What I Learned from the West Wing Writers

Specifics, praise, memories, stories and humor—they're what make good speeches great.

As speechwriters, we want to sharpen our skills and learn from the best. And some of the best in the biz are the team at West Wing Writers.

The firm, started by former speechwriters of the Clinton-Gore administration, held a workshop recently and I was lucky enough to attend. These wordsmiths have crafted messages for some of the powerful people in the world. And when I left, I felt like a more powerful speechwriter myself.

Here are five takeaways that any speechwriter can gain value from.

1. Be specific. One of the managing partners of West Wing Writers, Vinca LaFleur, showed a clip of Michelle Obama speaking at the Democratic National Convention. The former first lady described Barack picking her up on their first date in a rusted out car with a hole in floor. She could literally see the pavement beneath her as they drove. This simple story established common ground with the audience, as just about everyone has driven a beater or lemon at some point in their life. It also painted a picture of how far Barack, and the campaign, had come.

2. What is the audience proud of? Or better yet, what do they care about? Every audience wants a reinforcing pat on the back. College graduates usually want to hear there investment in higher education was worth the time and effort. They also want to hear the skills they’ve acquired will give them a better tomorrow. And, even if they don’t say it out loud, they want to be inspired. Jim Carrey’s 2014 commencement speech at Marharishi University of Management is a lesson in inspiration. “You can fail at what you don’t want, so you might as well take a chance on doing what you love.”

3. “I will always remember …” Taken from former Reagan speechwriter Peggy Noonan’s book, What I Saw at the Revolution, the former president asked Noonan to use this phrase to take the place of “I’ll never forget.” Even if you’re not addressing the nation, you can still use the same sentiment. In a retirement speech, instead of saying “I will never forget the late nights of planning and writing,” You could say “I will always remember (NAME) and I working till midnight, in the dungeon with no windows, consuming a steady diet of Doritos and Red Bull.” It’s more visual, and more personal. Be specific, and always remember the details.

4. Stories are worth the investment. Our brains follow narratives more than stats. Think about the time you rushed (or rushed someone) to the ER to get stitches. You probably remember your heart pounding and blood gushing. And when you tell this story at the bar or to new people you meet, this is what you talk about. Not the ID number on your insurance card or the Wikipedia stats of how many people get stiches each year. In fundraising especially, personal stories accomplish one of the hardest things: getting people to take money out of their pocket. I wrote a speech for a man who lost his mother to Alzheimer’s. He described how his mother never left the house without her makeup and hair in perfect place. When the disease kicked in, he noticed she became more disheveled in her appearance. The audience had seen the same signs in the loved ones they lost. The speech was visual, established common ground with the crowd, and was personal to the speaker – which made it important to the audience.

5. Use self-deprecating humor to close the gap. Jeff Nussbaum, one of the original partners of West Wing Writers and veteran speechwriter for the likes of Gore, Biden, and more, described how comedy can help break down the barrier between audience and speaker. When someone is giving a speech, they’re usually elevated on stage, standing, while the crowd is below, sitting. A little self-deprecating humor can help communicate to an audience, “We’re all in this together” and “Yes, I know my flaws.” In 2012, Mitt Romney spoke at the Alfred E. Smith dinner, an annual white-tie fundraiser. Many in the media had pegged Romney for a snobby elitist. In his speech, he acknowledged the criticisms in a subtle, but self-deprecating way. “A campaign can require a lot of wardrobe changes. Blue jeans in the morning, perhaps. Suits for a lunch fundraiser, sport coat for dinner… but it’s nice to finally relax to wear what Ann and I wear around the house.”

Josh Womack is an independent speechwriter and Co-Founder of Laugh Staff, a speechwriting firm that uses stand-up comedians to help craft funny and memorable wedding toasts.


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