For more than two decades, speechwriter Robert Stewart has served everyone from CEOs and national association leaders to government and political officials to speak successfully in public. During a recent phone call with Vital Speeches from his home in Maryland, Stewart passed along six pieces of advice for fellow speechwriters, as presented below:
1. Listen first, then draft.
“For each speech I work on, the first thing I do is sit down with the client (or their proxy), shut up and listen. I want to make sure that I understand both what the speaker wants to say, and what the speaker wants me to write about. Next, I study every aspect of the topic or issue as if I’m the speaker’s surrogate.
“This helps me to shape the central part of the address, and to align the opening and closing. I don’t jump ahead and start thinking ‘what’s my opening?’"
2. Can’t meet the speaker face-to-face? You can still write a strong first draft.
“When you are writing a speech for someone who you can’t meet face-to-face, use your common sense and start by thinking about the audience. What does the audience want or expect to hear from this speaker? And whether or not you can meet the speaker, or talk to that person directly, you can think about what language or phrases would help the speaker to be accepted early by the audience. You can use this approach to begin to form a draft that fits the assignment as it’s been explained to you.
“I once re-wrote a speech for someone who was running for the U.S. Senate. Her team provided me with some material that a third party prepared for her. I offered some advice, along with my edits and suggestions: ‘Your candidate is running for a U.S. Senate seat – this material makes her sound as if she’s running for municipal clerk, not the U.S. Senate.’ So think about the speaker’s title, his or her perceived influence as an individual, and how an audience would expect that person to sound.”
3. Take a cue from the best speakers—help your clients achieve a conversational tone.
“Some speakers just naturally or intuitively understand that they are having a conversation with the audience when making a speech. Jeffrey Kindler, former CEO of Pfizer, was a great example. He was very effective, not only because of his strong public speaking ability, but also because his remarks were well-prepared and well-organized. As a speaker, he was easy to understand and his remarks were easy to digest. Kindler did not encumber his speeches with multi-syllable words, or push listeners away with excessive use of the passive voice.”
“Can this conversational style be taught? I think it’s a learnable skill. If you can arrange to watch someone like Kindler in action, that helps. I think a good speechwriter can help as well – someone who helps a speaker put pauses into a narrative, to help the audience assimilate what you’ve said. Even a good speaker needs a speechwriter. I think a good speechwriter can do much more for someone who’s already comfortable speaking in public compared to someone who isn’t.”
4. You need multiple arrows in your rhetorical quiver.
“I had the opportunity of reading Bob Lehrman’s Political Speechwriter’s Companion in manuscript form, and I gave him some honest feedback before publication. I think many of the techniques described in his book are wonderful tools to help speakers connect with audiences – particularly when you are addressing a group that you want to engage and galvanize (as political leaders often have to do). These are all arrows you want to have in your quiver, for when the right opportunity comes, whether you write for a political official or a corporate leader.”
5. Make the most of every word in a speech.
“As part of your final edits, go back and re-read the speech. Every word should count for something. Otherwise, it shouldn’t be there. Read the speech out loud. Everyone listening should be able to understand every word the speaker says, when the speaker says it. You can’t go back in the middle of a speech to explain something that isn’t clear. Ask yourself: ‘Would I understand that if I was in the audience listening?’ And if something doesn’t sound right or you don’t clearly understand it, then change it.”
6. Don’t take the approvals/editing process personally.
“Some years ago, I had an invitation to coach and train a group of about 20 US Air Force officers at the Pentagon. They were part of a group that prepared speeches for the Secretary of the Air Force and the Air Force Chief of Staff, the service’s two highest officials.
“During our last session together, I said: ‘You’re all mid-level officers and seasoned pros. When you face a situation where you have prepared a speech and the Secretary or the Chief of Staff doesn’t like the final draft, my advice is not to take it personally. If you know that your final draft was an excellent piece of writing but it gets heavily changed and loses some of that excellence during the editing/approval process because someone just had to mess with it, you shouldn’t take it personally.’
“You need a thick skin in this business, especially when thin-skinned people want to blame the final speech or the speechwriter!”