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The Speechwriter's Life—Dan McGirt

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“A speech is real and human and direct. There is a face-to-face connection between a speaker and an audience that no technology we have yet developed can match. You are there. Why do people watch the Super Bowl live, instead of recording it and watching it tomorrow? We crave the immediacy. Live broadcast is better than pre-recorded. And being there as it happens is better than watching it on TV.

“It is the same with a speech. Whether you are speaking to ten people or ten thousand, it is a shared experience, unique to the people who are present. If you can get and hold their attention for those precious ten or twenty minutes, or maybe more, you then get to deliver your message in the most direct and powerful way possible.”

No matter how many times you have written for a particular speaker, a scribe needs every so often to undergo the equivalent of “realigning the steering wheel,” according to Dan McGirt. A trained lawyer and published novelist, McGirt also worked from 2002 to 2013 as a speechwriter. Among others, he wrote for Governor Sonny Perdue (R-GA), Biotechnology Innovation Organization (BIO) leader James Greenwood and Home Depot CEO Robert Nardelli.

One way to complete this realignment, as McGirt shared during a phone conversation with Vital Speeches, “to sit in the audience and hear your principal deliver a speech. I would have a copy of the speech in hand and make notes. Maybe the speaker introduced a new anecdote while at the podium, that I could include in future speeches. Or maybe I came away with a better appreciation of the speaker’s cadence. Without this kind of experience, I would veer off from true north. So it’s useful and important to be in the audience as frequently as possible, because it will help you course correct when you’re back at your desk.”

Another form of course correction that McGirt recommends is getting behind a podium yourself and delivering a speech. “While I worked for Governor Perdue, the single best course correction I experienced was when my political science professor from the University of Georgia asked me to speak to graduating students. So I had to do something that I had not done since high school – write a speech for myself.

“I wrote up a 15 minute talk and went to deliver it. Well, it’s very different when you stand up there at the podium. All those words that made sense on the page, and while I rehearsed – those preparations may not have captured the reality of being in a live-fire situation.

“Coming away from that experience, I thought to myself – ‘I need to think about providing the Governor with texts with shorter sentences. That beautiful compound-complex sentence with 40 words did not work out so well. And the speeches need to be printed in a larger font!’” McGirt recalled with a laugh.

“I think that, for a speechwriter, occasionally having to stand up and deliver a speech can be very therapeutic,” he said.

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How did McGirt’s background in both law and fiction writing influence his approach to speechwriting?

McGirt said: “In law school, we spent many hours reading and analyzing judicial opinions. You look for fact patterns – what facts are relevant to the legal analysis, and which facts are not? How is this present case like that precedent? How is it different? Which legal principles apply? Learning to read and absorb and extract the key points from massive amounts of text, often in a short period of time, comes in handy when you have to write a speech on short deadline, on a topic you may not know much about going in.”

At the same time, he said, “every speech is telling a story – even if the story is ‘we need to boost our West Coast sales this quarter.’ As someone who has always enjoyed stories and telling stories, I fall naturally into that storytelling mode.”

“There are occasions when you’re making a speech and you’re doing so in an oppositional context – someone on the other side will make a counter-argument, like in a trial,” McGirt said.

“But for other speeches, you can be more elevated and soaring in telling a story. So having a bit of both of those approaches in my head gave me a different set of tools to apply to speeches,” McGirt added.

“I don’t know who to give credit for this statement, but I once heard someone say that ‘let me tell you a story’ represents some of the most powerful words in the English language. It can make for a strong opening to a speech. For example, a speaker might begin by telling a story about a family with a young child who has a terrible disease. The family searches for a treatment that works, and then learns about an effective new medicine that the company that the speaker represents is working on,” he said. “A story can put a human face on what might be a complex or abstract topic and make an emotional connection to the real needs of real people.”

“Speakers with a political background, like Governor Perdue or Jim Greenwood, who served in Congress, are usually very attuned to this idea of telling a story in their speeches, to connect with the proverbial family sitting in the front row at an event. When speechwriting for them, I had to capture those elements of story-telling they needed to get their message across to the audience,” McGirt said.

It’s therefore no surprise that, for McGirt, some of his most memorable work involves assisting Governor Perdue with his 2003, 2004, 2005 and 2006 State of the State addresses. “These were keystone speeches that set out the Governor’s agenda and reported his administration’s accomplishments. So each is a story of ‘what we’ve done and where we’re going next,’” said McGirt.

Another light-hearted tip that McGirt shared, drawing on his experiences as a novelist, is as follows: “In fiction-writing, they talk about the ‘hook’ you need to grab readers with that very first line on the first page of a book, to get them to turn to the second page. A strong opening in a speech is key as well. While the audience is stuck with you in the room when you deliver a speech, without that strong opening, they may not mentally turn to the second page!”

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Note: Dan McGirt is currently a full-time fiction writer and the founder of Trove Books, a publishing house. McGirt is a second-generation novelist, by the way – his mother, Andrea Parnell is the author of several historical romance novels republished by Trove. Parnell is writing new books as well.