The Speechwriter’s Life: Michael Meyer

Managing a team of speechwriters—and other lessons from a former United Nations communications chief.

Michael Meyer’s interest in speechwriting had a lot to do with his wish, as a veteran journalist, “to see how the game is played from the other side.” What he calls an “utterly accidental” chain of events resulted in him working, from 2007 to 2013, as Communications Director and Chief Speechwriter to UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon.

In a phone conversation with Vital Speeches, Meyer shared five lessons from his time as a speechwriter:

1. One trick of strong speechwriting is to tap into your speaker’s most elemental formative personal experiences.

“Something you have to understand about Ban Ki-moon is that he is the first UN Secretary-General to have been a refugee,” Meyer said. “He grew up during the Korean War — his hometown was shelled by North Korean forces. One of his earliest memories is leaving home with his family, and wondering if he would ever return.  After a period of time living with his grandparents, who sacrificed so he would have enough food to eat, Ban saw how the UN rebuilt South Korea.”

“So, as Secretary-General, when he visits a country scarred by war, or meets with refugees, he can sit and talk to people from shared experiences. No previous Secretary-General has been able to do that,” Meyer said.

“If you don’t tap into the most elemental zeitgeist of a speaker’s formative experiences, you run the risk of the speeches becoming shallow,” Meyer added.

2. Speechwriters learn by listening.

“As a speechwriter, you learn by listening. I attended several of the Secretary-General’s speeches every day. I was at his side perhaps seven or eight hours a day, and after some time, I could look at his face and know what he was thinking.  I could tell what he wanted to say. Ted Sorensen had that kind of connection with JFK – almost telepathic.  I would also watch the audience when the Secretary-General spoke, for what lines worked and what lines did not work. And I would stand with journalists as well during his speeches, to learn their reaction,” Meyer said.

“This helped me maintain my independence – I was both an insider and an outsider. As a speechwriter, you need to be both. And as the Secretary-General remarked to me once, ‘do not lose your independence – I need you to have an independent perspective.’”

3. The right speech to a hostile audience can help turn foes into friends.

“Ban Ki-moon’s greatest impact as Secretary-General has been on the global response to climate change. He focused on this when he came to office in a way that very few other people have – other than perhaps Al Gore. He has delivered many speeches on climate change, written opeds in the Washington Post, Financial Times, etc. on this topic and made it a theme of his state visits – all towards a view of raising global awareness,” Meyer said.

“As part of trying to deliver new constituencies to support action on climate change, the Secretary General spoke at a 2007 gathering of the National Association of Evangelicals. American Evangelicals are not fans of the UN. But by the time he left that room, after quoting from the Bible several times, he had a 15-minute standing ovation, and he had some people crying. He has a gift for speaking genuinely. A lot of pro-forma speeches lack that quality – and if that spirit of being genuine doesn’t come through, it’s going to be a boring speech,” Meyer said.

“The 2015 Paris agreement on climate change – among the most complex multi-lateral negotiations in history – is a shining example of what the Secretary-General has accomplished while in office. His speeches have helped encourage policy action and nudged the process forward. Speeches make a difference,” he added.

4. Managing a team of speechwriters is like conducting a small orchestra.

“While working at the UN, I had a team of four speechwriters, and we churned out hundreds and hundreds of speeches for the Secretary-General. He had five or six appearances per day – sometimes even more. He travelled more than any previous Secretary-General,” Meyer said.

“This pace could have been crushing, but we succeeded in coordinating the work among the writers. Everyone had a clear understanding of the Secretary-General’s voice. And we also had a shared vision of what he was trying to accomplish through his speeches. If you get the voice and vision right, then the individual experiences of each speechwriter on the team become assets, rather than liabilities,” Meyer said.

“Managing the speechwriting team was like conducting a small orchestra. We had a real mix of talents. For example, we had a development speechwriter who had come from Nairobi, and knew how to put a human face on issues such as disease – giving the people involved a name and a face.  We had a former Clinton White House speechwriter who was wonderful at turning at a phrase. Another speechwriter specialized in turning UN-ese into common language. And we had a spunky young woman who could write hilarious speeches for the Secretary-General’s appearances at evening events, and provide him with the lines that make for laughs and help build a human connection between speaker and audience,” Meyer said.

“We had the further advantage that, as chief speechwriter, I reported directly to the Secretary-General, not an intermediary. To be effective, you have to report directly to the boss. And it was extremely important that the Secretary-General regularly shared insights with his speechwriters about what he was thinking about, his mood, and so on. He engaged with us as key aides,” he said.

In terms of the Secretary-General’s speaking style, Meyer said: “He is a former South Korean foreign minster, and a highly-educated man. He comes from a national culture of modesty and respect, where you don’t say things too directly. By temperament, he is plain-spoken and factual. After he became UN Secretary-General, the challenge we faced as his speechwriters was to create a style for him that reflected his approach as a leader and person. It took some time, but he found that balance.”

Meyer highlighted Ban’s extemporaneous remarks following the bombing of a UN compound in Gaza in 2009 as a good example of the Secretary-General’s plain-spoken style in action. “He stood in front of these burning cars and buildings, and spoke genuinely and eloquently in a human way, right at the scene of the event,” Meyer recalled.

5.  Taking a job as a speechwriter for a prominent public figure means you have to bring your whole professional life to the table.

As I see it, it’s much easier to become proficient as a speechwriter than it is to learn how to be a policy thinker. When taking on my UN role, I had 25 years of work in journalism at Newsweek, and had authored some books. For someone entering speechwriting, the informal personal style of writing we cultivated at Newsweek was ideal. It wasn’t a highly academic style. So I brought this background to the table,” Meyer said.

“I also brought a couple of decades of knowledge of international affairs and policy through my experiences at the magazine. When you are at the UN, in a senior staff, cabinet-level position, you need to bring a tremendous depth of knowledge to the job. You only have what you can already bring to the table – there’s no time for you to go and gather more intellectual resources. And if you don’t have that necessary background, then the speeches will end up filled with platitudes and clichés,” he said.

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