Meeting Report: The wit and wisdom of speechwriter Hal Gordon

Hal GordonOn Thursday September 17, 2015 the Silicon Valley Speechwriters welcomed Hal Gordon as our guest on a conference call.

Hal was a speechwriter for the Reagan White House and later wrote for Gen. Colin Powell. Since 2005, Hal has provided executive speech writing for top executives of Shell Oil, Royal Dutch Shell, CenterPoint Energy, GE Aero Energy, UPS, Sim-Tex LP, cPanel and the Greater Houston Partnership. He’s also lectured on speechwriting for NASA, Texas A&M University, the National Association of Government Communicators, more than half a dozen national speechwriter conferences and the U.K. Speechwriter’s Guild.

Hal was a speechwriter in the Reagan White House, where he wrote for Counselor to the President Edwin Meese, OMB director James C. Miller, and other top domestic advisors to the President.

Hal has a web site——and blogs for Follow him on Twitter @paidpen.

Shield of ParadeIn a wide-ranging conversation Hal discusses working at the White House and his views on the current crop of Republican Presidential candidates (including Donald Trump who he satirizes in this version of a Trump speech to Evangelicals). He comments on the debt Winston Churchill owes to Irish-American statesman William Bourke Cockran and the importance of Churchill’s essay on Scaffolding of Rhetoric.
Hal reminds speechwriters to always be on the look out for material, which he illustrates by telling how he used the Shield of Parade which he admired on a visit to the British Museum in a later speech.

To hear edited highlights of the call, click on the podcast icon below.

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5 Patterns of Popular TED Talks

TED TalksEver wondered why some TED talk recordings on YouTube gather a respectable few hundred thousand views while other go viral and attract many millions? Is there a difference in content, facts and figures or information shared that is more compelling and pertinent to a wider audience? Does one speaker have more name recognition than another? Or perhaps look more attractive, sleeker, sexier, and authoritative?

Now, thanks to research conducted by the good folks at Science of People we have strong evidence why some talks are more popular than others.

After an extensive review of TED talks they found that there are five key patterns that speakers delivering popular talks exhibit. These findings are a great set of suggestions for any speaker who would like to be well-received by an audience:

1. It’s Not What You Say, It’s How You Say It

Many subject matter experts won’t like to hear this, but it’s more about what you do onstage than what you say. The report states:

We rate someone’s charisma, credibility and intelligence based on nonverbal signals. This is surprising–we want people to focus on our words, but this experiment is no different from previous research. Studies have found that 60 to 93% of our communication is nonverbal. Over and over again we find that how we say something is more important than what we say. The question then becomes, how do we say something well? Read on to find out which nonverbal signals were most important.

The proof of this? People liked the speakers just as much with sound as on mute!

2. The More Hand Gestures, the More Successful the Talk

Step DancersThere was a direct correlation between the number of views on a TED talk and the number of hand gestures. Our hands are a nonverbal way to show and build trust. Studies have found that when we see someone’s hands, we have an easier time trusting them. This begs the question whether speakers with an Italian heritage are inherently more trustworthy than, say, Irish step dancers.

3. Vocal Variety Increases Charisma

Donald TrumpEvery Toastmaster who completes their CTM certification learns the importance of vocal variety. The more vocal variety of a TED speaker, the more views their video had. Speakers who told stories, ad libbed and even yelled at the audience captivated the audience’s imagination and attention. Those who obviously memorized their lines and read from scripts lacked memorability. Currently, there seems to be one Republican presidential candidate who is trumping the rest in terms of ad libs, yelling and overall vocal variety.

4. Smiling Makes You Look Smarter

President ObamaContrary to the belief that smiling in a business setting signifies low status behavior, and serious topics require you deliver the speech with a grimace, the researchers found that the longer a TED speaker smiled, the higher their perceived intelligence ratings were. Those who smiled were rated as higher in intelligence than those who smiled less.

5. First Impressions Count

And when they say ‘first impressions’ they mean first!

The researchers found that the audience had already made a decision about the entire talk in the first seven (7) seconds. Typically this happens before any words are exchanged. While the opening lines of a talk are important, a speaker must think about how they take the stage, how they acknowledge the audience and how they deliver their first line. Stumbling onto the stage and mumbling thanks for inviting you won’t cut it.

The research measured favorability (as shown by the number of video views) on a number of other criteria. None were as important as the five listed above, but are interesting:

  • People in casual clothing typically rated lower than people in business or business casual.
  • Women who wore business clothing got higher ratings compared to men in business clothing.
  • Speakers in darker colors got higher ratings than those in lighter colors.

This is a fascinating and important study, check it out!

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Guest Posting: How to write a really good three-minute speech in 10 minutes, by David Murray

David Murray is the editor of Vital Speeches of the Day. This posting recently appeared there and I was impressed by the practical advice it contains. It captures the essence of the speechwriting process. The title says it all. This appears with David’s express permission. I have added the links.

10 MinutesMy pals were meeting me at the corner tavern in 15 minutes, when my wife came to me needing help writing remarks for a memorial service two days hence. Being the editor of Vital Speeches of the Day magazine and the executive director of the Professional Speechwriters Association, I was clearly obligated to help. Being just another self-involved husband, I said, “REALLY? Now?!”

The tavern is five minutes away. The speech needed to be about three minutes long. We had to write it in 10 minutes. There’s a story problem for you, kids.

Huffily, I pulled the laptop across the kitchen table, opened a new TextEdit doc—TextEdit feels like a notepad rather than a blank page to me—had Cristie sit across from me and said as if at the funeral itself, “And now we’d like Cristie Bosch to say a few words about Chloe.”

Cristie smiled, but I looked at her exactly as all the faces would be looking at her if she had indeed just been put, spontaneously, on the spot: earnestly and expectantly.

She started talking. I started typing. She opened with a naturally funny line about sharing a birthday with Chloe. A birthday, and cigarettes.

She told about the moment she first realized Chloe’s unique gift, she relayed a story that backed that up—a story specific enough to actually mention a book called The Runaway Bunny—also naturally funny. She talked about another happy chapter in her relationship with Chloe and backed that up with another story.

She had her act amazingly together, though I don’t think she knew it until that moment. I helped by shaping the phrasing just a bit, inserting a few rhetorical devices, drawing bright lines around themes and repeating some language at the end that she’d used in the beginning.

I also suggested some turns of phrase that Cristie immediately rejected on grounds that they were too purple for her taste or gilded the lily unnecessarily. I acceded to her instincts unquestioningly, of course.

Within 10 minutes, we had a three-minute talk that, after Cristie rehearsed it a few times, deeply touched the family and educated everyone else about the real character and best spirit of a woman who was gone forever.

In this process, there were a lot of factors in our favor, not least of all 21 years of intellectual and emotional chemistry, a common knowledge of the compelling subject in question and of the audience as well—and, always helpful, an urgent deadline.

Still, it occurred to me that at its essence, this is how the best speech collaboration is done: The speaker is pressured to say what he or she really thinks. The speechwriter writes it down verbatim, perhaps suggesting minor improvements in real time, perhaps waiting until afterward to do strategic adding and subtracting, filing and sanding.

It worked insanely well for my wife and me. It also worked for President Lyndon Johnson and his speechwriter Horace Busby, who collaborated this way to create one of Johnson’s greatest speeches.

And I arrived at the J&M Tavern just as my pals were pulling up.

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Unmasking the Myths of Silicon Valley Innovation

Silicon ValleyAlerted to the work of the economist Mariana Mazzucato by an intriguing Lunch with the FT article I took a look at her blog.

She debunks the myth that innovation in Silicon Valley is a result of brilliant young minds (Jobs & Wozniak; Page & Brin) unfettered by regulations thriving in garages in a California where failure is rewarded and the streets are awash with VC funding.

While some of those myths have a basis in reality (garages were often the incubation environment from the get-go) the overlooked fact is that innovation in Silicon Valley is driven by public funding.

Entrepreneurs, as well as the venture capital funds that finance them, have often “surfed” massive waves of innovation that were essentially created by public money.

For example:

  • The internet grew out of DARPA
  • The GPS on your phone was funded by the U.S. government’s Navistar Satellite Program
  • Siri, the iPhone’s voice-activated personal assistant, and touch screen displays were both funded by the U.S. government
  • The Tesla electric car benefited from a $465 million government-sponsored guaranteed loan
  • One of the main flavors of UNIX was developed by Bill Joy and others at the University of California at Berkeley
  • Likewise, the algorithms that Google was based on were developed by Brin and Page while at Stanford on an NSF grant

Mazzucato concludes by saying

…you sometimes hear about the state as Leviathan, almost like a big monster getting in the way of innovation. The real task ahead of all of us is to make this debate less ideological. That requires us to understand the market as an outcome of public and private interactions. Rethinking a new relationship and deal between the state and the business, which will lead to the next big wave for future surfers to benefit from.

Understanding the history of innovation in Silicon Valley helps put the often heated debates about the role of ‘big government’ in perspective.

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Going Global: Toastmasters International Reaches Growth Milestones

ToastmastersToastmasters International, the global organization devoted to communication and leadership skills development, has grown its membership by 57 percent over the past 10 years. The organization reports that it has posted an increase in membership every year since 1994 and now has more than 332,000 members, 15,400 clubs and a presence in 135 countries.

“We’re excited that more people than ever before are benefiting from Toastmasters’ proven programs,” says Mohammed Murad, Toastmasters 2014-2015 International President. “As the organization continues to expand domestically and globally, even more people will have the opportunity to join Toastmasters and improve skills that are vital inside and outside of the workplace.”

Highlights of Toastmasters’ annual growth include:

  • 5.9 percent membership growth
  • 4.1 percent new club growth
  • Expanded presence in Egypt, Gabon, Macedonia, Myanmar, Saint Kitts and Nevis, Serbia, Turks and Caicos Islands
  • More than 28,000 Competent Communicator awards earned by members
  • International regions posted the highest rate of growth (11.9 percent)

“Our consistent growth can be attributed to people’s desire to become better communicators and leaders,” says Toastmasters Chief Executive Officer Daniel Rex. “With initiatives underway that will further enhance members’ speaking and leadership development, we look forward to continued expansion in the coming years.”

About Toastmasters International

Toastmasters International is a worldwide nonprofit educational organization that empowers individuals to become more effective communicators and leaders. Headquartered in Rancho Santa Margarita, California, the organization’s membership exceeds 332,000 in more than 15,400 clubs in 135 countries. Since 1924, Toastmasters International has helped people from diverse backgrounds become more confident speakers, communicators and leaders. For information about local Toastmasters clubs, please visit Follow @Toastmasters on Twitter.

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Guest Posting – Fog City vs. The Big Smoke: what a year in San Francisco has taught me, by Felicity H. Barber

Felicity H. BarberFelicity H. Barber is a speechwriter, executive communications specialist and coach. She write speeches, advises business leaders on messaging and coaches people to deliver stellar presentations and pitches. Before moving to San Francisco from London she was an in-house speechwriter at Lloyd’s of London, the global insurer. She wrote speeches and prepared business executives for presentations, panel discussions and conferences all around the world. And, she once wrote a book presented as a gift to HM The Queen. This posting appears with her express permission.

It’s exactly a year since I waved goodbye to family, friends and a stable job as an in-house speechwriter in London’s Square Mile (the city’s financial center). On 31 July 2015 I stepped off the plane, into the San Francisco fog and started a new life as a freelance speechwriter and communications consultant in Silicon Valley.

After twelve months working in the world’s high-tech mecca I want to share some of the biggest differences between doing business in Fog City and the Big Smoke.

Everyone has a side hustle

When I told people at home I was planning on becoming a solo entrepreneur in San Francisco most of them thought I was mad. My friends were in agreement: moving to a new country and setting up a business can both be done, but are best not attempted at the same time! Nonetheless, I persevered: I networked, I blogged, I got on the social media bandwagon, and eventually I won my first client, then another, and another. I put my success down to my passion for what I do, dogged determination, but also how positive the Bay Area culture is about entrepreneurs. Everyone here has a start-up, a freelance gig or a side hustle. As a result there are systems here to support new ventures, whether that’s incubators, angel investors or co-working spaces. What’s perhaps even more important is that the ‘home of the free’ is also the land of innovation: there’s a willingness to try what’s untested. It doesn’t matter that you’re new in town; most of the people you meet here came from somewhere else and were new themselves once. They will give you a go and if they like you they’ll keep coming back for more.

Things move at lightening speed

I spent the first few years of my career in the public and charity sector. It will be no surprise to you to hear that things moved s l o w l y. In 2012 I decided it was time I experienced what life was like in the private sector, or the ‘real world’ as my civil service friends affectionately called it. I took a job at the insurer Lloyd’s of London. The move was one of the best I’ve ever made. I worked with some wonderful people and learned a ton, but the cogs of specialist insurance don’t exactly turn at breakneck speed either. This is in huge contrast to the lightening pace of business in the Bay Area. In the UK I’ve waited weeks to hear back after a job interview; in San Francisco I’ve pitched for business on a Monday and had a contract signed on Tuesday. The change of pace is refreshing, but it does mean that you need to be ready to spring into action at a moment’s notice. Slow coaches need not apply.

Get used to a new dress code

In my corporate office in London I was constantly tripping on my heels, tugging down my skirt or looking for a reasonable dry cleaner for my dresses. This is not a problem in the Bay Area! As I do 90% of my work from home I can of course work in my birthday suit if I so choose! (Indeed, there are reported cases of Silicon Valley workers doing just that.) However, I prefer to greet the day and my work fully clothed. Even when I go to a client’s office I leave my heels at home. San Francisco is decidedly more casual that London. Not everyone goes for the Zuckerberg jeans and T-shirt combo, but you’re probably safe to ditch your tie and swap your crisp, white shirt for a plaid one.

Sometimes when I’m at a clients’ office sitting around on beanbags, it must be said, I miss the formality of London. But the entrepreneurial spirit, the give-anything-a-go-once attitude, and the quick pace all make the Bay Area a fantastic place to do business.

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Zen and the Art of Bicycle Riding

Tour de FranceAs the Tour de France peleton rolls through the Alps towards the final stage on the Champs Elysee this Sunday, it’s worth remembering there are other ways in which a bicycle can be ridden. It’s not all high-speed descents of Alpine passes and 100-mile dashes through the French countryside.

Mark HarrisMark Harris is as far from the Lycra-clad racers as he is from the average carnivorous American. As I noted back in February, he has attached a blender to the rear wheel of his bike and is touring the country living off the land on a diet of raw green smoothies.

He has posted a wonderful poem to his blog on The Art Of Transcendental Bicycle Blender Touring which communicates, from the heart, how bicycle touring can liberate us from the concerns of everyday life:

What goes in the bicycle blender is wild and raw,
It is immediate and distinct, unblemished by names,
It goes in at the top, and whirs all the way down the mountain.
It reaches the valley, smooth and creamy,
Having acquired the essence of taste.

The bicycle blender tourist has nowhere to go,
Each moment is a drop in time,
Somehow the mountain descends and rises up again,
With each undulation of the landscape
More names are forgotten

When the bicycle blender heads up the mountain
Much effort is required.
When it coasts down the other side,
There is only ease.
Effort and ease are thrown in the bicycle blender too,
Before long they can’t even be told apart.

But the real magic begins
When the bicycle blender is put in reverse.
Pedaling backwards up the mountain slope,
Eyes wide open, not knowing where anything is,
Green Smoothie is spewed out, over everything,

By the top of the mountain every seeming separate thing,
Has been coated through and through with Green Smoothie,
So that substance itself is a delicious and refreshing drink.

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Guest Posting: How to demolish your fear of public speaking in 4 unconventional steps, by Philip Pape

Philip PapePhilip Pape is an author, software engineer, public speaker, and life-hacker who helps smart people obliterate obstacles to success. He shares specific strategies for helping you succeed through the unconventional art of confidence at This post originally appeared on Philip’s blog and is posted here with his express permission. Follow Philip on Twitter: @philip_pape.

On the last day of my internship, I called in sick. I had successfully navigated the technical challenge of a software engineering internship in a major corporation, but I couldn’t stomach what I had to do next.

They were asking way too much of me.

Fear. Anxiety. Loss of breath. The symptoms of my affliction were palpable.

What was I so afraid of? An awful performance review? A meeting with the CEO?

Nope. I was afraid of giving a 15 minute presentation. In front of just 10 people.

That’s right. My boss asked me to deliver a culminating speech about my time as an intern. But I just couldn’t do it due to a crippling fear of public speaking. The choice was obvious: I called in sick.

Maybe you’ve been held back in your career by shyness. Or you’ve experienced this visceral, do-anything-to-get-out-of-it fear:

Right before I speak, my heart starts pounding, breath is short, and the fight or flight response is in full swing. The only thing that stops me from running away is I would be even more embarrassed than just doing it.
— User on Hacker News

Being famous doesn’t seem to spare anyone, either. The last thing you want is this awkward Michael Bay exit:

That story about calling in sick? That was 15 years ago. This year, I was a finalist in a Toastmasters humorous speech contest. How did I go from calling in sick because of speaking to looking forward to speaking in front of hundreds of people, all while absolutely enjoying it?

The typical advice by so-called “experts” on conquering this fear is to “talk about your passion” or “know your audience” or–my favorite–“practice, practice, practice!”

The problem with this conventional advice is that it (a) doesn’t address your core anxiety and (b) lacks concrete strategies and tactics. Sure, over the long-term, you absolutely need to practice if you want to hone the craft of speaking. But it doesn’t solve your immediate problem.

You’re looking for SPECIFIC STEPS you can take to utterly demolish your fear of public speaking.

This guide will teach you 4 unconventional steps to do just that–so you can vanquish your nerves, think on your feet, and speak with self-confidence.

Step #1: Tell a story about just one thing

Lots of speakers get hung up on presentation delivery, which leads to anxiety, which leads to the inevitable feeling of wanting to jump off the stage before speaking.

Your brain is exploding with thoughts of “should I do this” and “what if I do that”, which scares the hell out of you. You’re experiencing:

  • Information overload. You get overwhelmed by too much data.
  • Style overload. You focus on delivery instead of the key message.
  • Decision overload. You’re paralyzed by too many decisions–the paradox of choice.
  • Knowledge overload. The Curse of Knowledge cognitive bias that you already know so much about the topic, it’s impossible to imagine not knowing.

The unconventional secret is that you don’t need to be polished, poised, smooth, charismatic, smart, talented, or even speak English well. In fact, you will have an advantage by deliberately not focusing on these.

Check out the results of this Stanford experiment from the book Made to Stick:

Almost no correlation emerges between ‘speaking talent’ and the ability to make ideas stick…The stars of stickiness are the students who made their case by telling stories, or by tapping into emotion, or by stressing a single point rather than ten…A community college student for whom English is a second language could easily outperform unwitting Stanford graduate students.
— From “Made to Stick” by Chip and Dan Heath

Stories, emotion, and simplicity are massively more important than presentation at getting your idea across. And those things are much easier and less nerve-wracking to tap into than so-called speaking talent.

So keep it simple! Pick just one thing and talk about it from the heart, like you would over lunch with a friend.

Action Steps:

  • Write a story. Something you’re passionate about. Think about a favorite memory with your family or friends, and write about the people there, what you did, and how you felt. This is real-life, built-in drama.
  • Tell the story: in front of a mirror, by yourself in front of a camera, or in front of your spouse or best friend.
  • The next time you give a presentation, just tell a story about one point and appeal to the listener’s emotions. Forget about style!

No matter how alluring you are, the typical, bloated, meandering speech will get crushed by one compelling story any day, no matter how the story is delivered.

Step #2: Take an improv class to fake fearless

If you’re standing in front of a crowd, act as if you already have confidence. Walk chest high, chin up, and breathe deeply (more breathing in Step #4). Imagine the audience is there to beg you for your autograph.

Teddy Roosevelt writes in his autobiography:

When a boy, I read a passage [in which] the captain of some small British man-of-war is explaining to the hero how to acquire the quality of fearlessness. He says that at the outset almost every man is frightened when he goes into action, but that he course to follow is for the man to keep such a grip on himself that he can act just as if he were not frightened. After this is kept up long enough, it changes from pretense to reality, and the man does in very fact become fearless by sheer dint of practicing fearlessness when he does not feel it.

Easier said than done, right?

Here’s how: take an improv class. Nothing will get you to act fearless and build tons of confidence 4 more than being put on the spot. Look at this Reddit comment:

I consider myself good at public speaking and I’ve been on TV a few times to talk about engineering. It’s a practiced skill not something you are inherently good at, many people never put in the practice and just assume they are bad.

Best advice is to take an improv class, as it gives you lots of on-the-spot practice and also helps teach you how to “fake” emotions and what to do if you have to improv (slide show stops working, slides are in the wrong order, etc.)
— Reddit, TBBT: Joel

Action Steps:

  • Go to Google Maps and search for “improv classes” near you.
  • Sign up for a minimum 4-session class for beginners.
  • Attend the class and learn to fake confidence to become confident.

Even if you’re scared to death, pretend you’re not by using what you learn in an improv class. You’ll “become fearless” by faking fearless.

Step #3: Use the “Broody Hen” technique

You’ll love this technique. Introverts will eat this one up. This is what I call the Broody Hen technique.

ChickJust like a hen broods (sits on) and hatches her eggs, you sit on your topic and hatch the most amazing ideas from the safety of your comfortable, private space.

Abraham Lincoln wrote his most memorable speeches this way, not once practicing in front of others before it was go time. Lincoln became best friends with his material, but more importantly relied on this introspective, private ritual of brooding and hatching–rather than practice–to deliver his speeches with supreme confidence:

He thought over his talk for days, thought over it while walking back and forth between the White House and the war office…he wrote a rough draft of it on a piece of foolscap paper, and carried it about in the top of his tall silk hat. Ceaselessly he was brooding over it, ceaselessly it was taking shape.
— Dale Carnegie

After one of these brooding periods, Lincoln stayed at a tavern in Illinois. Upon waking up, his first words were, “This government cannot endure permanently, half slave and half free.” Now that’s a line.

Action Steps:

  • Buy a small Moleskine notebook and carry it with you at all times.
  • Schedule time every day just to brood–set your alarm 30 minutes earlier if you’re freshest in the morning.
  • During your “brooding” time, write down notes, fragments, and lists in your notebook that relate to your talk.
  • Keep writing your ideas down whenever they occur, any time of day or night.
  • Let the ideas marinate and “hatch”–the longer the better (at least 1 day if possible).
  • Go through your notes and pick the best ones for your presentation.
  • Arrange, revise, re-write, and edit into a final speech.
  • You now have such an intimate understanding of your topic, confidence won’t be an issue.

The “Broody Hen” technique is guaranteed to take the edge off those nerves like a fine snifter of well-aged whiskey.

Step #4: Shut up (or, perfect the pause)

Pause. Breathe. Pause some more. Repeat.

Silence is the most powerful content in any speech. A solid, deliberate pause in your delivery:

  • Ramps up audience anticipation
  • Enhances the credibility of the speaker
  • Commands attention and respect to heighten authority
  • Ensures listener attention–a psychological equalizer

Pause before you speak. Pause between sentences. Pause between words. You can’t do it enough. Even if you think you’re pausing too often or for too long, you’re not.

To make it easy to pause, I like to use a speech hack called the Stanza Strategy.

Winston Churchill said that “every speech is a rhymeless, meterless verse.” In poetry, a group of lines (Churchill’s “verse”) is called a stanza. With the Stanza Strategy, you write out your speech like a poem, with very short lines–creating frequent pause points.

Here’s what a stanza looks like:

My heart from the hum of a humming bird
To the steady beat of a drum it spurred
My nerves slowly disappear
Everyone is listening including the rear
— Paige Fitzgerald

Action Steps:

  • Write out your speech in your favorite text editor.
  • Hit the Enter key after every 5 to 8 words, IGNORING punctuation.
  • Add a blank line between every sentence or paragraph. This is a stanza.
  • Practice in front of a mirror. Make sure to PAUSE after each line and LONG PAUSE after each stanza.
  • Deliver your speech this way, and you’ll come across as extra confident.

Pausing is an awesome way to slow it down, take a breath (literally), and calm those nerves. Which translate to–you guessed it–more confidence.

Final Thoughts

Put these steps to use and you’ll be far ahead of the pack when it comes to speaking confidence. Let the community know what you think in the comments below. What’s holding you back? Have you tried any of these techniques, and did they work for you?

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Book Review: The Speechwriter, by Barton Swaim

In a book that is in part the machinations of The Good Wife and in part the political farce of Yes Minister, Barton Swaim shares insights he gained into the life of a speechwriter during the second term of South Carolina governor Mark Sanford.

Mark Sanford The author of The Speechwriter does not dwell on the series of unfortunate events that led to the downfall of the governor of South Carolina. For those who need to validate the details, it’s all in Wikipedia.

In the end, it was all part of the rich tapestry of American political life: a moralizing public figure is betrayed by peccadillos that would not be worthy of comment in many countries. However, the public delights in destroying, if only temporarily, the careers of its leaders. Sanford survives to live out his term, leaving the speechwriter to edit his form letters and remove references to ‘family’, ‘integrity’, ‘honesty’ and, of course, ‘Argentina’.

This speechwriter’s lot was not a happy one. Swaim captures the arc of his career in excruciating detail. From initial enthusiasm and surprise that he was to become the chief wordsmith to a sitting governor where ‘the idea of turning phrases for a living seemed irresistible’, to despair at his lot and envy of the janitorial staff in the government buildings who were happy just checking lightbulbs for a living. He dreaded going into the office and the strain of the job was almost unbearable.

What went wrong?

The Speechwriter After an all-to-brief honeymoon period, Swaim discovered the ‘stark difference’ between the charming public persona of the governor and the realities of dealing with the man in private. His boss has a unique relationship with the English language that deeply offends the writer with the PhD in English. He copes by creating a list of stock phrases that mimic the ‘voice’ of the man he’s writing for. He uses phrases such as ‘in large measure’ and ‘frankly’ to pad speeches, op-eds, letters and other written communications that are an endless demand on his time. As is typical, he’s responsible for much more than speeches. He regularly produces four or five options of each speech for the governor to review, and learns to keep one in reserve for the times all his written drafts are thrown back at him.

The governor berates him with requests to re-do speeches ‘again’ and returns drafts with terse demands that they ‘need work’. Despite his best efforts, he’s often the butt of withering scorn.

However, Swaim has the insight that none of this is meant personally. He highlights the sheer volume of communication a politician must generate, and points out that people

…don’t know what it’s like to be expected to make comments, almost every working day, on things of which they have little or no reliable knowledge or about which they just don’t care.

Cork Bored

The need for the governor to heap abuse on the speechwriter had nothing to do with being hurtful:

For him to try to hurt you would have required him to acknowledge your significance. If you were on his staff, he had no knowledge of your personhood … he was giving vent to his own anxieties, whatever they were. It was as if you were one of those pieces of cork placed in the mouth of wounded soldiers during an amputation. The soldier didn’t chew the work because he hated it but because it was therapeutic to bite hard. Often I felt like that piece of cork.

That is not what I meant, at all

As a record of the daily life of a speechwriter this account rang all too true. My own experience in corporate America has often mirrored the account Swaim presents of speechwriting in the political arena. The one major difference being that very few corporate leaders have to communicate as frequently as politicians. However, there can be the same demands for endless revisions, fact checking of obscure points and navigation of outsized egos as Swaim describes. The role of speechwriter as alchemist, ploughman, and motley fool has not changed since attendant lords, full of high sentence, advised princes of power in Medieval times.

My one beef with the book is that it lives up to its subtitle as ‘A Brief Education in Politics’ and is too short. Mark Sanford has since gone on to be re-elected to Congress for South Carolina’s 1st District. Just as much of the intrigue of The Good Wife happens after the initial fall, so I can’t help but wonder what sort of a book the current speechwriter to Congressman Sanford might write. A sequel surely awaits.

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Guest Posting: I Could Never be a Speaker, by Alan Stevens

This information was written by Alan Stevens, and originally appeared in “The MediaCoach”, his free weekly ezine, available at

I Could Never Be a Speaker

I beg to differ. Everyone has the capacity to be a good speaker. I have worked with hundreds of nervous presenters, and never had a failure yet.

Great TipsThe single most important aspect of professional presenting is to understand your audience. Far too many speakers prepare and deliver their words of wisdom without giving a thought to what the audience want to hear. The professional speaker always starts by finding out as much as possible about the audience, their reasons for being present, and their motivating factors. This can be done by talking to the meeting organizer, but is better dealt with by talking directly to prospective audience members themselves.

Once a speaker understands their audience, it is then time to decide on the key message to be delivered. Another common error is to try to impart too much information. It is essential that the core message of any speech can be summarized in one sentence of around twenty words. Discouraging as this may seem, if an audience member is asked the day after hearing a speech “What was the speech about?”, and they can remember the core message, the speech will have been a great success.

Thirdly, speakers need to remember that they are not just deliverers of information. There is a story from Ancient Greece about a speaking contest between two great orators. At the end of the first speech, the audience rose and cheered the speaker, calling out “What a great speech”. At the end of the second speech, the audience rose and shouted “Let’s march on Sparta!”. The hallmark of a truly great and professional speech is not changing a person’s point of view, but changing their behavior.

Lastly, speakers need to consider the way in which they present. There are no absolute rights and wrongs here, but experts agree that there are some things you should never do, such as:

  • Start badly
  • Fail to understand equipment
  • Put too much on each slide
  • Patronize the audience
  • Use bad graphics
  • Turn their back on the audience
  • Speak inaudibly
  • Use jargon
  • Run out of time
  • End poorly

In summary, you need to prepare, practice and perform properly. You can do it!

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