The Speechwriter’s Life

Five ways to succeed at speechwriting over the long-haul: a conversation with former Spiro Agnew speechwriter Cynthia Rosenwald.

How many speechwriters receive public acknowledgement from the people for whom they write? Not many. Cynthia Rosenwald is one exception to this rule.

For decades, she wrote speeches for elected officials, corporate executives and heads of charitable institutions and industry associations. She began her speechwriting career during Spiro Agnew’s 1966 campaign to be Governor of Maryland, and wrote for him through his governorship and into his first term as US Vice President. Rosenwald continued working for Agnew until March 1970, when she left his office to concentrate on family responsibilities, while working part-time as a freelance speechwriter. In a tribute to Rosenwald’s work on his behalf, Agnew dedicated a book-length collection of his speeches to her.

Below are five ideas on succeeding as a speechwriter paraphrased from a recent conversation with Cynthia Rosenwald.

1. Speechwriting can be a wonderful career, if you accept its inherent ambiguities.

“A freelance speechwriter can have a gratifying life. You have total flex time, you set your price, you set your hours—and you work for whom you want to work,” Rosenwald said.

All the same, you have to accept the element of anonymity that comes with the role. “Most people don’t want others to know that someone else is writing their speeches,” she observed. “No speaker wants others to think the mot juste comes from someone else. The client has to be the star. And many people today still aren’t comfortable with having someone with the title ‘speechwriter’ on staff.”

Rosenwald also recognized that the economics of the profession can be daunting: “Unless you’re someone like Peggy Noonan, who writes presumably ‘tell all’ books and becomes a Sunday ‘talk show’ pundit, few people will find speech writing economically viable. So you will find people who write speeches deep inside PR agencies, or in a corporation—they are tied to public affairs groups, or communications teams [rather than working independently]. In government and large corporations look for the euphemism “Special Assistant to”. Others work as journalists and moonlight as speechwriters on the side. I’ve done all of these.”

2. When drafting, always put the client’s voice first.

“The way I approached speechwriting for my clients is different from most other people. I would insist on having a two hour meeting before we get down to writing the speech. The purpose of the meeting was for me to listen to the client—not just hear him, but listen—and discuss his general philosophy. From this, I could I pick up on the client’s style of speaking and speech patterns—this could include a local accent, for example, or the fact that the client is a passionate speaker, or speaks in a monotone, i.e., boring,” Rosenwald said.

Before the initial session, she researched each client in depth. “Don’t waste your client’s time. I read all I could about him, his company or campaign. If possible get tapes or DVDs. This way you’re prepared and the client knows you’re not wasting his/her time … note that you can charge your time for research and gain respect for not wasting the client’s valuable time.

“Prepare a detailed list of questions for all interviews. I used these questions to learn what the client wanted to say, and how I could put it in the client’s own voice. This makes the speech compelling and eloquent—that authenticity of the client’s voice. You can fix up a speech with fancy quotes to make the speaker sound erudite, but the speech has got to be in the speaker’s voice.”

3. A speechwriter can and will learn from each client.

Rosenwald shared something she learned while writing speeches for Senator Malcolm Wallop (R-WY). “He taught me never to use an adjective when writing a speech, instead make your noun strong enough so that you don’t have to modify it. And never use the adverb “very”. These are brilliant points.”

From Spiro Agnew, Rosenwald learned about the power of alliteration. Rosenwald observed that “Agnew wrote and spoke with alliteration in a natural way.” She noted her old boss regretted that he was later caricatured for this, after other speechwriters peppered some of his vice-presidential speeches with phrases like “nattering nabobs of negativism.”

The best speech that emerged from the Agnew-Rosenwald collaboration? Without hesitation, Rosenwald cited Agnew’s October 1969 remarks at a Republican Party event in Pennsylvania, where he pushed back on media commentary regarding his personal political philosophy. You find Agnew’s alliterative talents on display in the speech, as in the following excerpt:

America cannot afford to write off a whole generation for the decadent thinking of a few. America cannot afford to divide over their demagoguery, to be deceived by their duplicity, or to let their license destroy liberty.

Agnew’s inaugural speech as Maryland governor includes alliterative touches such as “people, principles, progress.” The same speech also chides elected officials who try to “preserve personal power” rather than carry out necessary reforms. And a 1968 speech to a Republican audience in Oklahoma includes the line: “The confidence of the American people that once could conquer a continent has been shaken to the core.”

4. Read and re-read the speeches made by great speakers.

“FDR had a simplicity and clarity in his speeches that was extraordinary,” Rosenwald said. “If I had known then what I know now, I would have listened to every one of his fireside chats. Take his fireside chat on banking. He introduces it by saying that he’s going to talk about something that’s complicated, and then he explained it in the simplest way.” She also enjoys regularly re-reading Winston Churchill’s speeches.

5. A broad education is excellent preparation for a speechwriting career.

Rosenwald completed college courses in subjects such as philosophy, economics and political science at Wellesley and Goucher. (Rosenwald added that she at last found time to complete her degree in 2004.)

All these courses proved useful in her speechwriting work. “Understanding macro-economics is important to have in your background as a speechwriter on a political campaign—or for when you are writing for someone in business. And the concept of thesis, antithesis and synthesis from my philosophy courses were essential in writing my speeches,” she said.

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