Sweating the details – Why Speechwriters Need to Pay Attention to Logistics

Murphy’s Law

When Irish Prime Minister Brian Cowan spoke at the White House on St. Patrick’s Day 2009, he started reading President Obama’s remarks. The teleprompter had the wrong speech loaded. Someone screwed up. The speechwriter did not double-check with the teleprompter operator beforehand.

Fact was following fiction.

One episode on the first season of The West Wing opens with speechwriter Sam Seaborn sitting at his desk. He’s composing President Bartlet’s remarks to be delivered later that day at an outside venue in DC. His boss, Toby, warns that the phrase “As I look out over this magnificent vista” won’t work if it rains and the event is moved indoors. Sam swears it won’t rain. Cut to the closing scene where Bartlet is about to speak inside an auditorium (where there is no magnificent vista) since it has, in fact, rained. As the script shows, Sam realizes too late he has not double-checked everything:

We hear Bartlet inside the auditorium. The staff stands watch by the door.

BARTLET [OS] Thank you. Thank you very much. It’s good to see you. Thank you.

Toby and Sam just realized something.


SAM Damn it!

LEO What?

SAM I forgot to do something.

BARTLET [OS] As I look out over this magnificent vista…

Toby looks away in frustration as Sam slams his notebook.

Logistical nightmares

It’s often the logistical minutia that causes irreparable damage to a speech.

I’ll never forget the time I worked with conference organizers in Spain to secure a speaking slot for a senior executive. I was pleased when they agreed she could deliver the opening keynote at an event in Barcelona where 2,000 attendees were expected. Only when the executive had flown from California and was standing onstage in front of 35-40 people did I realize that Friday afternoon was a “soft” opening. Most of the attendees were still traveling and had not registered. The conference really got underway the next morning. My reputation with the executive took much longer to recover.

Independent business writer Michele Hush has learned the hard way that many things can go wrong with a speech. She’s aware that speeches are often an occasional side-job for clients, but a full-time one for her. She frequently finds that she’s the person with the responsibility to check that the logistics are covered. In one case, her client was doing a keynote at a major university, and planned on using two teleprompters. Michele contacted the student in charge and she was assured there would be no problem with this. On checking back a few days before the speech she discovered that no one had reserved the teleprompters. It’s common for event organizers to confuse confidence monitors with teleprompters. Because she took the time to check back, it was still possible to fix the problem.

What steps can speechwriters take to mitigate potential disasters?

Best Practices

Peter Faur is a communications consultant who once wrote speeches for Zane Barnes, CEO of Southwestern Bell. Barnes insisted that his speechwriter get up early on the day of a morning speech and check the news to see whether anything had happened overnight that would affect the content. This was in the late ’80s, before instantaneous Internet news. Nothing of consequence ever did happen, but since then, Faur has built that drill into his regime.


ChecklistLaura Hunter, Senior Communications Manager for the Dean’s Office at the University of Chicago Booth School of Business has a checklist that she runs through with conference organizers and event people 1) when given the assignment, 2) two weeks ahead of the assignment and 3) the day before the assignment. Laura says, “Having this triple check inspires confidence in my abilities, so much so that my clients begin to trust me in other areas – judgment, gut, whatever – because they know I’ve got the hard facts down.”

Michele Hush triple-checks the speaker’s position in the schedule, the room size, sightlines, press presence, lighting, miking and a/v arrangements, if relevant.

I rely on a standard three-page logistics form. This includes data on location, date and time of the talk. It includes the speech length, other speakers on the Agenda, audience size and expectations. I also list press and PR contacts and both the event coordinator and A/V contact details. Having a standard template minimizes the chances that something will slip through the cracks.

While you can’t control the weather, remembering to double-check logistical details helps to ensure it’s not raining on your parade before the speaker walks onstage.

[This article was originally published on ragan.com]

2 Comments so far
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Great post. It’s important to remember that the ways to get it right are few and the ways to get it wrong are infinite. It’s absolutely crucial to get to the venue early to make sure everything is working correctly.

Hope you don’t mind a little shameless self promotion. Breaking Murphy’s Law (http://www.breakingmurphyslaw.com) is all about being prepared in order to prevent presentation disaster.


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