The Speechwriter’s Life: Wade Buchanan
October 18, 2015
“I think of speeches as one component of a communication strategy that is essential to driving a message, driving a story or a narrative,” former gubernatorial speechwriter says.
If more than a decade of speechwriting for Governor Roy Romer (D-CO) taught Wade Buchanan anything, it was the importance of mastering the speaker’s voice. “Finding the speaker’s voice—the voice that the speaker is comfortable with, the voice that other people are used to hearing from the speaker—for me, that was the beginning and ending of it all. Everything else is secondary or tertiary to that,” Buchanan said during a phone call with Vital Speeches of the Day.
“This is so critical to the process of speechwriting. Not just for a one-off speech for a single event, but for helping speakers with the narrative they want to drive, the personality they want to display—it’s part of the overall communication of what the speaker is trying to convey,” Buchanan added.
How can a speechwriter find the essence of the speaker’s voice? “I don’t think there’s any substitute for being around the person,” Buchanan said. “It’s about various things, like knowing the speaker’s sense of humor and deepest convictions. And it’s not just knowing a few stories from the speaker’s childhood, but more about knowing why those stories are personally important. These are some of the essentials.”
In writing for the governor, Buchanan could draw upon the fact that his father grew up, like Romer, in the southeast corner of Colorado, also during the Depression and Dust Bowl years. That geography and that specific period of time “really helped shape a shared world view” that Buchanan knew well through his father.
“I might ask myself, when I wasn’t sure how to start a draft—‘what would Dad say?’” Buchanan said.
Absorbing the speaker’s voice is important, but it’s not the sole ingredient in effective speechwriting—one must also ensure that the drafting process suits the speaker’s style and meets his needs.
When helping Romer with drafts for major speeches like the annual State of the State address, Buchanan recalled that “writing for him [at those times] was really more like helping him through a thought process.”
Buchanan continued: “What I mean is that he would use the speech drafts not so much as drafts, but as ways to keep track of what we were saying about our mission and our priorities [as an administration]. The task for me was as much about me being the facilitator of a kind of strategic planning process, as it was holding the pen in a State of the State drafting exercise.”
“Romer would talk with cabinet members and others [about major speeches and get their input] in a uniquely collaborative, interactive and inclusive process. There might be 15 people in the room speaking up at once, and saying ‘What about this idea?’ or ‘Let me write something about that.’
“Sometimes, I’d be just writing as fast as I could, and I would knit the different pieces together, and then hold the draft back up to Governor Romer like a mirror—‘Here’s what I think I heard.’”
Buchanan added that, while the process wasn’t always pretty or fun, “it was creative, it seemed to work very well for what the governor needed—and almost always resulted in a quality product.”
Buchanan modestly calls himself an “accidental speechwriter,” as there never was an official speechwriter position in Governor Romer’s office.
At various times, Buchanan’s business card carried titles such as Policy Advisor, Policy Director, Lobbyist, Agency Director and Department Executive Director (cabinet level). While these were his primary jobs, he was also regularly called upon to write major speeches.
Buchanan’s 10+ years of toil as an advisor to Governor Romer also gave him some insights into the top-down strategic value of speeches to a chief executive: “I think of speeches as one component of a communication strategy that is essential to driving a message, driving a story or a narrative.”
“By the way, I’m not a big fan of the term ‘narrative,’ but the word works—there’s a frame to who you are, and what you want to accomplish.”
“I think the best political operations are those that are able to consistently drive forward that central story. Even if what you are doing as an administration extends to 30 different things, in terms of your public face, you need to come back to your one, two or at the most three defining goals,” Buchanan said.
“Don’t forget that most speeches [by a governor] don’t get covered by the media. The State of the State will get a lot of coverage—in that case, a governor will set the agenda, set the theme—and no one else gets that privilege. And you may get coverage for your brief remarks at events, veto statements, press releases and so on. I think the key is to think of all of these parts, including the speeches, as forming a united, coherent strategy,” he continued.
“So speeches are part of this larger communications strategy. If your boss is disciplined, the strategy works. But if not, you can come across as scattered, and you can end up stepping on your own message. Frankly,” Buchanan chuckled, “at times, we did both very well.”