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The Speechwriter's Life: Alton Miller

Communication is not is a matter of getting the idea out, but of getting it in. It’s not enough that the speech sends the right ideas, but that the target audience receives them. —from Alton Miller’s book Harold Washington: The Mayor, The Man

After 18 years in the world of theatre and ballet production, Alton Miller made a fascinating career change. The year was 1985. Miller signed on to become speechwriter and press secretary to Harold Washington, the first African-American Mayor of Chicago. Miller would collaborate with the Mayor all the way until the latter’s tragic 1987 fatal heart attack.

What did Miller bring to his new job, in terms of relevant skills and background? As Miller explained in a recent discussion with Vital Speeches, his two decades of work across seven different theatre companies, including five years (1978-83) as head of the Washington Ballet, gave him the necessary broad experience in communications and press relations.

During those years at the helm of a major ballet company, Miller also had to deliver speeches before large audiences. This in particular was “critical” in preparing Miller to work for Mayor Washington, and gave him “the empathy that makes for a good relationship between the speechwriter and a client,” he said.

When the Washington Ballet hired me to lead it, I was expected to represent the company at arts functions as a speaker, and so I found myself in search of a voice. Getting out there [to speak] on an organization’s behalf was something new for me. And I cast myself in a role, as it were, as someone who knew what the hell he was talking about, who had something to say that people wanted to hear.

A mantra came to me. That old line about "picture your audience naked" never worked for me. My mantra was: "Remember that the audience wants you to succeed." This idea actually occurred to me in connection with a major Washington, DC arts function, attended by between 2,500 to 3,000 people. I had to help organize and also speak at the event, and I was deciding whether I would suffer stage fright. And I remember thinking, "You’re not going to be afraid, because this audience is not waiting for you to screw up, but to succeed. This is a joint venture. Take it away!" Miller said.

Once in the Mayor’s office, Miller established an efficient approach to the drafting of speeches. Miller would “ask the Mayor some initiating questions [in connection with an upcoming speech], and he’d free-associate in his answers. I would say ‘what I’m hearing you say is…’ or ‘Mayor, what you’re saying is…’ – that was my catalyzing his process of reasoning out loud, and then coming back for a second pass to clinch the arguments the Mayor wanted to make. The intent was to give him back to his own ears what he was saying that I was hearing, and then get as much of that out in front of his audience as possible.

“The chemistry, so to speak, on my side was to loosen all his ideas enough so that they could be reshuffled into their proper place [in a speech outline and then draft remarks],” Miller said.

Miller also found an innovative way to help the Mayor prepare for his 1985 State of the City speech. Miller read the speech into a tape recorder, and the Mayor listened to it several times to get a sense of the intended rhythm. “An advantage of this approach is that the speech comes in through another channel, versus just reading it. You’ve heard the speech before it’s been given, which for some speakers spares them from having to mentally translate it or worry about what the audience will think – they’ve already dealt with that question, after hearing someone else deliver it.”

For Miller, among the most memorable speeches he worked on with Harold Washington was a trio of addresses delivered by the Mayor at Chicago’s annual TV Academy luncheon. In 1984, 1985 and 1986, the Mayor took the podium at this industry gathering of local news personalities – not to pander to or flatter the audience, but to frankly and unflinchingly lodge criticisms of how they covered Chicago city politics. (The speeches are reprinted, along with many others of note, in “Climbing a Great Mountain: Selected Speeches of Mayor Harold Washington.”)

Some background: in those years, Chicago’s municipal political scene was gripped by what was known as “Council Wars.” Recalled Miller: “We had enough trouble with the opposition [on city council], but the media was involved and used a lot, as you might expect in a highly political environment. Harold Washington respected reporters, and was a First Amendment guy at his core. However, because the media was an unfriendly third force during most of ‘Council Wars,’ once a year, the Mayor would come to the media’s big lunch, chastise them and set the record straight.”

According to Miller, the Mayor’s goal in these speeches was “to turn the media’s own ethos back on them, and tell them that ‘you’re the fourth estate, supported by the First Amendment, you’re in our Constitution, and you can write whatever you want – but that doesn’t mean everything you write is helpful, or good, or advancing the story.’ What he was doing through these speeches was flushing the media out and putting them on notice – they had a role to play and they were not, in his view, playing it.”

As Washington put it in 1984:

I know that canned events and canned politicians are the media rage these days, and that political public relations magicians are highly thought of in Reagan’s Washington, and in many other cities as well. But I think Chicago is better off receiving its government news with the jacket of truth on and the slickness off. And there is good news these days. I would encourage the men and women in this audience to root out and expose it to a shocked public no matter who may protest.

And 1986:

I submit to you in the broadcast industry that you have a choice. You can regard television and radio journalism as entertainment, and reporters as performers; you can acknowledge you’re playing a competitive game; you keep score by the ratings; and the prize is increased advertising dollars. In that sense, there would be little qualitative difference between the news and the pure entertainment programming you do.

Or you can regard TV journalism by the same high standards we hold for the free press in America – which is what I’ve assumed you do.

Did these speeches achieve their desired effect, and nudge the media into taking a more balanced view of city politics? “The idea was to, for one day a year, to get the media to listen to why what they were doing was not helping Chicago, and was just aiding the agenda of one side [in city politics]. Every time we did this, we would hear over the next few days, from passing comments and references to what was said, that we had reached some section of the audience,” Miller said.

Something that occurred to me [after these TV Academy speeches] is that when you speak to a crowd, you are never speaking to a monolith. You are speaking to different factions. It’s not only what you say and what the audience hears, but what the various factions hear. Your words will fall on different kinds of ground simultaneously.

A speechwriter needs to keep this in mind—that there are no monoliths or monolithic audiences in real life. Yes, an audience might appear hostile, but it could actually be 40% friendly, for example—or include a large proportion of people who, while they may not agree with you, are willing to hear you out and may even be willing to adjust their thinking. There will be varying degrees of hostility, sympathy and even secret sympathy with speakers.

Miller concluded: “There will always be an aftermath following a speech—a period of reflection before it all blows away. There’s a natural ‘spin room’ effect among an audience that has just heard someone who said something that matters. That’s where a speech’s most memorable lines become so important. They have a lot of staying power, because they capture a mood in a turn of phrase. [And they remind us that] the speech does not end when the speaker leaves the podium.”