The Speechwriter’s Life: Matthew Cossolotto

The joy of speechwriting: Lessons from a career spent speechwriting from the heart.

Speechwriting may be seen as the “accidental profession,” but it’s no accident when a speech connects with an audience, according to speech coach and speechwriter Matthew Cossolotto. During a conversation with Vital Speeches, Cossolotto outlined six ways that speechwriters and their clients can prepare for success on the podium:

1.The heart is an important muscle – and whether you are a speaker, or a speechwriter, you need to give it a workout.

In his book All The World’s A Podium, Cossolotto outlines what he calls his “Wizard of Oz” formula for a successful speech. The formula draws on the Scarecrow (who was searching for a brain), the Tin Man (who was searching for a heart) and the Cowardly Lion (who was searching for courage). Every successful speech combines those three elements – information and facts (the brain); passion, emotion and enthusiasm (the heart); and a call to action (courage). Cossolotto cites Martin Luther King’s “I Have a Dream” speech as one of the best examples of a speech that masterfully displays all three elements.

“Speaking from the heart is key to speakers being able to build connections with audiences. If you give the sense that you are speaking with emotion and passion, from your heart, people will respond to your words,” Cossolotto said.

“Similarly, when a speechwriter is preparing a text, it’s important to care about the subject. If you can put your heart into it, it can make a big difference,” he said.

An example of this from Cossolotto’s speechwriting experience comes from his time working for House of Representatives Speaker Jim Wright (D-TX). In 1986, Cossolotto helped Wright prepare a speech to the National Press Club about national security.

Recalled Cossolotto: “This was a topic that I cared about, and that Speaker Wright cared deeply about.” Wright’s speech focused on how, in a complex and complicated world, the concept of national security needed to include more than just boosting the size of the defense budget – properly understood, the concept would be extended to reference additional “pillars” of national security, including America’s investments in education, infrastructure, agriculture, energy, manufacturing and research.

2. Speechwriter, spiel thyself!

“I wrote an article a while ago with the title ‘Speechwriter, spiel thyself!” Cossolotto said. “The article proposed that speechwriters go out and speak to audiences, to help them get a better sense of what we expect our clients to do on the podium. It’s good to put ourselves in their shoes. I think that experience will help speechwriters write better speeches – that their clients will feel more comfortable delivering.”

3. You don’t know what works until you hear it.

“One of the things I like about speechwriting is that it is similar to being a playwright. Fortunately, you don’t have to wait a few years to see your work produced on stage. It gets performed almost immediately, like a one-person, one-act play,” Cossolotto said.

“You don’t know what works until you hear it. When drafting a speech, for example, my suggestion is to always walk around and read your draft out loud. Actually say the words, the sentences, out loud. You may think, ‘but I can hear it in my head,’ but it really isn’t the same thing. You will always find something to fix,” he said. 

“And it goes without saying that I think speechwriters should take every opportunity to see their clients deliver speeches, to learn what works and what doesn’t work, including humor. This way, you also learn what the speaker actually uses from the prepared text. And you’ll learn more about the speaker’s voice and presence when addressing an audience,” he added.

4. When speakers want to improve their delivery, it’s hard to beat the power of video.

A long-time speech coach, Cossolotto talked about how much he enjoys "helping executives perform better on the podium, and better connect with audiences.” A powerful way for speakers to identify ways to improve their delivery is to record themselves speaking and then watch the video, he said. “Through video feedback, they learn an awful lot about what to work on without a coach having to say a word.”

“When I talk about videos with clients, I always tell them how David Letterman would watch his own show every night and hone his skills that way – he would be self-critical about his delivery, how he told the jokes. He just had that discipline for continuous improvement,” Cossolotto said.

5. A creative, entertaining approach to a speech on a mundane topic helps engage the audience.

Cossolotto was for some years speechwriter to William McGowan, CEO of MCI Communications. Cossolotto recalled McGowan as “a visionary who wasn’t shy about talking about  the big picture, major trends in technology that were changing the world.”

In keeping with MCI’s corporate strategy of revolutionizing the telecommunication industry, Cossolotto found himself writing speeches for McGowan on complex regulatory issues (among many other topics). McGowan was something of a character who did not mind being the center of attention, and Cossolotto drew on this to give the CEO’s speeches “creative and entertaining” touches, often through humor.

One standard McGowan joke that pre-dated Cossolotto’s tenure invoked the prolonged litigation between his firm and its competitor AT&T (the old “Ma Bell” monopoly); playing on this, McGowan would refer to MCI as “a law firm with an antenna on the roof.”

On another occasion, McGowan began a speech with a light-hearted observation about some other MCI competitors – the so-called “Baby Bells,” which were in fact large firms, and hardly infant-sized. McGowan declared: “Using the term ‘Baby Bell’ is an  oxymoron, sort of like saying ‘jumbo shrimp.’”

If appropriate, a joke can involve a prop. Cossolotto recalled working on a speech made by another telecom executive, in the late 1990s, focused on the then-new option of bundling long distance/local/mobile/internet/cable/etc. services.

“The event was being held at a posh golf resort, so we recommended the executive walk out on stage carrying a golf bag, as a bit of initial surprise or misdirection. Great way to get their attention! The audience would of course wonder, ‘what is going on here?’ The speaker would then put down the bag and say, ‘Mind if I play through?’ for a laugh,” Cossolotto said.

“But there was a point to this madness. He used the golf bag with fourteen clubs as a metaphor for how the company would offer services in a complete bundle of services, similar to a golfer with a long-distance driver, shorter-range irons, wedges, and a putter. It was a nice visual way to make the point. But it wouldn’t have worked if the speech wasn’t taking place on a golf course.”

6. Embrace the joy of speaking.

“The speechwriter cannot impart this particular talent to the speaker, but the really great speakers – like Bill Clinton – are the ones who can tap into a sense of joy about having an opportunity to speak to an audience,” Cossolotto said.

“If you can embrace what I call the joy of speaking, that’s where the magic is. You overcome some of the fear or trepidation you may have about getting up to speak. It can be helpful if, in the writing of the speech, there’s an opportunity to inject some reference to the speaker’s sense of excitement, even privilege, of being in front of the audience, and his or her personal connection to the topic of the speech. Why is this topic important to the speaker? What drives him or her to be there, speaking to this audience about this topic? This motivation helps to unlock the joy of speaking, and that in turn infects the audience. Speaking from the heart, with a sense of joy, makes a world of difference.”

Note: Matthew Cossolotto is a former aide to Congressman Leon Panetta and House Speaker Jim Wright. In addition to All The World’s A Podium, Matthew is the author of HabitForce!, How to Kick the Habits of FAILURE and Adopt the Habits of SUCCESS. His next book, The Power of Making a Promise, which features a foreword by Jack Canfield of Chicken Soup for the Soul fame, is forthcoming. 

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