How To Write a Speech
Know the person you're writing for. Throw in some humor and personal anecdotes. And leave Aristotle out of it.
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THE THREE BASIC RULES FOR any speech are: Start with a laugh, put the meat in the middle, and wave the flag at the end. Most important is to have a rapport with your audience. You can do it several ways. First, speak deliberately. I once had a speech teacher who said, “Gaze around the room, make eye contact, and start slowly, as if you were taking off long, white gloves.” You can’t do that in a hurry. Then identify with the place you’re in: “The last time I was here in Bible, Texas . . .” Be aware of the time. The audience always wonders how long they’re going to be stuck with you. In the old days, you’d look at your watch and say, “I’m not going to be like Hubert Humphrey.” Once, Humphrey was giving a speech, and he went on and on until somebody in the back of the room called out, “Senator, if your watch has stopped, there’s a calendar behind you.”
Before you start writing a speech, you need to have something to say. It’s good to keep folders close to your desk, so you can collect clips. I have two: one labeled “inspired material” and another “funny stuff.” If you’re a speechwriter or speechmaker, you see things in the paper and say to yourself, “Oh, I want to remember that.”
I think you have to read good speeches to write good speeches—read them and analyze them. I had to prepare a draft for LBJ when his presidential library opened, so I read every speech I could find that was delivered at a library opening: FDR’s speech at the opening of Hyde Park, Earl Warren’s when the Truman library opened in Missouri.
It helps to know the person you’re writing for. When Lady Bird Johnson was on her whistle-stop tour of the Deep South—she made 47 speeches in four days—she needed to make clear where her heart stood on civil rights. I remember the exact language she used: “The old ways must go.” Those were her words, not ours. Before we’d write for her, she would sit down with us and give us some of her thoughts and phrases. If you want the speaker to sound warm and welcoming, spend an hour with her, hear her voice, and capture it in the speech.
I always try to put a lot of personal anecdotes in a speech—if I can. Austin these days is loaded with high-tech executives who give lousy speeches. Their mathematical brains make them sound distant and aloof. Some politicians can sound that way too. The strategy for a speechwriter with that kind of client is, ride in the car with him or in the elevator with him. Maybe he’ll say something personal that you can use. Usually, though, you have to lead him on: “Tell me about the forces that shaped you.”
You’ve got to make sure that everything you write will be understood by the audience. There’s a famous story about LBJ going over a draft of a speech by a new speechwriter. He was reading it aloud to [Congressman] Jake Pickle, and he got down to a quotation from Aristotle. LBJ exploded: “Aristotle? Aristotle? Those people don’t know who the hell Aristotle is!” So he took out his fountain pen, crossed out “Aristotle,” and wrote, “As my dear old daddy used to say . . .” Any speechwriter would say that’s fair.
Humor is a wonderful tool for speechwriting. There are a dozen media clubs in Washington that want to hear from whoever’s president once a year. They want humor; they want laughter. That’s how the White House Humor Group was formed. One day Jack Valenti [a special assistant to the president] arrived at my office to say that LBJ would be speaking at the White House Correspondents Dinner the next evening and had told him, “Get Liz to find me some jokes.” I didn’t think I could possibly do it overnight—Johnson wanted everything done yesterday—so I pulled in everyone who could be funny: Peter Benchley, who was working for us at the time and who would later write Jaws, which I admit is not a very funny book; Harry Middleton, one of Johnson’s speechwriters; Ernest Cuneo, a wonderful holdover from FDR’s administration. They all knew politics and the White House gaffes of the week. If a politician can kid himself about a mistake he’s made, it deflects the criticism. Of course, what’s funny to the speechwriter isn’t always funny to the speechmaker. Our worst days were when we’d send Johnson a draft of a funny speech and he’d pick up the phone and call us: “What’s funny about this?”
Sometimes, all the speechwriting rules in the world don’t matter. On the day Kennedy was assassinated, I anticipated the task in front of me as I was being driven across Dallas in a police car to board Air Force One. Having been a reporter for twenty years of my life, I knew LBJ would soon face the press, and they were going to want a statement. I pulled out a card from my purse and just started writing. Fifty-eight words: “This is a sad time for all people. We have suffered a loss that cannot be weighed. For me, it is a deep personal tragedy. I know that the world shares the sorrow that Mrs. Kennedy and her family bear. I will do my best. That is all I can do. I ask for your help and God’s.” They just came out, and they were right. That day, God guided everybody.
Liz Carpenter helped draft speeches for Lyndon and Lady Bird Johnson from 1960 to 1969. She is the author of four books, including Start With a Laugh: An Insider’s Guide to Roasts, Toasts, Eulogies, and Other Speeches.