Our last posting on the speechwriter who is currently freelancing and once wrote for President Clinton, we explore how she developed a speech. As earlier mentioned, the subject had much to say about her process, which she laid out in a careful sequence in her e-mailed responses prior to our interview.
Under some questioning about possible recursiveness in her process during the interview she was first slightly defensive: “I’ve been doing this for a long time now. So for me it is a fairly orderly process, now. Some speeches are harder to write than others. Some clients are harder to write for, some issues are more difficult, but in general I feel like the process of writing a speech is a very natural and a fairly fluid one and I go about it more or less the same way every time. And so, so yes. At this stage in my career, it does flow like that.” But further prodding forced a more complex depiction. “The process is often that I’ll get something done and I’ll look and I’ll realize that page three should actually be page five. … I know exactly what to expect and that’s part of what I expect, that there will be that revision and rejiggering. And, you know, oftentimes part of that is the sentence that seems so brilliant to you in the first draft, you know you’ve got to kill by the time you get to the fourth draft. Because it doesn’t fit anymore, or you know it wasn’t as good as you thought it was.” The subject concurred with the interviewer that what she had developed could be characterized as a workable “system” or “approach.” “It’s not like checking the boxes. It’s not like step one, step two, step three. But … in terms of how I go about it, it feels natural.”
Those steps in the process could, nonetheless, be clearly matched up with what the subject said about the development of the Northern Ireland speech. Like the employees at the Washington Metro and the FAA, her first move is to collect as much information about the occasion and the audience as possible. What is the event’s purpose? Why was the speaker invited? Will there be other speakers on the program? What are the demographics of the audience, and what are their “emotional” expectations? “What issues are on their minds? What do they think of this speaker? What would they want this speaker to think/know about them?”
One can see the answers to these questions worked smoothly into the Belfast speech—the allusions to the “troubles” of the past 25 years in Northern Ireland and to the Christmas season, the acknowledgement of not just dignitaries but of the factory workers present, the awareness of not just the speaker’s position, but of his personality and of his public persona. “I need to know … not just what they think on their issue or their policy or their little fiefdom, but who they are—where they grew up, what they like, what they care about, where they vacation, who they’re married to, how many kids they have … what’s on their bed side table, if I can get it.” With all the material about Clinton in books and other media, “it was easy to just go read it, a biography.” Other clients require more digging, and conversations with them and/or their staff. Talking to the prospective speakers isn’t always possible, but it helps also to find out the cadence and phrasing of their speech, as well as the words “that they routinely stumble over,” like “nucular.”
The second step is to discover the speech’s main topic, the “headline message,” usually in consultation with the client and her or his staff. “What does the speaker want to get out of this event? Is it a command performance (like an annual summit), a special occasion (like a ribbon cutting or commencement), or a policy platform? Is the speaker’s goal to educate, persuade, inspire, mobilize, entertain? Is it to take (or give) credit for a success?” For the Belfast speech, the subject was in contact with the “advanced team that had gone to Northern Ireland and had scouted out places,” with the American charge in Belfast, and with “a lot people” who could help her with the content of the speech.
Once the subject has all the information she needs, she creates a “basic framework” for the speech. Unlike the writer at the FAA, she does not “generally work from detailed outlines,” nor is she good at working out a structure through talking to some interlocutor. “If you asked me what the speech needs to be about, I would fumble all over myself, but if you would just give me an hour to sit on the computer and write a little bit, then I could come back and tell you,” she said during the interview. “I find that writing and thinking go hand-in-hand;” she wrote in an e-mail. “Sometimes I need to be writing to figure out what it is I’m trying to say.”
The subject knew the basic argument Clinton wanted to make in Belfast, so she wrote the speech “in the way that the argument made sense to me.” The opening had to be upbeat. “You wanted to start with the good stuff. … I live on the other side of the ocean and here’s what I see when I look at your country. I see these incredible things happening.” The beginning and the end also had to contain certain required material, like the acknowledgement of Irish politicians who had been participating in the peace process. The interviewer remarked on the speech’s structure resembling the classical model, with an opening that established the speaker’s good will followed by an exposition of the case for the peace process, then a refutation of those attitudes and behaviors that could set the process back, and a peroration with emotional appeals to stay the course.
It is in the drafting that the subject tries to work in not just the “factual arguments” but also the “color that brings the best speeches to life—anecdotes, quotations, humor, real life examples, interesting factoids, etc.” The client or speaker will provide “the policy substance for the speech; my job is to make it interesting, relevant, and memorable for the audience.” The subject’s independent research appeared to focus on obtaining the “color.” A forceful metaphor within the Belfast speech was inspired by the factory itself. “The textile machines you make permit people to weave disparate threads into remarkable fabrics. That is now what you must do here with the people of Northern Ireland.” A search through newspaper reports of the previous March’s St. Patrick’s Day celebration yielded a quote from an Armagh bystander that “Even the normal is beginning to seem normal.” A call to an Irish poet at Princeton, a friend of her parents, led her to a line by Louis MacNeice about Americans rejoicing “at things being various.” The subject needed an appeal of particular power in the closing sentences of the speech, and found it among a selection of letters Irish schoolchildren had written to the president. “One young girl from Ballymena wrote, and I quote, ‘It is not easy to forgive and forget, especially for those who have lost a family member or a close friend. However, if people could look to the future with hope instead of the past with fear, we can only be moving in the right direction.’ I couldn’t have said it nearly as well.” Particular care is taken with the beginning and ending of a speech, and the style has to “make the speech easy for the client to read and for the audience to hear.” That means attention to “sentence length and structure, word play, strong verbs, interesting metaphors.”
As has been mentioned above, several drafts have probably been produced before one is sent to the client (“I am a rigorous self-editor.”), and then the clients will either be “content” or “get invested in the drafting process themselves.” An exchange of drafts will often ensue “until the client is satisfied.” Some traits the subject said a speech writer must have are the “ability to take criticism,” “strong self-editing skills,” and “self-discipline and grace under pressure.” Like the others, she clearly saw her role as one of service and she was aware of gaps in her education, like a need to study more U.S. history. A public speaking course as an undergraduate would have been “valuable,” she thought, “and it probably would have been helpful to take a creative writing course too, or at least to have received feedback from my professors on my writing style.” Still, it would have been hard to ignore the obvious confidence the subject had in her ability to perform her chosen profession. She was comfortable in her knowledge that she possessed the above mentioned traits, as well as others she listed, such as “excellent research skills,” and a “breadth of knowledge, curiosity, and imagination.” Despite her mention of a curriculum she would have liked to have had, her e-mail responses prior to the interview concluded that “a broad-based, globally minded liberal arts education like the one I had was probably just the right preparation for what I do now.” That assertion recalls the theory of Cicero’s Crassus in De Oratore that the complete rhetor has a perpetual hunger for knowledge of all the subjects (s)he might touch upon in her/his discourse, and can never settle on a narrow specialty. It is not that a broad, shallow knowledge will suffice either. The trenches of knowledge we dig must be as deep as we can make them before we shuffle off this mortal coil.