George H. W. Bush, Spiro Agnew, Gerald Ford, Barry Goldwater, Bob Dole—Vic Gold’s decades of experience in the campaign and speechwriting trenches saw him work alongside important political leaders. Some years ago, he distilled aspects of his experience into two books—I Don’t Need You When I’m Right and PR As In President. These days, Gold blogs, with characteristic wit and insight, at Wayward Lemming.
I started a recent conversation with Gold by quoting his observation in I Don’t Need You When I’m Right that the great orators of American history weren’t content just to “inform people” through their speeches. Rather, they sought “the emotional word, phrase or cadence” that would help move an audience to action.
After laughing at my reference to a book that he said now counted as “ancient history,” Gold observed that, whether it was Lincoln at Gettysburg, or Martin Luther King, Jr. on the National Mall, you don’t “recite statistics” to connect emotionally with listeners. He also pointed to Huey Long’s 1928 Evangeline Oak campaign speech, where the future governor talked about Louisiana’s deep poverty and asked voters for “the chance to dry the eyes of those who still weep” by healing that inequality.
To humorously illustrate his point, Gold recited a portion of the great political novel All The King’s Men, where one character urges another to insert some emotion in his political speeches to help connect with listeners, rather than “try to improve their minds” with long budget excerpts.
What is the state of leadership communications in 2014, from Gold’s view? He questioned whether the typical conception of what it means for a leader to connect with an audience through a speech hasn’t become somewhat “cheapened.”
“Leaders lead through speeches,” Gold observed—that is, they use speeches to (among other things) convey that they have “the personality and strength to deal with pressing issues.” He finds it hard to square this traditional objective of a speech with the now-popular idea that speakers should also be trying to persuade listeners that the person behind the podium “is someone you want to sit with at Starbucks, and sip coffee together.”
According to Gold, any leader, whether in government, or in a corporate setting, should be wary about taking this cup-of-coffee test too seriously, or too far—as should their speechwriters.
The cup-of-coffee test is just a new version of an old temptation, Gold said. He pointed to how no less an authority than William Shakespeare eloquently warned in his play Henry IV, Part 1 about how familiarity can breed contempt towards leaders. In Act 3, Scene 2 of the play, an English king remarks about how his predecessor sped up his own downfall by “ambl[ing] up and down with shallow jesters [and] ming[ling] his royalty with capering fools,” with the result that he “grew a companion to the common streets” and his subjects became tired of him. Far better, the king observes, for a leader to be “seldom seen,” the better to receive attention when addressing the people.
We next talked about Gold’s own development as a speechwriter. He volunteered that he had to shake some “youthful arrogance” before realizing that, when you are writing for someone else, “you have to work with what you’ve got. When I first started writing speeches, I realized the political candidates I wrote for were left sounding like Adlai Stevenson, and I learned to stop that. You don’t try to make them into something they are not.
“You don’t want people to listen to your candidate deliver a speech, and then ask ‘who wrote that for him?’ You have to write with an ear for what your person can handle,” Gold continued.
In I Don’t Need You When I’m Right, Gold recounts how, while writing speeches for Gerald Ford (then US House Minority Leader), he and Ford disagreed over the length of sentences in a speech on foreign policy drafted by Gold. Ford was fine with the content of the speech, but expressed a preference for shorter sentences. In the book, Gold recorded his response to Ford: “a foreign policy speech needs a certain tone [and that] tone doesn’t come in salami slices.”
“Looking back,” Gold said during our conversation, “I realize that, at the time, I didn’t appreciate what Ford said about short sentences. It took me some time to realize that, when writing a speech, I’m not the candidate—the person who will deliver it. What I told people later when I wrote speeches for them is this: ‘Look—you’re the guy making the speech, not me; this is written for you. And if we need to change it, let’s work on it.’”
I didn’t talk with Vic Gold only about speeches delivered by elected officials, but also about speeches made by candidates for elected office. Gold happens to be a black belt in the rough and tumble of political campaign speeches.
Part of preparing candidates for the hustings, of course, is to make sure they have a supply of comebacks to hecklers. One of Gold’s all-time favorite comebacks comes from Earl Long (brother of the aforementioned Huey Long).
During a campaign speech, Earl Long found himself being jeered by an audience member. “I know you,” Long began, “and I know your mother and father.” Long returned to his speech, while the heckler kept sneering. “I know you come from a very good family, and that you have a good wife and good children,” Long said to the heckler. “And I think you’re honest,” Long continued.
Long concluded: “And there’s something else wrong with you…except I can’t put my finger on it just now.”
A final tip Gold offered to speechwriters working today is to think carefully about the visual impact of the setting of any speech. The setting can lend heft to the words, or help distract from them. Gold observed that President Obama has cultivated the habit of delivering speeches in campaign-type settings, with large crowds visible around him. Viewers recognize the campaign-style elements of this set up, Gold contended, and they typically tune out his message as a result.
Where an important message from the White House is concerned, Gold argued for more use of the tried-and-true Oval Office address, with the President sitting alone behind a desk and the flag visible behind.
The setting conveys the feel of a direct talk between the President and the people as individuals. Think of JFK and his October 22, 1962 address to the nation during the Cuban Missile Crisis.
Ensuring the visual setting supports the speech is something every speechwriter needs to remember. And while you’re at it—stop and think about how JFK and his speechwriter Ted Sorensen would react to the idea that the height of “leadership” is to persuade people to want to slurp java with you.