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The Speech Doctor's Life: Doug Gamble

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Doug Gamble has been injecting what he calls “applause lines, word pictures and anything that gives zip and color” into clients’ speeches for more than three decades. “My job is to reinforce a speaker’s points in creative and memorable ways,” Gamble said during a conversation with Vital Speeches from his California home.

“I do my best work with good speechwriters. I cannot make a bad speech good, but I can make a good speech better,” he added.

A former PR man who also worked in broadcasting and wrote a weekly humor column for three years, Gamble moved from his native Canada to Los Angeles in 1980—to pursue a comedy writing career. For Gamble, the road from Toronto to LA would open up a path for him to Washington, DC.

“At first, I hung around the LA comedy clubs and wrote for Joan Rivers, Rodney Dangerfield, and Phyllis Diller. In 1983, I was hired by Bob Hope, and I continued to write for him until 1993—it was an honor to be among his last group of writers,” Gamble recalled.

Around the same time, radio legend Paul Harvey delivered an on-air reading of a short piece of political satire that Gamble had sent to him.

“Talk about the American Dream!” Gamble said. “Someone at the White House heard about this broadcast and contacted me, and asked me about providing humor to President Reagan for his speeches. I’d been in the country for just 3 years, and now I would get to write for the President!

Gamble snail-mailed some material to the White House, and then later heard Reagan deliver it in a clip that played on TV news.

“I had a subsequent call from the White House saying: ‘your stuff isn’t just funny for the sake of being funny, it’s funny while making a political point.’ And this got me thinking about the range of applause lines and sound bites that can be added to a speech—not just humorous lines, but lines that help to creatively and memorably reinforce a point a speaker is trying to make,” Gamble said.

Gamble is talking about something light years away from the old-fashioned “opening jokes” of yore, unconnected in any way to a speech’s themes, the occasion for it or the audience gathered to hear it.

“I am not for gratuitous humor—it’s never a case of just inserting something for the sake of being funny. In politics, if you’re not going to use humor in a self-deprecating way in a speech, to show the audience that you are the opposite of pompous, then any humor you include should reinforce an idea,” Gamble said.

A sampling of Gamble’s work as a speech doctor follows below:

• “I want you to know that also I will not make age an issue of this campaign. I am not going to exploit, for political purposes, my opponent's youth and inexperience.” (Ronald Reagan used this line to reassure viewers of an October 1984 presidential debate that concerns about his age were overblown.)

• Asked to write a line that would show a stark contrast between Democrats and Republicans in the 1984 presidential election, the line Gamble came up with and used by President Reagan was: “They [Democrats] believe in an America where every day is April 15th [tax day] and we [Republicans] believe in an America where every day is the 4th of July.”

(A variation of that line is currently being used by Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker in his quest for the Republican presidential nomination.)

• “Death and taxes may be inevitable, but unjust taxes are not.” (From a 1985 speech by President Reagan on tax reform.)

Gamble continued his speech doctor efforts during George Bush the Elder’s presidential campaign and single presidential term. Working with Peggy Noonan on Bush’s 1988 nomination acceptance speech at the Republican National Convention, Gamble recalls contributing several applause lines, including:

• “I'll try to be fair to the other side. I'll try to hold my charisma in check.” (A self-deprecating jab at Bush’s own charisma deficit.)

• “But when you have to change horses in midstream, doesn't it make sense to switch to the one who's going the same way?” (Noonan reports that President Reagan saw Gamble’s metaphor as, in her words, “the single best statement of what was at issue in the 1988 campaign.”)

Gamble recounted how another line he wrote for Bush during the 1988 campaign excited the ire of columnist Mary McGrory. In an effort to sharpen the differences between himself and Dukakis on defense issues, Bush was heard to say: “I wouldn’t be surprised if [Dukakis] thinks that naval exercises are something you find in the Jane Fonda exercise book.” Michael Kinsley also blasted the line in the Washington Post.

Gamble also recalled a couple of lines he added to Bush’s 1992 State of the Union:

• “I see the Speaker and the Vice President are laughing. They saw what I did in Japan, and they're just happy they're sitting behind me.” (A self-deprecating reference to Bush’s bout of nausea during a state banquet in Japan.)

• “You know, it's kind of an American tradition to show a certain skepticism toward our democratic institutions. I myself have sometimes thought the aging process could be delayed if it had to make its way through Congress.”

Effective use of an applause line depends on both the material and the delivery, Gamble said. If you are not confident in your delivery, you can practice. You can take the time to get a line right, to make sure you’re putting emphasis on the right word, Gamble advised. As an example, he shared that he had once provided some delivery coaching to Vice-President Dan Quayle ahead of a Washington Gridiron dinner.

In Gamble’s view, while most politicians readily understand how self-deprecating humor helps to build audience rapport, corporate leaders don’t often see things that way. Gamble wonders if corporate leaders are more inclined to see self-deprecating humor as an admission of weakness, or diminishing their professional standing. (Gamble acknowledges that self-deprecating humor won’t work for everyone. It’s hard to imagine Richard Nixon using it, for example.)

“A common practice with corporate clients I’ve seen is, prior to delivery, to water down the creative lines or jokes to make sure no one can be offended. I once provided some lines for a speech being delivered by a corporate executive, and they edited one of them by adding the word ‘notwithstanding,’” Gamble said.

"All writers think, of course, that their product should never be changed. But people have to do what is feel is best for them—I understand that. My advice is, however: have it be funny, or don’t do it all,” he said.

In addition to his work as a speech doctor and news commentator, Doug Gamble is a long-time writer of song lyrics; and he also writes regularly for nationally-syndicated comic strips. You can learn more about his wide-ranging career by visiting: http://www.douggamble.com/