There’s only 24 hours in a day, which is why President Obama, despite being an accomplished writer and orator, needs help with his speeches. During his first term in office, much of this help came from a young man who is arguably the most famous living speechwriter—Jon Favreau—who began working for then Senator Barack Obama as only his second writing job out of college.
Favreau gave the opening keynote—Words matter: Storytelling with President Obama in an age of sound bites—at the 2014 Ragan Speechwriters Conference. His talk in many ways book-ended the 2009 address by Ted Sorensen, who also wrote speeches for a young Senator who was elected as the first Catholic President of the United States: JFK. Sorensen spoke near the end of a very full life, yet the all-to-few years he wrote for Kennedy defined him. It is quite likely that 33-year-old Favreau will likewise be talking about his time as Obama’s speechwriter for the rest of his days.
His talk was perfect for the Ragan audience—a mix of solid speechwriting advice and unique insight into the creation of some of the major speeches of Obama’s Presidency. It was inside baseball talk from a major league player for the guys and gals in the minor league dug-outs.
Surprisingly, despite attempts to analyze the rhetoric, Favreau claimed neither he nor Obama consciously deployed overt tricks of the trade. Rather, these are the speechwriting secrets he shared:
Develop a strong relationship
Obama reassured Favreau (or “Favs” as he called him) on the eve of sending him home to write his first speech: “I know you’re nervous, but I’m a writer too. And I know that sometimes the muse strikes and sometimes it doesn’t. If you get stuck, just come in tomorrow, and the two of us will work though it together.” Obama exhibited the same level of support and involvement in the writing process throughout the eight years Favreau worked with him.
As Favreau described, the speechwriting process usually began with research and fact checking, then sending Obama a draft which would be returned with extensive mark-ups. If it just had the note “Let’s talk”, Favreau knew he had missed the mark.
Favreau shared three lessons from his time working with Obama.
1. The story is more important than the words
Obama always started with the question: “What story am I trying to tell?” He demanded an outline with a beginning, middle and end and required this sum the speech up in a few sentences before the detailed writing started. He did not, needless to say, design his speeches by juggling PowerPoint slide templates. Absent the simple summary, there is nothing to hang the development of the speech on.
The payoff of this story-centered approach was illustrated in the November 2007 Iowa Jefferson-Jackson Dinner primary debate when the opposing Clinton campaign delivered the forgettable tagline Turn up the heat, turn America around. Obama resisted the advice from some on his team that he coin a tagline, instead speaking from the heart about why he was the right person at that moment in history to be elected President:
I am not in this race to fulfill some long-held ambitions or because I believe it’s somehow owed to me. I never expected to be here. I always knew this journey was improbable. I’ve never been on a journey that wasn’t. I am running in this race because of what Dr. King called “the fierce urgency of now.” Because I believe that there’s such a thing as being too late. And that hour is almost upon us.
2. The importance of honesty and authenticity
Decisions on speech topics are too often based on fear (the fear of losing power, of public embarrassment) Obama ignored advice to “play it safe”. For example, when deciding on a response to the Rev. Wright controversy he took the early outline Faverau drafted and made it his own with heartfelt, authentic, honest statements such as:
I can no more disown him than I can disown the black community. I can no more disown him than I can my white grandmother – a woman who helped raise me, a woman who sacrificed again and again for me, a woman who loves me as much as she loves anything in this world, but a woman who once confessed her fear of black men who passed by her on the street, and who on more than one occasion has uttered racial or ethnic stereotypes that made me cringe.
These are not lines that any speechwriter or strategic adviser would ever write. They came from the heart and soul of the person who spoke. Favreau still has the “Track Changes” version of his draft after Obama worked on it, and there is hardly a line that the President did not re-write.
After the speech Obama called Favreau and confessed:
I don’t know if you can get elected President saying the things I said today. But I also know that I don’t deserve to be President if I’m too scared to say the things I believe.
It’s important that we write with courage and character. Slick writing won’t sway audiences.
3. Never lose your idealism as a writer
We live in cynical times. Our job as writers is to inspire and make audiences believe. Don’t fall into the trap of delivering cynical prose.
For Favreau, his cynicism dissolved when he called 106-year-old Ann Nixon Cooper to ask permission for the President to tell her life story in his victory speech. His moving conversation with her, hearing of the pride of this formerly disenfranchised black woman who expressed such pride in the first African-American President, brought him to tears.
It’s worth listening to him tell this in this own words. Click on the first audio podcast icon below to hear this moving story that reignited idealism in the young writer.
The importance of face-time with the speaker
Obama always took time to sit down in face-to-face meetings with Favs and review the story he wanted the speech to tell. Favreau reminded us that if the principals we work for ever claim to be too busy to meet about a speech, to let them know the leader of the free world made the time. Indeed, it’s of paramount importance that speechwriters have a direct, unmediated relationship with the person they are writing for. Anything else is a recipe for disaster. My own experience supports this. The writer needs to be in meetings where policy and strategy are discussed. The writer needs to ask the speaker, “What’s on your mind? What do you want to say?” If they are not able to articulate this, then interview them to find out.
Err toward the conversational
When asked how the corporate clients he now writes for can best improve their speech delivery, Favreau advises they avoid jargon and err toward the conversational. Most audiences respond well to a more conversational tone. Avoid using words you would not use at the dinner table with family. Speeches can often come across as too formal and stilted. Conversational stories tap into people’s emotions.
Following the keynote I asked audience members to share their impressions of Favreau. Click on the second podcast icon below to hear what they had to say.