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The Speechwriter's Life: Veteran political speechwriter Jonathan Wilcox

If someone’s purpose in delivering a speech is to just play it safe and “check boxes” on various points with an audience, then Jonathan Wilcox has a half-serious suggestion: “Why not play it totally safe, and send the audience an email instead – or post a photo on Instagram?”

Behind this humorous suggestion is a serious point about the contemporary purpose of speeches. Wilcox, who is based in California, continued:

“We have today a social media universe which is astonishing in its reach and breathtaking power. And all these bits of social media seek to grab individual pieces of people’s attention. In comparison, speeches, speechwriting and speech giving are old fashioned.

“But there’s nothing like a speech as an opportunity to grasp an audience’s complete attention, not just a piece, and connect with listeners. That’s the best part of a speech as a traditional experience. A speech is a chance to provide listeners with a real window on the speaker as an individual.”

Even in an age of social media, Wilcox said, such windows are rare, which may help explain the persistence of speech-giving.

Wilcox is quick to acknowledge, at the same time, that “a speech doesn’t have to be a thunderous challenge to succeed. However, I do worry that some speechwriters and speech givers have fallen into a dangerous pattern, when you often hear lines like ‘I want to challenge this audience to…’ But, fella, we just met! Don’t poke at the audience with a stick,” he said.

Wilcox’s speechwriting experiences began about 25 years ago; at the age of 22, he was a speechwriter on then-Senator Pete Wilson’s (R-CA) 1990 campaign to become California’s governor. “I started off a terribly average advance man on the campaign, and then had a chance to become a speechwriter. When Senator Wilson had to go back to Washington to cast votes, he needed a surrogate speaker to appear on the campaign trail on his behalf. On two of those occasions, I had to write speeches for Ronald Reagan, who spoke in Senator Wilson’s place,” Wilcox said.

“Writing speeches for Ronald Reagan at age 22…nobody wants to say they peaked at 22!” Wilcox laughed. “From a speechwriting perspective, these were some of the easiest speeches I ever wrote, because I could hear President Reagan’s speaking style in my head, and this relaxed me. He was very easy to write for; he took every joke, and every inference, and read the entire thing. It was like Vladimir Horowitz playing the piano at age 85.”

One small regret for Wilcox is that he did not get to meet with the President while drafting the speech; nor did he think to ask for the President to sign the speech as a souvenir.

Wilcox went on to write for Governor Wilson, including a speech in 1996 at a monument to California correctional services employees who had died in the course of their duties. The speech included a tribute to slain correctional services worker Ineasie Baker, and remains very memorable for Wilcox on two levels. “The Governor spoke about Ms Baker as a mother, and as a stalwart person doing a difficult job. We avoided the temptation to overstate things, which sometimes happens in these circumstances,” Wilcox recalled.

The speech also stands out in Wilcox’s memory for another reason. “Governor Wilson’s long-time communications director used the speech to teach me something important. The director held his hands about his head, while commenting on the initial draft, and said ‘we’re up here,’ and then put his hands on his waist and said ‘we need to remember the governor is here.’ His point was that while the Governor’s office carries with it a certain dignity, his speeches can’t come across such that he seems somehow above, or separated from, the people to whom he was speaking, or the issues he addressed in his remarks.”

"The speechwriter in an elected official’s office is a political professional, not a craftsman or craftswoman. I don’t think being a great writer is enough to be a political speechwriter; if you don’t have a political understanding of the person you are writing for, or the occasion, then it’s not going to work,” Wilcox added.

During the 2003 California recall election, following which Arnold Schwarzenegger replaced Gray Davis as governor, Wilcox worked a speechwriter for Congressman Darrell Issa. Issa had been involved in the initial recall election effort and was positioning himself for a gubernatorial run.

“I had written a speech for Issa that would have been his announcement of his campaign. But on the day he was supposed to announce, he instead decided to pull out of the race. It was an out-of-body experience to find myself at the end of something, when all my work had been to help get the campaign started. Issa, a plain-spoken person, was able to use much of the speech to put the focus on how the recall effort would succeed and ‘the cause will go forward’ – and, in the end, it did.”

That wasn’t Wilcox’s only Twilight Zone experience as a speechwriter. “I was once hired to write a speech for a well-known CEO. As part of the process, I met the CEO. He was charming, convivial, not stuck up, easy to talk to, casually dressed, open and enthusiastic, talkative and relatable. But he wanted just one theme in his speech– ‘we’re not for sale.’ This company was a close #2 of a large rival. I wrote the speech, delving into some topics involving the company and the wider economy, within this overall theme. I recall two things about the speech. First, it was not overwhelmingly received at the time. Second, shortly after it was delivered…the company was sold.”

Wilcox also providing speechwriting assistance to the late Rebecca Lockhart, a Utah Republican who grabbed headlines when she described a GOP colleague as an “inaction figure,” as part of a text Wilcox had drafted.

With his background writing for both private and public sector leaders, Wilcox had some closing observations to share about how private sector leaders could have greater impact when they choose to comment on public policy matters through speeches.

“I have never understood the concept of a private sector individual talking about a public policy/social policy issue that has already happened, so to speak, or been settled. Once a matter has been settled in the political arena, it’s too late for someone to express a view with any power or resonance. It’s a waste of time to try to chase a car long after it’s gone by,” he said.

The time to speak out on an issue, to position the leader or the company in a debate, is while the issue is still live, Wilcox added.

“I have had, for example, the privilege of writing for some strong female executives, who were interested in being outspoken while delivering speeches. Whatever their individual motivations were, they wanted to perform well as speakers, and to make their point very clearly. I don’t mean being theatrical here; you can speak plainly and still get your point across.

“If your intention really isn’t to make a distinct point on a live issue – then your words will lose the special power and potency they might otherwise have had, and you will not achieve the result you seek.”

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