I can’t really say that I found Peggy Noonan’s “On Speaking Well” particularly useful — I grabbed a copy because she was a former speechwriter for Presidents Reagan and Bush (the first).
If you’re ever in the business of writing for someone else, you’re probably better off reading books like “Kennedy” by Theodore Sorensen (which I actually started yesterday).
Sometimes, you can learn more about what might work simply by reading about someone else’s experience rather than reading a reference book like this.
The slim section on writing speeches for other people was the only part of the book that was interesting — for me, anyway.
There were a lot of things I could relate to all too well.
In one chapter, she writes about Kerry Tymchuk, who was a speechwriter for Bob Dole.
"It hurts when Dole doesn’t use a line that I know would work. In the convention speech process there was a part of the speech where he talks about America and its ideals. I suggested, “It’s these ideals that make America at 220 years the youngest nation on earth — it’s these ideals that make me at seventy-three years the youngest man in the hall.” And at the end Dole laughed and said, “Strom Thurmond probably thinks he’s the youngest man in the hall.” And he took it out. It hurt. Those things always hurt." (p.112)
I get it.
I know it sounds almost childish and pathetic to say that “it hurts” but that’s exactly how it feels.
You know in your gut that something would not only work well, but sound right — but when the speaker veers off script and ad libs with something else, you just have a moment where you actually question your work and feel like there’s just no trust there.
Here’s another thing I could easily relate to:
"Everyone who writes speeches for other people knows the horror of the vetting or editing process. The writer writes, and then the aides of the person for whom the speech has been written descend upon the text to make their changes. This can be frustrating. For one thing, the aides are not usually themselves writers or particularly sensitive to the written word…most people can’t help fiddling with a text. They see themselves as writers because after all they are: They’ve written letters to their parents, they wrote papers at school. And if they’re writers, why can’t they rewrite your sorry prose?" (p.119-120)
Finally, here’s another tid bit from the book that I related to:
"If you are a writer, you might do the best work of your life, but if the person you’re writing for isn’t really involved, or can’t really tell that it is good work, or why and in what way it is, then they’ll never understand or appreciate the speech. And if they don’t understand and appreciate it, they’ll never absorb it and make it their own. They’ll fiddle with it, fret over it, and have their friends take things out and put things in. Which means a committee will have written it. Which means it won’t be any good." (p.127-128)
Again, I get this.
Working on someone else’s speeches means you have to — before anything else is done — forge a good working relationship with them. You have to be able to hear them say the words you’ve written — but to get to that point, you have to have enough face-time with the person.
All of these are frustrations that speechwriters can easily relate to — but if you’re starting out and want a good primer on how to write a good speech, I’d say skip this one.
If you want to write a good speech, you need to establish a solid working relationship with the person you’re writing for — and from there, it gets easier.