This is the second installment of our profile of a creative writing student who was also working as a political speechwriter in Pittsburgh. Today’s post focuses on the process the subject followed when composing campaign speeches.
Much of what the subject said about her composing process either echoed or expanded upon what other speech writers expressed, with some differences attributable to the fact that much of her writing was campaign related, while theirs was not. (Only an employee at the Washington Metro I later interviewed mentioned experience with campaign speech writing.) Her first step is to do a lot of research “with newspaper archives and internet resources,” with the primary purpose of ascertaining what the candidate’s or speaker’s past positions have been on the issues at hand. She wants to make sure that nothing she writes is a direct contradiction of what has been said previously. If a position has to be shifted, knowledge of past statements will allow her to make that shift more gracefully. “Did this guy say, ‘I will not close school A.’ And if he has said that, then I have to craft the speech in such a way that it almost begins with something other than a retraction. The phrases of ‘much to my dismay,’ ‘because of circumstances beyond my control,’ that sort of thing, in order to mollify the audience a bit.” This kind of research is probably most necessary on a local level, where politicians are not under the constant scrutiny that characterizes the lives of those functioning on a national level, and where some enterprising reporter or “opposition researcher” may discover some past statement more casual observers would never recall. (Although, in the age of Google, the discovery of politicians’ contradictions is more and more the result of casual investigation by political bloggers.) This approach has also led the subject “to write nothing … that can’t be modified, no absolutes.”
The subject will then make an outline of “salient points,” organized “literally in order of importance, even though the order of importance isn’t the same order that they’ll be delivered in the speech.” Then, as mentioned earlier, she will “write a mini-speech about each one of the items that I need to address,” with those mini-speeches often based on previously written material. Other reasons to take this approach include the possibility that material may be dropped before delivery, and that “the news, the television media will pick up on one issue and gather a sound bite from that section of a speech.” She will also strive for each section to “have its own one-liner that could be quoted effectively from our side of the fence. And by the same token, not easily taken out of context.”
Structuring her speeches involved an approach that was definitely distinct from an interviewed Clinton speech writer’s more classical construction of talk delivered in Northern Ireland, and from that same writer’s concern for introductions and conclusions. The subject arranges her “salient points” in something resembling a bell curve, with “the most important issue of the speech dead center. … With a speaker, that allows for sort of a ramping up and kind of gives the speaker the ability to find their comfort zone and then by the time that they’ve gotten to the big issue, they’re comfortable in the room. They’ve established some relationships with audience members, and they’re not tired, yet. And the likelihood is much greater that they’ll be interrupted in the last several minutes of their speech than in the beginning or the middle.” A little later, the subject mentioned “savvy listeners” who will recognize “the wrap up and they sort of tune out and start making their own conclusions, so they have the least weight.” Other reasons for taking this approach may hinge on the nature of campaign speeches, as opposed to those speeches written for office holders explaining or advocating policies they have decided to adopt. Campaigners may use the core of one speech “a half dozen or more times.” The introduction and conclusion can be adjusted to the audience and the occasion. Campaign speeches appear to have two significant audiences—voters who may be hearing the candidate for the first and only time, and news gatherers who may have heard the candidate speak several times. Placing the most important item in the speech’s middle is a strategy designed for those “savvy listeners.” “A lot of times a reporter or a newsperson is just sent there to get some information on a single issue and so, if it’s in the middle then by default they’ve got to hear some of the other stuff you have to say.”
Once the speech has been structured, then the subject does careful editing, and she called the ability to “self-edit” extremely important for the type of writing she did—“really crucial.” Writing for local campaigns on an ad hoc basis, rather than as the holder of a full-time position within the White House or a federal agency (like others I interviewed), seemed to be one strong reason for the subject’s concern with “self-editing,” although our other subjects also extolled this trait. “There’s definitely a peer review going on, but if you want to keep working in that field, it has to be really good the first time someone looks at it. I can’t hand a colleague or certainly not the speaker a speech and say, so how does this look to you? Proof read this for me, tell me what I should change. I really have to have my act together before I let anybody else see it. There’s not enough time. If you need to have somebody else coach you through the editing process, then you’re dead weight.”
During a campaign, the most important issue of the moment may change quickly, depending on what might be highlighted in the media outlets. “You know, a campaign manager will quickly say, this speech really has to focus on improving school scores. And that happens over night because a news outlet has picked up on failing school scores and all of a sudden our campaign has shifted from beautification of area parks to salvaging children’s education.” So a campaign writer has to both take responsibility—“looking at the overall arc of the campaign and definitely accepting unsupervised direction”—and accept her or his lot as a hired artisan who is given orders, “edited without permission,” and “a lot of times” having what she considered strong work disappear because “it’s not at all what they were looking for.”
Status levels exist within the speech writing profession, with the “advisors” idealized by a later interviewee on top, followed by the full-time employees at the federal level I also interviewed, and then the part-timers, freelancers and campaign writers, some in a stage that might be considered an apprenticeship, bringing up the rear. “In fact, in my younger years I was frequently asked by even other members of the same team if I could go get them a cup of coffee and that kind of stuff, cause by the time the speech is being delivered, I’m not really part of the action that is going on, so I’m just … a supernumerary.”
The subject wanted it understood that the people she worked for were generally “good to me,” but that the required anonymity was initially difficult for her, perhaps in part because of her earlier experience as a theatre major and on stage. “There’s no public recognition, you get no authoring line, no publication, and you immediately give up ownership. .. You know, if I write at some point in my career one of the world’s great speeches and … it’s to be anthologized, it’s not my speech.” (These remarks were made before I heard from the subject at the Federal Aviation Administration about the technique of sending speeches to Vital Speeches for possible inclusion, as a way to boost a speech writer’s career.) The subject did realize that the public was certainly becoming more aware of the important role speech writers now had in creating public discourse, since “everyone from CEOs to congressmen” has one.
We are not finished with this subject, but will feature her in one more posting that discusses the relationship between her schooling and her speech writing craft.