The Speechwriter’s Life: Mark Katz

"Humor is about turning things around and changing an audience’s perspective by flipping an idea on its head. Humor allows you to say the unsayable."

“Whenever I meet with a new client, my first question is almost always the same: ‘What are you up against?’” says former Clinton speechwriter Mark Katz. “The conversations that follow are usually very different than those they usually have with their staff—more candid and less guarded. My job is to listen carefully and help them find that truly powerful idea that will engage the audience.”

To help speakers think through a speech or a keynote presentation, Katz draws on what he jokingly calls the “amalgam of different careers that I’ve failed at”—namely journalism, politics, advertising and television comedy. But the skills he relies upon most are those he acquired from 1993 to 2000 when he was the Clinton White House’s in-house humor speechwriter whose job it was to craft the comic retort to the president’s crisis de jour—of which there were many. Since then, he has put these same sensibilities to work for the clients of his creative communications consultancy, The Soundbite Institute.

Katz begins with the premise that executives and political leaders are invited to the front of the room to address audiences because people want to know what they think. “Whether it’s an audience of shareholders or voters, even cynical listeners are hungry to know your honest opinions and genuine beliefs. I help clients to clarify their thoughts and identify their most interesting ideas. Then we collaborate on the many drafts that result in the final product and along the way, keep searching for the killer sound bites that best conveying the key idea. And very often, the most memorable and on-message elements of their speech are written in the language of humor.”

“To me, humor is about turning things around, and changing an audience’s perspective by flipping an idea on its head. Humor allows you to say the unsayable. There are limits to what humor can and cannot accomplish. In general, humor can make a bad situation better, but it can’t make a bad situation good,” Katz said.

So what can you accomplish by incorporating humor into a speech?

Firstly, humor builds rapport because it gives the audience credit for being smart. “Humor flatters where spin insults,” says Katz. “Humor says ‘I think you’re smart enough to understand what’s going on.’ Spin says ‘I think you’re just dumb enough to believe this….’”

“Humor is a very contextual form of communication. If I know that you know a piece of information, I can use that so you can unlock the meaning of a joke. I’m engaging you because I am relying on what you know to communicate my idea. And once I’ve gotten you to laugh based on something in your head, you’re agreeing on something with me. That’s a great place to start a conversation,” Katz added.

Next, “through humor, an audience can forgive just about any flaw, if the speaker shows self-awareness of it. The first rule of political humor is to make fun of yourself first and foremost. Only after you have taken aim at your own flaws and foibles has a speaker earned the right to be self-deprecating on behalf of others.”

Another application of humor is to help a speaker win back credibility. “Bill Clinton’s first White House Correspondents Dinner speech in 1993 was a memorable example of this,” Katz said. “Clinton’s first 100 days in office were rough; they included cabinet secretaries being nominated and then crashing, the tragic events at Waco and controversy over gays in the military. Up until the dinner, which fell on Clinton’s 100th day in office, the administration had been strenuously denying that anything was amiss.”

Upon reaching the podium at his first White House Correspondents Dinner, here was Clinton’s response: ‘I don’t think I’m doing so bad. I mean, at this point in his administration, William Henry Harrison had been dead for sixty-eight days!’

“Conceding that those first 100 days did not go as we wanted created valuable political capital for the President. And this was a Rosetta stone moment for me, helping unlock the secrets of humor,” Katz said.

Katz’s work for corporate leaders has included everyone from Leslie Moonves and Tom Freston to Jeff Bewkes and Steve Rattner. (You can read more about Katz’s collaboration with Freston here.)

“At the end of the writing process, you have to give the client a script that makes the case that this is the speech the speaker should deliver. If you have done your job well, they will recognize that the rewards far outweigh the risks,” Katz said.

To learn more about Katz’ work as a creative resource collaborating with executives with their strategic communications challenges, please visit his personal website with its plentiful multi-media examples of humor in action. And to learn more about Katz’s work in the Clinton White House, you may want to check out his book Clinton & Me. His book of quotes that no one actually said is hilarious and well worth a look as well.  

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