future of speechwriting as he sees it, to what corporate executives and political leaders can learn from each other when it comes to public speaking, to his years as a White House speechwriter.
“The person I learned the most about speechwriting from was Ronald Reagan. I had my first full-time job as a political speechwriter working for him.” Parvin said.
Among the lessons Reagan imparted to Parvin was an important one about the use in speeches of applause lines and zingers concerning the President’s political opponents.
“Every once in a while when I wrote speeches for Reagan,” Parvin recalled, “I would put in these applause lines that, when he delivered them, he would deliver them more softly than what I had written. He didn’t go for the applause. Later, I realized why—he saw himself as President of everyone, and he wanted to bring people together, rather than simply zing his opponents with applause lines. So he would pass up some applause lines, because he thought they were not worth it,” he said.
“Probably the most interesting speech I worked on with President Reagan, from a historical perspective, was his March 1987 speech following the Tower Commission report on the Iran-Contra controversy. We worked on an address to the nation, and the speech helped stop the administration’s slide in the polls following the controversy; by June, President Reagan was calling on Gorbachev to bring down the Berlin Wall,” Parvin said.
Parvin described some other career highlights involving other major political figures, and stressed that every speech that succeeds provides him with great personal satisfaction as a speechwriter—whether the client is a household name or not.
“Writing involves a solitary kind of life. And when a speaker who may have been worried about a speech arrives at the podium and hits a home run—that provides you, as the writer, with wonderful memories and makes you feel like you are in a partnership with someone. You feel good about their success. This doesn’t have to involve big events with famous people—I feel the same way with smaller events, like say on a college campus, where the speaker feels good about how he or she connected with the audience,” he said.
Parvin has not written exclusively for political leaders—he counts many corporate figures as clients as well. He shared some thoughts about what political speakers can learn from corporate speakers, and vice versa.
“Writing for elected officials gave me a broader perspective on speechwriting. Too many speechwriters for business leaders have, I think, way too narrow a perspective. Working in the political realm expands your horizons in terms of what’s relevant in a speech—and that’s not always the case with corporate speeches,” he observed.
“Let me provide an example. Most of the time, I think it’s trite for politicians to talk about someone who they met at a diner or a restaurant, sitting with the family and so on. This device doesn’t really work for politicians anymore, because it’s so well known. But it’s not trite for business people to talk about who they have run into—business leaders can do more of that, and use that to connect with an audience. Politicians have overdone it, but many corporate CEOs haven’t realized that this is a useful way to establish a bond with an audience,” Parvin said.
“Are there ways I think corporate executives are doing a better job than politicians when making speeches? Yes. Politicians too often today give you mainly buzzwords and their political shorthand and applause lines, but they don’t develop an argument. Often, they are playing to their base, and so they don’t feel the need to make their case to the audience. Business executives, if they don’t go the PowerPoint route, still do feel a need to explain things and give reasons for their position. And I think that is where politicians’ speechwriters can learn from the corporate world—how to make a case,” he continued.
“Whether you are a company executive or a politician, you have to establish trust with the audience. You can go about that in different ways, but that’s the end game for both—to earn the trust of those to whom they are speaking. That means speakers have to talk about who they are, and why they believe what they believe.
“When I am writing speeches for clients, I will ask them questions about their childhood, or their families—questions about the things that make life real, that make the speakers flesh and blood. Some speechwriters are hesitant to do this, because it means they have to ask personal questions of the person who is their boss. But it’s important to paint the picture of a whole human being in a speech. It’s what makes speakers real to an audience, that they will share this about themselves,” Parvin said.
“And I’ve sometimes heard from corporate leaders’ staff that ‘the speaker doesn’t want to talk about himself.’ But when I get in to see them, and explain why this information is important, they are willing to share it. When I am freelancing a speech for someone, as an outsider, I can ask them these questions, and they are surprisingly eager to answer. I know it is easier to be an outsider going in, but still, I think most speechwriters should push a little more than they do for this information.”
What else can a speechwriter do to help a speaker succeed? Another idea Parvin shared is to watch some footage of the speaker addressing an audience, with the sound off, to get another perspective on the client’s speaking style.
"By doing this, you’ll begin to pick up non-verbal cues about your speaker. For example, you can see if the speaker is boring—which tells you how much harder you will have to work to make the speaker interesting. The speechwriter has an obligation to make the speaker interesting, so that the audience will care about what he says. You can also see what kind of personality the speaker conveys. If the speaker comes across as engaged with audience, then you know this person has a strong delivery and can communicate without words. Or you may see the tape and decide the speaker needs something to help them loosen up—maybe they need a prop of some kind,” Parvin explained.
“You’ve probably read the research that shows the audience starts making up its mind about a speaker in the first 10 seconds of a speech. Watching the speaker with the sound off helps you understand what impression is being left with the audience,” he added.
Parvin also shared some observations about speechwriting as a career: “I have been very fortunate to have a wide variety of clients over the years, and a lot of freedom to write for different people. I think, however, that this work of speechwriting is probably, for most people, not a full-time, life-time profession.”
“I remember a meeting of the Judson Welliver Society of former presidential speechwriters, during which Arthur Schlesinger, Jr. said that anyone over 30 or 40 should not be a speechwriter. I took note of that remark, because I was over 40 at the time. But I think Schlesinger had a point. Unless you are in the position of having a great variety of clients in all kinds of fields, I think it would be easy to burn out as a writer working steadily for the same company or same industry.”
Having talked about some historic moments he participated in through his speechwriting, it seemed only appropriate for Parvin to close the interview by discussing the future of speechwriting.
“Regarding the traditional idea of a speechwriter—his or her days are numbered on this earth, I think. The speechwriter of the future is going to be something like a combination of video producer, writer/editor and digital media guru. The speech of the future will be much more visual— and I’m not talking about PowerPoint, which I hate. PowerPoint doesn’t help people project themselves as leaders,” Parvin said.
“The job of speechwriter is changing. You will still have to tell a story, and make a persuasive argument, but this will be accomplished in different ways. Maybe this won’t be so true for politicians speaking out on the stump, but I think corporate speeches will go that way. The coming changes have the chance to make speeches more interesting. For instance, a live appearance of a CEO at a major industry conference can incorporate more visuals and sound and movement that can make the speech more compelling.
“So the speeches of tomorrow will have the means to be more entertaining, and, of course, that all goes back to the need for a speaker to connect with the audience,” Parvin said.