Ragan Speechwriters Conference: Day 3 – Michele Nix

Michele Nix: Best-case speechwriting scenario: What I’ve learned working for the dream client

Sometimes speechwriters draft speeches they hope are never, ever given. Michelle Nix is one.

She’s an inside-the-Beltway speechwriter who ‘nagged’ her way into her first job working speeches for “Papa? Bush. She was in on the beginning at Homeland Security supporting the newly appointed Tom Ridge.

Her hope is that a series of speeches Homeland Security have in a ‘red file’ are never used. These are the equivalent to obituaries newspapers keep on file for public figures to be instantly available if they die. They are the speeches that will be given when the next terrorist outrage happens. Chemical, biological or nuclear attack, in one location or many – Michelle has the speech outlines drafted. One can only imagine:

My fellow Americans. It is with a heavy heart that I must tell you that [CITY] today suffered a devastating [NUCLEAR/BIOLOGICAL/CHEMICAL] attack. Our thoughts go out to those survivors who are now struggling to cope with the devastation in their beloved [CITY]….

Thankfully, the speech remains on file and has not yet been used.

This would be good practice for Corporate speechwriters. The challenge is anticipating the worst and being prepared with the right messaging. After all, who would’ve thunk that HP would be in the media spotlight for a ‘Spy Scandal’?

Michelle shared a surprisingly frank view of the early days of Homeland Security and the struggles the communication team faced. The formation of the Department saw the communications team brainstorming goals on the back of a napkin. Uncertainty reigned. Nothing could guarantee perfect security for America. Early headlines quoted Ridge saying When, not if, another attack would occur. Hard messages had to be conveyed: It’s Code Orange, but keep shopping. There were carictures of Ridge as the ‘Czar’ of Homeland Security:

Tom Ridge Czar

Her job paralleled this confusion. Political appointees with no speechwriting experience were jockeying for positions. Her credibility was on the line and she requested his support for decisions to keep the staff professional. Security clearance took forever. She taped him to get his patterns of speech. His extemporaneous eloquence was rich fodder for key phrases.

She raised the bar – delivering him the phrasing, background and stats in his formal speeches.

CNN asked if he got a new speechwriter.

Their collaboration is based on respect. He exhibited early evidence of being a dream client. Example: When traveling she took the Secret Service Agents seat on the jet and sat next to him while he reviewed text of speeches. “I realize that these 10 pages probably took your 16 hours to write. I realize a lot of work goes into my speeches and I appreciate that.?

He expected her to deliver the best, she expected him to deliver the speech. After the trust was built she expanded the boundaries. The post-9/11 messages had to deal with outrage in country. As Governor he was overcome with emotion when Flight 93 crashed.

They needed to define the enemy to Americans – it was not just Osama Bin Laden. He wanted to say “Eat our shorts? in speeches, but could not. He wanted to be very clear who enemy was. They were described as murderers not freedom fighters. He asked for her input on strategy. They were aware terrorists were also watching CNN. Ridge included her in consultations he had with intelligence and the military — “What do you think, Michelle?”

Not surprisingly, Ridge’s favorite speaker is Churchill. He loves discussing the great orators of history with her.

They built a mutual comfort zone. She was able to ask for his input, get him to tell her stories. This was a challenge because Ridge does not like to talk about himself. It became a struggle to draw out personal stories. His father had a great influence on him: teaching him all that all work has dignity.

Neither Ridge nor Papa Bush was comfortable using the word “I? in speeches. Their mothers told them not to bring attention to themselves. She had to reassure him that it’s OK to use the word within the boundary of maternal influence. One doubts Sir Winston struggled with this problem.

Ridge has now grown into an international statesman who gives speeches in the UK, Canada and Asia. His messaging is broadening. The “Boy from Eire, PA” with 25 years of public service has come a long way. But he’s dealing with same issues. And he’s now more willing to put “I? in speeches.

Michelle’s book Woman at the Podium is a first-ever collection of speeches by some of the world’s most famous women, including Elizabeth I, Sojourner Truth, Eleanor Roosevelt, Golda Meir, Clare Boothe Luce, Barbara Jordan, Margaret Thatcher, Katharine Graham and many others.

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[…] People are nervous before presenting because the words “I? and “me? go through their head (something we later heard bothers Homeland Security Czar Tom Ridge) – they focus on themselves, not the audience. […]

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