“Every speech should have an idea, and tell a story,” says Scott Farris, a speechwriter, communications advisor and author based in Portland, Oregon. “The longest-running method of communication between people is story telling, stretching back to the Epic of Gilgamesh and the Iliad. And it’s through stories that we convey ideas. A speech is much like a story—to succeed, it has to have a focus, it has to engage, and people need to want to know what comes next. You have to tell a story to hold listeners’ ears.”
Farris’ training in the art of story-telling includes the years he spent writing for United Press International. “I have tried to estimate how many words I wrote for UPI, and it’s in the millions—each day, I was writing 2,000 to 5,000 words. My work as a journalist wasn’t all that different from drafting a speech—taking material from various sources and assembling it so that a reader can follow the story,” he said.
Another facet of Farris’ experience that proved useful when he began helping clients tell stories through speeches was his years working as a disc jockey during high school and college.
“Radio provided me with training in writing for the ear. You’re writing for broadcast, and you have to refashion stories so that they ‘hear’ well—you learn that there are no semi-colons in radio. Radio teaches you to organize your thoughts, to be concise in conveying information and to hold people’s interest. And then,” he said with a laugh, “you have to get back to what they want to hear—the music. So you are very aware of people’s attention spans,” he said.
Farris’ output as a speechwriter includes work for US Senator Malcolm Wallop and Gray Davis, Governor of California. Farris’ also helped write the farewell address delivered by Vera Katz, long-time Mayor of Portland, when she retired from active politics in 2004. This speech was the subject of an article by columnist David Broder, giving it national attention.
To illustrate his approach to speechwriting, Farris provided an insightful example drawing on a speech he drafted for Mike Sullivan, Governor of Wyoming, when the latter was preparing to speak to a local literary society.
“I think people like speeches that are not just well-informed or entertaining, but which also allow them to think about things in a different way. Most speeches in politics are utilitarian—you are delivering a state of the state address, or dedicating a building, or carrying out some other public function. This literary society address gave the Governor the freedom to get away from the more utilitarian approach, and to talk about Wyoming and its place in US history and its role in our country. To hear about things that really matter, to think about where we come from and why we’re here at all—an audience doesn’t need to hear about these themes only in church on Sunday,” Farris said.
“Just before being assigned the speech, I had attended a lecture on Wyoming’s role in North American geological history. Through the lecture, I learned that Wyoming is thought to have been the initial core of what became this continent. And I brought this concept into the drafting of the speech, to present the idea that Wyoming is not just a place that people cross to get somewhere else, whether it was the Oregon Trail in the past or Interstate 80 today—it’s actually the center of something. It sounds esoteric, but it allowed people to think differently about the place we called home.”
The audience’s reception of the speech was so favorable, Farris added, that while running in Wyoming’s 1998 Democratic primary for a seat in Congress, “I borrowed from this speech when I spoke at the state convention. I talked about how we needed to change how we thought about Wyoming and act in ways consistent with our historical tradition. This was a crowd that was ready to hear about these big questions. It was the only speech at the convention that got a standing ovation.”
Zeroing in on a particular idea and developing that idea in detail, Farris said, is one important attribute of a strong speech. “When CEOs speak, they often display a commendable ability to focus on a particular issue and explain what they want to do about that issue. Politicians can learn from this discipline and ability to focus. Too many political speeches are just about checking boxes—‘I gotta hit labor issues, I gotta talk about tax issues.’
“But speeches are not laundry lists. State of the Union addresses are the prime examples of this—you get a paragraph about everything, and end up with a speech about nothing. Just remember Churchill’s joke that ‘every pudding needs a theme.’ And, while you’re at it, remember as well what Henry Clay said about speaking too long,” he observed.
Farris added that, when it comes to raising ideas in their public speeches, business leaders could borrow a page from elected leaders, and engage more often in “big picture discussions of what kind of society we want and the role of their company in that society. CEOs could take a step back and tie the company’s work to great issues of the day, rather than just dividends for this latest quarter. Some CEOs, like Steve Jobs or Bill Gates, will speak to such themes, but most CEOs will not. I think they would find their jobs more fulfilling, and even the direction of the company clarified, if they address these issues.“
Farris is the author of two books, both of which will be of interest to speechwriters – Almost President: The Men Who Lost the Race but Changed the Nation and Kennedy and Reagan: Why Their Legacies Endure.
Among the subjects explored in Almost President is Farris’ analysis of what makes an effective political concession speech. “A strong concession speech ends up doing two things. First, it will strongly re-affirm the American democratic system. People want to believe our system is free and fair. And while a hard-fought campaign has come to an end, we want everyone to shake hands and come together for the good of the country,” he said.
“You need to pledge your patriotism and signal that you don’t intend to undermine the people who beat you. An example of a concession speech that reflects well on the defeated candidate is John McCain’s address in 2008, where he spoke to Obama directly, saying ‘I wish Godspeed to the man who was my former opponent and will be my president,’” Farris said.
“A good concession speech should also affirm that the campaign was about something. Such a speech will allow supporters to feel connected to the arc of history, and builds for the future by connecting the defeated campaign to a tradition, to some enduring ideals or values. Edward Kennedy’s 1980 ‘the-dream-shall-never-die’ speech is a memorable example of this,” he said.
Through his work on Kennedy and Reagan, Farris said he learned that “both leaders shared the idea that there is no more important role for a politician to be able to rally public support with good speeches. Despite the misperception that they only were reading the words of others, both men were strong writers. President Kennedy understood the powers of words, was well read and could do great things on his own in terms of speeches—in addition, of course, to the speeches that came out of his collaboration with Ted Sorenson. While President Reagan wasn’t necessarily an elegant writer, he was very experienced in terms of producing frequent radio commentaries, newspaper articles and speeches. And as an actor, he knew how to connect with an audience. Like Kennedy, he learned all this long before he had any professional speechwriters to help him.”
Farris’ own experience has been that the collaboration between speaker and speechwriter is always more smooth when “the person you are writing for is a talented writer, and is in tune with the power of words and ideas.”
Our discussion closed with some final thoughts about what is perhaps the most difficult aspect of working as a speechwriter – the anonymity. It may chafe at times, but Farris advised that there are good reasons for speechwriters to keep a low profile.
“It’s a shame that the job is anonymous, but that’s how it is supposed to work. Too much publicity around a particular speechwriter diminishes the power of the speech. When a speechwriter goes on TV to spin a speech before or after it is delivered, bragging to viewers that ‘it’s some great stuff that I’ve given the President to say,’ it doesn’t draw praise for the words, it only makes the one who gave the speech look like an empty suit,” he observed.
“You want the focus on the speech giver, not the speechwriter. Better instead to avoid doing anything that suggests the words spoken are not the words of the speaker, which just undermines the speech. Focus on enhancing the quality of your client’s speeches—rather than building up one’s own celebrity,” he said.