Obama’s former speechwriter: Don’t look for the ‘snappy soundbite’

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As a speechwriter, there’s a good chance you’ve wondered what it would be like to write speeches for the president of the United States.

At Ragan’s 2014 Speechwriters and Executive Communicators Conference, Jon Favreau, President Obama’s former speechwriter, offered a glimpse into what that was like:

“I’d send the president the draft, and one of two things would happen. Either the speech would come back completely marked up with edits in black pen, or it would come back with no marks whatsoever and a note that said, ‘Let’s talk,’ which did not mean that he wanted to personally congratulate me on how awesome the speech really was,” Favreau revealed.

Along with behind-the-scenes stories like this, Favreau shared three lessons he learned while serving eight years as Obama’s speechwriter. No matter what industry you write for, his tips will help you craft stronger, more memorable prose.

1. Remember that the story is more important than the words.

Like all communicators, political speechwriters are always looking for ways to make their speeches break through the noise, Favreau explained. Because of this, many speechwriters begin writing by asking themselves, “What’s the snappy sound bite?”

This is the wrong approach, Favreau warned.

“The president taught me that those are the wrong questions to ask, and trying too hard to answer them can send you down a pretty torturous path that doesn’t always end with a very good speech.”

Instead, Favreau said, the first question you should ask is: What’s the story I’m trying to tell?

“I’m talking about the overall story of what you want to say in the speech—the beginning, the middle and the end,” Favreau said. “Whether you’re into outlines or not, and I’m not, you should always be able to sum up your entire speech in a few sentences before you actually start writing it.”

Favreau explained how he and then-senator Obama began writing the last speech Obama would give before the 2007 Iowa caucus. The story they wanted to tell was why the American people should elect Obama instead of the other candidates. Favreau knew he had the foundation for the speech when he and Obama could get the answer down to just a few sentences.

In contrast, Favreau said, the Clinton campaign focused its speech on a sound bite: Turn up the heat, turn America around. “Which I believe is etched into a monument nowhere,” Favreau quipped.

2. Always be honest and authentic.

“I’m not just talking about getting your facts straight, though that’s key,” Favreau said. “What I really mean is that it’s important to write with courage and character and grit.”

Favreau explained how, in politics, people make many decisions based on fear, like the fear of public embarrassment or losing office. When the Rev. Jeremiah Wright controversy erupted in 2008, Obama’s advisors encouraged him to play it safe with a round of short cable TV interviews. Instead, Obama addressed the controversy in a speech on race. In the speech, Obama added a line about how his white grandmother would occasionally utter racial stereotypes that made him cringe. No speechwriter could have written that for him. It was an authentic perspective.

“If your writing is too slick, too poll-tested, too reminiscent of something a used car salesman or a member of Congress would say, people will notice. But they will appreciate honesty and authenticity. They will value that.”

[RELATED: Ragan’s distance-learning site houses the most comprehensive video training library for corporate communicators.]

3. Never lose your idealism as a writer.

“Our most fundamental and important job as a writer is to inspire,” Favreau said. And doing that is a lot easier when you’re not cynical about your topic or industry.

Favreau explained how, minutes before Obama was elected president, Favreau was on the phone with a 106-year-old African-American woman who waited three hours to vote. During her lifetime, the woman had seen both women and African Americans gain the right to vote. Favreau called to ask her if Obama could tell her story in his acceptance speech if he won. She agreed. For Favreau, having that conversation and understanding the history that could be made if Obama won was extremely fulfilling.

While not every day in the life of a speechwriter-even one who works for the president-is that inspiring, Favreau stressed the importance of not becoming cynical.

“It’s [our job] to make our listeners believe, even if just for a brief moment,” he says. “And if we fall victim to that pervasive cynicism ourselves, if we think everything we churn out is just a bunch of words that won’t make a difference, we won’t sell it because it won’t be true.” 

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