“How do I get a job as a speechwriter?”
That’s the question Robert Lehrman’s students in his American University speechwriting class have on their minds.
The answer, and an extensive catalog of the elements of speechwriting, are contained in the textbook for his course: The Political Speechwriter’s Companion: A Guide for Writers and Speakers (CQPress 2009). It is an invaluable resource for writers and speakers in both the political and corporate worlds. The book is by far the most comprehensive and well-written guide to speechwriting I have read.
Lehrman has more than three decades of experience writing speeches. He has written for politicians, celebrities, nonprofits and corporate CEOs. He worked as chief speechwriter in the White House to Vice President Al Gore.
His writing career began as a novelist who studied with Kurt Vonnegut at the Iowa Writers Workshop. He still enjoys the balance between writing under his own name and putting words into the mouths of the powerful.
Lehrman is the author of four novels and numerous op-ed’s. But it’s the experience gained as a speechwriter in both houses of Congress, as well as the White House, that is the source of the lessons he shares in the classroom and his book.
Together with political humorist Eric Schnure, he teaches two semesters a year at the American University in Washington, D.C. Many of their students have wanted to be speechwriters since middle school, when they became hooked on episodes of “The West Wing.” Graduates of the AU course have found work for politicians in Congress and even for ambassadors.
It’s obvious from his background that Lehrman is a staunch Democrat. But he teaches the techniques of persuasion to supporters of any political party. In fact, his willingness to draw lessons from speeches delivered by both sides is a refreshing surprise in our increasingly polarized world. Testimonials inside the front cover of his book come from both republicans and democrats.
His book—The Political Speechwriter’s Companion: A Guide for Writers and Speakers—took him two years to write. However, some of the lessons it contains were those he first shared with interns in the Clinton White House in the 1990s. Don’t be misled by the title. Lehrman claims that 90 percent of the content is useful for speechwriters outside politics, including those of us who write for the corporate world.
- Realizing that the beliefs and values of the secondary audience might be more important than the people who are actually in the room when the speech is delivered;
- Why it’s important not only to research facts and figures, but also spend time researching the stories and poetry that makes a speech sing;
- Why Monroe’s Motivated Sequence is the best way to structure a political speech;
- Ways to make a speech memorable and move the audience to action, including checklists for everything from speech structure and supporting arguments to problems that are relevant to the audience and plausible solutions.
The challenge, he reminds us, is mastering the nuts and bolts while keeping the text of many political speeches at a seventh grade reading level so the majority of the audience can follow along.
Lehrman’s book illustrates, with links to dozens of speeches, how some of the best writers practice their craft. He takes us behind the scenes with colleagues such as Clinton speechwriters’ David Kusnet and Lissa Muscatine and George W. Bush speechwriter David Frum.
Social media and the Internet
Lehrman embraces change. He encourages speechwriters to take advantage of the Internet, especially the ease of access to speech archives at www.americanrhetoric.com and doing research with a search engine. But he’s also aware that YouTube means politicians today have nowhere to hide an unguarded remark, such as Senator George Allen’s “Macaca moment” on the 2006 campaign trail.
As for getting hired, Lehrman tells his students not to worry:
“With 200,000 candidates running for 60,000 elected positions in America every two years there’s no shortage of work for anyone who can stand the long hours and low pay,” he says. “Ten hour days, six days a week, are common. While corporate speechwriters make three times the salary and can go home to their family, those who want to influence public policy are, and will always be, drawn to politics.”
This review was originally published in ragan.com.