In my experience, most candidates think they are already fantastic speakers. They assume they convey their platform eloquently, speaking quite extemporaneously, just straight out of their head. The truth is, however, they really suck at it.
Typically candidates are so intimate with their own ideas that listening to them speak in depth about an issue is like trying to start a movie halfway through. They often forget to ‘set up’ the audience before delving into the meat of the issues. This is where having a speechwriter is terribly handy.
I love writing speeches. To me, it’s just as much like getting into the head of a character as writing a play or novel would be. Of course, the character we’re talking about is an actual person, which brings me to my first rule:
1. Write in the candidate’s true voice.
Sounds good, right? But what exactly is the “candidate’s true voice” and how does one capture it? A candidate’s voice is defined not only by the tenor and tone of it, but also the regional accent he may affect, and the small idiosyncrasies in his personality that come through in the way he talks to people.
To know the candidate’s voice, the speech writer needs to be someone who is either relatively close to the candidate personally, or someone who’s intuitive enough to pick up on a candidate’s unique voice over the course of shadowing and interviewing him for a few days.
2. Write in the local dialect.
Do the people in your candidate’s part of the country say soda or pop? Or is it all just Coke? How about lollipop versus sucker? It may not seem like a big deal, but misplaced colloquialisms can trigger suspicion, consciously or otherwise, in the mind of the voters.
3. Don’t write over the candidate’s head.
It’s important that your candidate knows the issues. It’s not necessary to make him sound like he’s got a PhD in each one. Newspapers and other written media are purposely written at about a 4th grade comprehension level so that they can be digested by the largest audience. In the same way, you should write speeches so that the average Joe can easily hear and understand them.
4. Don’t write below the candidate, either.
If your candidate really does have a PhD that favors your campaign issues – don’t dumb him down! The key is to capture the true nature of the candidate and then put that into words on paper. A political candidate must be genuine above all else, and a speech is simply a vehicle for delivering the campaign message in its purist form. A well-written speech should give as clear a picture of the candidate’s platform as a snapshot would give of his face. Does that make sense?
5. Don’t try to change your candidate.
I’ve never worked with a candidate I 100% agree with, and I suspect I never will, thankfully. It’s tempting to lean into your own ideological beliefs when you’re on a role, typing away, but be sure to keep the speech true to the character of your candidate in the end. That’s what re-writes are for.
6. Know the local taboos.
I once worked with a political consultant who want to drop President Bush’s name about 17 times in a speech given in Harlem. You don’t have to be a genius (she really wasn’t) to figure out that one is a turn off.
7. Stick to the structure.
If you were required to take a basic speech or communications class in high school or college, you already know the basic structure of a speech: introduction, body, conclusion. But a political speech has its own structure within the traditional set up that takes a certain amount of wit and strategy to pull off well. While you have plenty of room to get your point across clearly and succinctly, you should remain within the boundaries of the classic political speech. It’s classic, after all, because it’s been proven to work.
8. Consider creative delivery methods.
I’ll demonstrate this rule with two stories.
I once worked with a brand-spankin’ new candidate (my favorite kind) running for a county level elected office. He was a likable guy, but stiff and awkward in front of a crowd. I tried to get him to loosen up and walk around during speeches; he remained tethered to the podium. I tried to get him to interact with the audience; the idea of speaking unscripted terrified him.
I worked with another brand-spankin’ new candidate the next election cycle who was running for a state representative seat. This guy was gregarious, and had a huge presence in front of a crowd, but he was impossible to reign in! Stay on message? This guy was everywhere.
I learned to write well for both of these political candidates. One needed every word – of not only speeches but also answers to potential questions – written out and rehearsed. The other worked well with bullet points of the key campaign topics, and nothing more.
The point is, you’ve got to figure out early where your own candidate lies on that spectrum and adapt early. You can change your writing style. You can’t change your candidate.
9. Don’t take criticism personally.
If you write for others for any length of time, you’ll likely get your work ripped to shreds at least a few times. You simply can’t take it personally. Maybe your writing doesn’t jibe with the candidate’s speaking style yet. Maybe you don’t fully grasp his position on a particular issue. More often the case, things ‘read’ better than they actually sound out loud (it’s a must to read your work out loud to yourself before you hand it over to anyone else). And most times it’s just a couple of words, or a single awkward transitional sentence that throws the whole speech off kilter. Whatever the case, take the criticism, resolve to fix it, and then do. The only way to get better at writing is re-writing.
10. Know your role.
You are one player on a campaign made of many. Speech writing is one (albeit very important) piece of the campaign communications strategy. Take yourself seriously. But don’t take yourself too seriously. Candidates will mispronounce words, jump on applause, and poorly deliver joke lines. Role with it, learn, and become better for it.