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The Speechwriter's Life: How to succeed where other scribes fail

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If you want to write speeches for elected officials, is there a single career path that you must follow? Hardly. Take as an example the varied experiences that Jill Severn accumulated en route to working as a speechwriter for two Washington state governors.

Severn’s road to speechwriting began when she wrote for radio news and hosted a talk show program in Seattle in the mid 1970s. “This was great training for speechwriting, because I was writing for the ear. And you have to write tight - you usually have 30 seconds to tell a story,” she explained in a recent interview.

Following her work in radio, you can add her experience in print journalism, with a focus on international affairs and economic development, her term as Executive Director of the Seattle World Affairs Council (1985-1988)—and a career switch in 1989 into education policy analysis for the state legislature in Olympia.

Not long after beginning her new job, Severn was asked to write a speech for Governor Booth Gardner on education policy, in her role as an employee of the legislature. She was subsequently asked if she would apply for the-then empty job of speechwriter to the Governor.

“Governor Gardner was famous for chewing up speechwriters and spitting them out. He was difficult to work for; many writers left demoralized and depressed. The Governor wouldn’t give feedback to speechwriters if he did not like a draft. Instead, he would stand at the podium, put his speech aside and say ‘I have a prepared speech, but I am not going to use it’—which completely demoralized speechwriters,” Severn said.

When she met with the Governor to discuss the job, Severn said, “I will work for you, but you have to talk to me, and you have to tell if you don’t like a speech before you deliver it.”

“The Governor ended up being responsive to this, and we developed a wonderful relationship. Perhaps some of the previous writers might have been intimidated, but I wasn’t. At the time of our first conversation, I already had my policy analyst job, which I loved. And a lack of desperation is a wonderful thing,” she said. Also boosting Severn’s confidence was the fact that, through her international affairs journalism, she had gone toe-to-toe with globally-prominent figures such as Kurt Waldheim.

Severn would serve as Governor Gardner’s speechwriter from 1989 to 1993. (The job is a state government position in Washington). The first task she faced was “building a relationship [with the Governor]. And that meant understanding his leadership style. The fundamental thing that Booth and I agreed about is that a speech is not a report, but an act of leadership. You don’t give a speech to transmit information, but to try to change how people think and behave.”

This shared belief that speeches had to fit into the speaker’s larger leadership agenda fostered a fruitful working relationship. “Booth liked to challenge people, to do the unexpected, and to bring up new ways of thinking and looking at an issue. And he preferred to talk about core philosophical views and values, and engage with ideas,” she said.

Asked about the sometimes lengthy and even aggravating approval processes involved in finalizing speeches by elected officials, Severn had an unexpected answer. “Coming from journalism, where you have to struggle to find reliable sources who will give you the time of day, it was a treat to have access to a stable of governor’s policy experts who cared deeply about good public policy and had deep knowledge of their fields. It was such a wonderful way to learn. And my favorite style of learning is to interview people. So when preparing a speech, I would interview and collaborate with policy experts at great length, and they would be generous with their time with me.”

One high point that Severn recalled from her work with Governor Gardner was his final State of the State address in 1993, shortly before he retired after serving two terms.

Another memorable moment came in 1991, while Gardner chaired the National Governors Association (NGA). “The first Gulf War was about to erupt, and Booth deeply opposed it,” she recalled. “So here he is, about to go to an NGA dinner and deliver a toast to President George H.W. Bush. There’s a huge elephant in the room because of Booth’s opposition to the war. He didn’t want to say anything that could be interpreted as support for the war, but at the same time, he wanted to show respect for the office. So I wrote a toast that ended with the line—‘To the man who makes the most difficult decisions in the world.’”

With the election of Gary Locke as Governor of Washington, Severn again resumed the duties of speechwriter (1997-1999). “Locke’s inaugural address was dynamite. It was fun to write because he had such an amazing story - his grandfather had immigrated from China, and worked as a houseboy in exchange for English lessons from a family living just a mile from the state Capitol, where Locke was being inaugurated as Governor—the first Chinese-American governor in the nation. We called it a journey of one mile in 100 years.”

Severn closed the interview by sharing what she described as the six points she would follow when writing a speech. “Through trial and error, and even a few dreadful mistakes, I developed these points as guideposts.”

  1. Research the audience—Know everything you can possible know about who will be listening to the speech. If the speech is being delivered at a conference, for example, look over the conference program, interview the organizers, and ask about the current controversies and issues on the minds of the attendees. Get into the small details—if your speaker is delivering remarks at lunchtime, then you should know what workshops or sessions the audience completed prior to lunch.
  2. Research the subject matter of the speech—Talk to the policy folks and other experts.
  3. Know your speaker—And if you’re writing for someone you don’t know, find video of them speaking if at all possible so you get a sense of their style, their sense of humor, if any, etc.
  4. Be crystal clear about the mission of your speech—You don’t have to have a written mission statement for every speech, but you should have a pretty good idea about it. What is the act of leadership your speaker is about to commit? If you and your speaker are not out to change how people think and behave, then why are you there?
  5. Put your whole heart into the speech—If your whole heart isn’t in it, it won’t work—and that goes for the speaker and speechwriter alike. Leadership takes everything you have to give.
  6. Finally, when the speaker gets to the podium, let go of the speech—No matter how clearly you can imagine this speech being delivered, it will be delivered differently. For those of us who worked in journalism, our writing was our writing—but not in this case. Recognize that the speech is no longer yours. The paradoxical thing is that the more the speech belongs to the speaker, and the less it belongs to you, the more successful you have been as a speechwriter.