Behind every great speech lie extreme circumstances.
The Civil War provided the backdrop to Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address, for example. Likewise, the Civil Rights movement coincided with Dr. King’s I Have A Dream speech. 13th-century English tyranny led to William Wallace’s Freedom.
In content creation and every day ghostwriting, the stakes usually aren’t quite that high. As a result, an opinion piece by the marketing director of a small business might not have global and cultural implications, and we’re certainly not trying to stir a revolution with a blog about Hillary Clinton’s personal brand.
Still, a professional speechwriter and a content creator have more in common than you might think. We’re going to take a look at three famous speechwriters to see what their work can teach us about ghostwriting, professionalism and writing with someone else’s authority.
Speak to your audience
“Our chief criterion was always audience comprehension and comfort…”
Ted Sorenson’s first ghostwriting gig was a doozy: help write a book with Massachusetts Senator John F. Kennedy.
Fresh out of law school in Nebraska, Sorenson moved to Washington to help Kennedy write Profiles in Courage (which went on to win a Pulitzer prize) and, as he began writing speeches for the soon-to-be-President, they quickly developed a unique style.
“Audience comprehension and comfort,” to those two, meant crafting messages for the ear, not the eye. Speeches needed to be both easy to read and easy to understand. This is not to say they were employing a lowest-common-denominator strategy, as Kennedy was apparently a stickler for specificity and abhorred verbosity. It was more of a leave-no-room-for-misinterpretation sort of approach.
And there lies a wonderful lesson on content creation: Your audience is all that matters, especially when writing on someone else’s behalf. When you’re addressing people in a way that’s meaningful to them, they’ll be much more receptive to your message. No, you might not get the credit for writing something amazing. But you also won’t have to face the criticism if the audience doesn’t like it.
Fun fact: While he gets a lot of credit for being a speechwriter, Sorenson also helped draft a letter to Soviet politician Nikita Khrushchev, on Kennedy’s behalf, that helped end the Cuban Missile Crisis in 1962. Talk about high stakes.
Find a clear angle
“…and the danger in a speech about everything is that it becomes a speech about nothing…”
In this poignant observation, Jon Favreau was referring to the biggest speech he’d ever written.
In August of 2008, the Democratic National Committee nominated then-senator Barack Obama to run on the Democratic ticket. At the young age of 27, Favreau was charged with writing his acceptance speech. Though this wasn’t the first speech he’d written for Obama, the stakes had never been higher.
After receiving multiple directives from various staffers on the angle of the speech, he was faced with the challenge of making it broad enough for everybody without making it dry, bland and boring. It ended up taking multiple writers and a couple of months to reach a finished product.
Most of us creating content are not doing so for the President of the United States. But the lesson here is priceless: don’t try to do too much. With no real guidance or a clear angle, a good topic can easily turn into an unwieldy piece so broad that it isn’t about much of anything anymore. Establish a clear angle for your piece and stick to it.
Fun fact: After taking a much needed hiatus (turns out working for the President is pretty difficult), he co-launched a wildly successful podcast called Keepin’ It 1600 where he and a fellow former Obama staffer have a rather…ahem…unfiltered…discussion about politics.
Don’t take yourself too seriously
“But it was my first speech, so I included a defense of the West and an analysis of Bloomsbury’s contribution to Keynesian notions of expediency …’”
This is a reflection of the first speech Peggy Noonan wrote for President Ronald Reagan in 1984, at the Teacher of the Year Award ceremony. The speech was intended to be “what former speechwriters have called Rose Garden Rubbish…” according to Noonan. It meant the speech should be light, simple and charming.
Needless to say, Noonan went a little overboard.
Before heading to the White House, she worked at CBS Radio writing commentary for Dan Rather and, in her first speech, she let her hard-hitting news chops show right out of the gate. It was quickly cut from the speech.
Her early mistake teaches us that, even if you’re writing for the President, it’s entirely possible to take yourself too seriously. When writing (especially for someone else), don’t let your own passions and opinions on the topic supersede the audience and occasion. You’ll end up making the content more confusing and complicated than necessary.
Fun fact: While at the White House, Noonan, now a columnist for the Wall Street Journal, wrote speeches for Ronald Reagan two months before even meeting him.
Ghostwriting is tough. Sometimes you’re writing for the marketing director of a small business, and others you’re writing for the President of the United States. No matter how high the stakes, however, the principles remain the same. Get to know them and you might be destined for the Oval Office.