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Writing a Great Campaign Speech

May 1, 2000
By James T. Snyder

I am constantly amazed at seeing so many candidates for every level of public office, of every political party, with campaign organizations running as smoothly as a Rolls-Royce V-12 engine, get up before a crowd of happy supporters and absolutely bomb

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I am constantly amazed at seeing so many candidates for every level of public office, of every political party, with campaign organizations running as smoothly as a Rolls-Royce V-12 engine, get up before a crowd of happy supporters and absolutely bomb when giving a speech. Boring. Flat. Cliche-ridden.

What a mistake.

Because when all is said and done in the modern world of retail politics, what is actually seen or heard by the voters and the media at public events or on television? A candidate speaking. Oratory. A vocal message that captivates and charms, or falls flat on its face and turns voters away in disgust and disappointment.

Most candidates don't have access to professional speechwriters who can write a startling new speech every day of a campaign. But the need for an excellent, resounding, memorable core speech remains for every candidate, no matter what political office is being sought.

The central stump speech is the heart of the campaign. Memorized, it can be lengthened or shortened to fit every occasion. The introductory story and lesson(s) drawn can be changed to fit any audience. Like FDR's unseen leg braces, the speech supports the exhausted or distracted candidate who hasn't the time or energy to say something entirely new every night of the week. But with a minimal amount of work, it can be made to appear fresh and renewed on a moment's notice.

And it can be used to draft ever more sophisticated, eloquent custom speeches for events of singular importance--the big fundraiser, or the television debate.

It also becomes the central philosophical document of the campaign. It is the Rosetta stone for the assistants writing the direct mail letters, forms the script outline for the phone bank volunteers, and provides direction for press releases. And it ensures that everyone in a far-flung and highly fluid campaign stays on message--the candidate's message.

How's a Candidate to Start?

So, how do you accomplish this magnificent thing?

First, you need to sit down--alone--on quiet evenings early in the formative weeks of a campaign and come up with a cogent, taut, spirited rationale for running that can be articulated in 20 words or less to anyone who asks.

Second, meet with your advisors and consultants and hash out a central message built around that rationale, determining what particular issues need to be addressed every time in the speech.

Third, someone has to write the darned thing.. The following are the "Magnificent Seven" rules for writing the perfect speech, distilled to their martini-dry essence.

Tip #1: Write for the Ear, Not the Eye

When we write, we write for the eye. When we speak, we choose words that are pleasing or familiar to our ear. The trick to writing a good speech, then, is to entertain the ear--by writing something that sounds spoken.

To write for the ear, the speaker must write in a way that captures the usages, cadences, rhythms, and intonations of humans speaking to one another. Drop the use of perfect grammar, tense, and construction, which makes the written word sound stilted when spoken.

Tip #2: Understand the Speech as an Essay

One of the primary reasons people struggle with speeches is that they have no frame of reference within which to put the activity.

Experienced speakers and speechwriters know that a speech is essentially an essay. An essay has a clear beginning, middle, and end; it organizes disparate points into a single, coherent package.

Fortunately, given that most of us have experience writing dozens of essays in school, you should already have a firm intuitive grasp of the essay concept. The underlying approach to drafting any speech should now snap clearly into focus. Outline your speech/essay first, point by point, then flesh it out with short, crisp sentences that make your case.

Tip #3: Is the Speech Appropriate?

Make certain you can answer the following questions when fashioning a speech for a particular audience:

1. What is the time, place, and expected manner of the speech?

2. Are there particular topics and issues you must address? If so, what are they?

3. Determine the demographic picture of your audience--age, sex, educational background, geographic background, religious, ethnic and/or racial background, particular (or peculiar) interests and affiliations--and how many will attend.

4. Are you expected to be in the teaching mode, the cheerleading mode, the information-imparting mode, the entertaining mode, or some other mode?

Tip #4: Find a Unifying Theme

Most speaking events fail because the speaker didn't understand that in addition to imparting information, a speech must move people. The goal is to make the listeners think, care, respond, act. Every successful political speech contains within it some image, idea, or turn of phrase that touches the listener's heart or mind.

Find a single theme or vision that fits the content, tone, and temperament of the entire speech. Change. Progress. Growth. Success. Finding that theme helps in organizing the speech logically. Develop one or two thematic quotes, stories, and analogies--especially G-rated personal anecdotes--insert them early in the speech, and develop the central message from the opening.

Tip #5: Master the Power of Language

Use clear, simple and expressive language whenever possible. Avoid slang or idiomatic expressions. Never use any of the following modern Orwellian 'Newspeak" words in a speech, political or otherwise: empowerment, rightsizing, reprioritize, facilitation, paradigm, excellence, benchmarking, stakeholders, team player, impact, and so on.

Mastering this tip is difficult, because even professionals in a campaign find writing such prefabricated, cliche-ridden jargon irresistible.

Tip #6: If It Ain't Funny, Don't Use It

Humor can be most effective in a political speech. It can break the ice with the audience, gel a line, deflect a candidate's negatives, and provide the perfect thematic pitch so important to listener interest. But most of us--including political candidates--aren't really that funny. Think of humor as campaign-ending nitroglycerin.

If you do use humor in a speech, make certain the story, anecdote, or joke is surefire funny with all listeners. Test it with a bright constellation of different folks for laughs. If the joke or story is dirty, off-color, of questionable genes or ancestry, or is offensive to some identifiable religious, ethnic, or racial group other than Martians, leave it out.

Tip #7: Keep Your Speech Short

People will excuse all kinds of lousy speech-making, just chalking it up to inexperience. But nobody--nobody--forgives the pain of a long speech. Twenty-five to 30 minutes is a long speech, 15 to 20 minutes is a medium-long speech, and seven to 10 minutes is a nice short speech.

Practice Makes Perfect

Finally, after the speech has been carefully crafted using these rules, it is time to practice, practice, practice until you drop. Actually giving the speech is theater. The performance should be focused, articulate, dramatic, and passionate, with every effort made to move people, to use your carefully honed emotions to make the audience feel--intellectually, emotionally, and spiritually.

Finally, at that critical early moment when your first great speech is ready, there's a real campaign now underway.

On to victory in November!

Attorney James T. Snyder is a freelance speechwriter. A longer and slightly different version of this essay was printed in the February 2000 issue of Campaigns & Elections and is used by permission. Subscriptions to Campaigns & Elections are $49.95 per year. Call 202/887-8590 for further information.
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