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The Speechwriter's Life: Patrick Sweeney, on the three audiences

Speechwriters, don’t let your eyes deceive you. When writing a speech, you’re typically trying to help a speaker connect with not one, but three distinct audiences. Patrick Sweeney, an author, speechwriter and corporate executive, explains the three audiences as follows:

“There’s the audience who requested you to speak, a separate audience whose job is to interpret your message, and then there is the audience of your audience. What I mean is that, first, there’s the audience who invited you because they are interested in your perspective. They are looking for you to engage, inform and inspire them. The second audience comprises journalists who are covering the event. Journalists are listening for content and style, substance and memorable phrases. They have an appreciation for words and language, so through your speech, you are also seeking to give them a place to take their story, realizing that your phrases can suggest possible headlines and lead paragraphs.”

“And then there’s the third audience—the people whom your listeners will interact with following the speech. You need to consider what they will remember about the speech and share with family and friends at the dinner table, for example. When drafting a speech for New Jersey Governor Brendan Byrne, my goal was to keep these three audiences in mind, and write something that would, hopefully, resonate on all three of those levels.”

A talent for connecting with audiences is, in some ways, the thread that binds together Sweeney’s multi-faceted career. After graduating from college in 1974, Sweeney worked as a newspaper reporter, magazine editor and assistant to the producer of a current events TV program. He also wrote feature articles for the New York Times.

In 1978, Sweeney left journalism to become the primary speechwriter to Brendan Byrne, who had just been re-elected as Governor of New Jersey. Being new to speechwriting, Sweeney particularly appreciated how generously Byrne shared his time, thought process and guidance on draft speeches.

“In all honesty, it took a while to learn how to emulate the Governor’s style of speaking. I remember spending the first few weeks getting a sense of his cadence, his timing, and the way he liked to tell stories and make his points. He was very good at sharing with me what was working in a draft, and what I still needed to refine,” Sweeney recalled.

Sweeney would also research the subject matter for each speech, drawing on his experiences in journalism. “I would make sure the information in the draft was accurate, and then work with the Governor to create a message that clearly reflected his intent in a manner that was compelling.”

Sweeney observed some similarities between his journalism and his speechwriting: “To me, speechwriting is a unique combination of the typical news story format, with elements of feature writing. These are two completely different ways of telling a story. A news story is all about facts, with the important information up front, in case it needs to be edited for length. A feature story, on the other hand, usually starts with some intriguing observation or story up front to pull readers in and grasp their attention. By putting these two approaches together, you can capture feelings and facts, thoughts and emotions – which is what I found myself doing for the Governor as a speechwriter.”

While Sweeney was a journalist by background, and Byrne was a lawyer and former judge, the two shared a keen interest in ensuring that all speeches would connect in a moving way with their intended audiences.

“When he agreed to a speaking engagement, the Governor always had a very clear perspective on what message he wanted to communicate and how he would convey it. As we were developing a draft, he did not have to talk very long before I would often hear him say something that was very quotable. It was a very collaborative process, and the more time we spent with each other, the more effective I became as a speechwriter,” Sweeney said.

“With Governor Byrne, speaking engagements were opportunities to make a statement. So, he took the preparation very seriously. In the case of major addresses, for example, I would meet with him several months beforehand to discuss the speech. The Governor would explain the points he wanted to make and the impression he wanted to leave, as well as why he was doing the speech in front of this particular audience. I’d then craft the initial draft, and show it to him, and he’d say what he liked, where he wanted more details, where he might want the phrasing to be stronger, etc., and I would go back to work.”

For Sweeney, the most memorable speech that emerged from his work with Governor Byrne involved a March 4, 1981 speech in Philadelphia, PA. The Governor informed Sweeney he would use the speech to comment directly on then recently-elected President Reagan’s agenda. Byrne, a liberal Democrat, explained that he was not terribly impressed by Reagan’s claim that he could simultaneously balance the federal budget and increase military spending. “The math just doesn’t work,” Byrne told Sweeney. “There’s been a grace period for the new President, but I want to say that I feel like I am in the fairy tale where everyone seems to be admiring the new President’s clothes…but you can actually see right through them,” Byrne said.

Byrne further shared that, for this particular speech, he wanted Sweeney to confer via telephone with the renowned journalist and former editor of Saturday Review Norman Cousins. As a long-time admirer of Cousins’ work, Sweeney was thrilled to have the chance to collaborate with this legendary figure.

The speech delivered by Byrne to an audience of tri-state business leaders was a respectful but hard-hitting and carefully reasoned take-down of Reagan’s political program. It received extensive media coverage.

“I agree with the President that nothing is more important than our ability to defend ourselves,” Byrne said during the speech, “[but] the central question is: ‘What does our security depend upon?’ We cannot defend ourselves with 1890 ideas, any more than we can with 1890 weapons.”

On the President’s proposed military build-up, Byrne said: “We have human needs far more pressing than the foolish desire to continue building our stockpile of nuclear weapons…[For] if there was security in the arms race…we would certainly be secure by now….What are we doing [by building more nuclear weapons] except overloading our boats with life preservers to the point where there is no room for people?”

On the President’s plans to reduce the federal budget, Byrne adroitly observed Reagan wanted to “cut spending at every corner, unless those corners happen to be on the sites of military installations.”

Sweeney subsequently left the Governor’s office in 1981 to begin working at Caliper, an international management consulting company based in Princeton, NJ. His accomplishments at Caliper include: serving as the company’s president; co-authoring two books with the company’s founder; and acting as one of the company’s key spokespeople. Sweeney recently decided to venture on his own, taking a page from a New York Times bestselling book he co-authored called Succeed on Your Own Terms. He is currently hard at work on a new book to be published by McGraw-Hill.

In his own speaking engagements, Sweeney has carried with him several lessons from his speechwriting days. One of them is that, as a speaker, Governor Byrne “was always true to himself. He had his own style of speaking, which he honed. My style of speaking is different from the Governor’s. Still, I carry with me his advice about being true to myself, being clear about my message, and seeking memorable ways to truly connect.”

Another lesson is to practice for speaking appearances, just as Governor Byrne would do: “It’s about honoring your audience, and showing that you’ve given the appearance your full dedication, commitment and enthusiasm.”

For Sweeney, pulling this all together is about ensuring that the perspective he is sharing, the points he is making, the humorous anecdotes, the poignant accounts, and all of the final touches he adds to his speeches are not just there to be amusing or interesting in and of themselves. “Stories enrich speeches, certainly. They can touch us in ways that are very deep and meaningful. What matters is that they come authentically from the speaker’s experience, interest and heart. That is when they truly connect and become much more powerful,” Sweeney said.

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Sweeney shared one more piece of advice about connecting with an audience – inspired by a brief conversation he had with João Carlos Martins, the pianist known for his passionate interpretations of Bach. In 2007, just before Sweeney was about to go on stage to address a huge crowd at a leadership conference in São Paulo, he turned to Martins, an internationally-renowned performer, for some advice on connecting with such an enormous audience. Martins, who was featured in a book Sweeney co-authored, was scheduled to perform immediately after him.

Martins replied: “What I do beforehand is connect with my heart, and then I imagine the hearts of everyone in the audience. In this mediation, our hearts connect, and float up together. And, after that, I know everything will be fine.”

Sweeney cited Martins suggestion as an excellent way to sooth one’s pre-speech nerves. It’s one that other speechwriters-turned-speakers may want to file away for future reference. As Sweeney has learned, it is all about connecting.

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