Tag: speechwriting

The nu-Statesman: Obama’s move from comedy to gravitas in two days

So, I go away for a weekend and suddenly Barack Obama is in the box seat to take the presidency again next year. It’s been a good week for Obama (and for West Wing fans). First he put Trump, the Republican’s current darling (for some reasoning as bizarre as the man’s hair) in centre stage on the birther issue by finally presenting the full-form of his birth certificate, killing a conspiracy that could only really thrive in America and in the age of the Internet, then he made him the butt of a couple of cracker one liners at the White House Correspondents’ Dinner this week.

The Press Dinner speech was probably proof enough that Obama is a man to be reckoned with when in campaign mode. Feel free to skip through the minute or so of Hulk Hogan’s “Real American” theme song…

There’s a transcript here.

“And I know just the guy to do it -– Donald Trump is here tonight! (Laughter and applause.) Now, I know that he’s taken some flak lately, but no one is happier, no one is prouder to put this birth certificate matter to rest than the Donald. (Laughter.) And that’s because he can finally get back to focusing on the issues that matter –- like, did we fake the moon landing? (Laughter.) What really happened in Roswell? (Laughter.) And where are Biggie and Tupac? (Laughter and applause.)

But all kidding aside, obviously, we all know about your credentials and breadth of experience. (Laughter.) For example — no, seriously, just recently, in an episode of Celebrity Apprentice — (laughter) — at the steakhouse, the men’s cooking team cooking did not impress the judges from Omaha Steaks. And there was a lot of blame to go around. But you, Mr. Trump, recognized that the real problem was a lack of leadership. And so ultimately, you didn’t blame Lil’ Jon or Meatloaf. (Laughter.) You fired Gary Busey. (Laughter.) And these are the kind of decisions that would keep me up at night. (Laughter and applause.) Well handled, sir. (Laughter.) Well handled.”

This is why journalists love him, and it’s why the opportunity to give compelling speech after compelling speech is going to leave the Republicans scratching their heads if they go with the likes of Trump or Palin – or a Trump/Palin dream ticket. From a speaking/speechwriting perspective – the shortness of his sentences is something to behold. They do all they have to. Nothing more. Nothing less.

This punchiness carries over, though the mood changes, when he turns to serious subject matter – like today’s announcement that Osama is finished. Bin Laden’s exit will no doubt rekindle Obama’s place in the polls. Which for me was the most fascinating part of this speech. His branding of the event as a result of his leadership.

There’s a transcript here.

The imagery here seems a little cliched “cloudless September sky”… “black smoke billowing up” but it carries so much of his retelling of the narrative that it’s poignant rather than cliched.

It was nearly 10 years ago that a bright September day was darkened by the worst attack on the American people in our history. The images of 9/11 are seared into our national memory — hijacked planes cutting through a cloudless September sky; the Twin Towers collapsing to the ground; black smoke billowing up from the Pentagon; the wreckage of Flight 93 in Shanksville, Pennsylvania, where the actions of heroic citizens saved even more heartbreak and destruction.

And yet we know that the worst images are those that were unseen to the world. The empty seat at the dinner table. Children who were forced to grow up without their mother or their father. Parents who would never know the feeling of their child’s embrace. Nearly 3,000 citizens taken from us, leaving a gaping hole in our hearts.

Obama’s speech today was a corker – and must have been the result of some pretty quick work by his speechwriting team (and he doubtless still works them over pretty thoroughly himself) – it was laden with imagery. Pathos. Gravitas. And a presidential authority that Trump will never muster. It was a triumph of poise over bluster. And one wonders if Trump would feel more at home waving placards with the scare-mongering revellers on the street than pointedly praising the work of Pakistan and describing Osama as an enemy of Islam.

The contrast Obama deliberately seems to create between himself and Osama was both powerful and purposeful – not just to shut up those right-winged idiots who think he’s a muslim with terrorist sympathies. Here’s the three paragraphs where he makes it clear this was “his” achievement.

“And so shortly after taking office, I directed Leon Panetta, the director of the CIA, to make the killing or capture of bin Laden the top priority of our war against al Qaeda, even as we continued our broader efforts to disrupt, dismantle, and defeat his network.

Then, last August, after years of painstaking work by our intelligence community, I was briefed on a possible lead to bin Laden. It was far from certain, and it took many months to run this thread to ground. I met repeatedly with my national security team as we developed more information about the possibility that we had located bin Laden hiding within a compound deep inside of Pakistan. And finally, last week, I determined that we had enough intelligence to take action, and authorized an operation to get Osama bin Laden and bring him to justice.

Today, at my direction, the United States launched a targeted operation against that compound in Abbottabad, Pakistan. A small team of Americans carried out the operation with extraordinary courage and capability. No Americans were harmed. They took care to avoid civilian casualties. After a firefight, they killed Osama bin Laden and took custody of his body.”

Then, he subtly shifts the narrative to a contrast between his own symbolic leadership and Bin Laden’s…

“For over two decades, bin Laden has been al Qaeda’s leader and symbol, and has continued to plot attacks against our country and our friends and allies. The death of bin Laden marks the most significant achievement to date in our nation’s effort to defeat al Qaeda…

…As we do, we must also reaffirm that the United States is not — and never will be — at war with Islam. I’ve made clear, just as President Bush did shortly after 9/11, that our war is not against Islam. Bin Laden was not a Muslim leader; he was a mass murderer of Muslims. Indeed, al Qaeda has slaughtered scores of Muslims in many countries, including our own. So his demise should be welcomed by all who believe in peace and human dignity.

Bin Laden is an enemy of peace and human dignity, Obama a friend of peace and human dignity.
Bin Laden plots against America, Obama seeks to unite it.
Bin Laden was a fan of wholesale destruction, Obama pinpoints rather than generalises.

And how do you move from a defining moment of one’s personal leadership to an election campaign without sounding like you’re a cynical news-coverage grabbing power junkie? You talk about unity (with a few mentions of your Republican predecessor). You talk about how good your country is. And you take them back to where it all began – the constitution.

“And tonight, let us think back to the sense of unity that prevailed on 9/11. I know that it has, at times, frayed. Yet today’s achievement is a testament to the greatness of our country and the determination of the American people.

The cause of securing our country is not complete. But tonight, we are once again reminded that America can do whatever we set our mind to. That is the story of our history, whether it’s the pursuit of prosperity for our people, or the struggle for equality for all our citizens; our commitment to stand up for our values abroad, and our sacrifices to make the world a safer place.

Let us remember that we can do these things not just because of wealth or power, but because of who we are: one nation, under God, indivisible, with liberty and justice for all.”

And thus, a campaign is born.

Some rules for jokes in speeches

If ever you’re writing a speech and want to include some jokes – here are some handy tips from the political realm that transfer nicely into any public speaking. It’s from an American context – but the rules still apply for making jokes and maintaining dignity.

Rule No. 1: First, the obvious: Be self-deprecating. “Humor is a powerful weapon,” says Jeff Nussbaum, a speechwriter who has worked for Al Gore and Joe Biden. “But to earn the right to wield it against others, you need to turn it against yourself first.”

Rule No. 2: Singe, don’t burn. The best jokes walk right up to the line—but don’t cross it. “You never want get an oooo out of the audience,” says Jeff Shesol, a former deputy speechwriter for Bill Clinton. “I can’t believe you just said that is pretty good, but oooo is different.” Gentle ribbing is good. At last year’s WHCD, Obama welcomed his audience of journalists. “Most of you covered me,” he said. “All of you voted for me.”

Rule No. 3: Use jokes as damage control… The damage control strategy can backfire. Al Gore often joked about his stiffness—”Al Gore is so stiff, racks buy their suits off him;” “Al Gore is so boring, his Secret Service code name is Al Gore”—until his speechwriters realized they were only reinforcing the image.

Rule No. 4: Delivery matters. John Kerry learned this the hard way in 2006, when he botched a joke in front of a group of students. He meant to say that if you don’t study hard, you’ll end up making dumb decisions like President Bush’s decision to invade Iraq. Instead, he said that students who don’t perform well would get “stuck in I

If you’re not funny and you need to be, it’s ok to solicit material from a funny friend. Just don’t botch the delivery like Kerry did.

“The best political comedy speeches are a mix of punchlines, extended riffs, and set pieces. Punchlines are relatively easy. White House speechwriters usually solicit ideas from funny people around the West Wing—apparently David Axelrod is a comedic force—as well as TV writers and professional comedians. Clinton and Gore, for example, relied heavily on Al Franken and Jay Leno. Other times they’ll simply pay an outside writer to do it.”

“Writing jokes for politicians is different from writing for a late-night talk show. (Although sometimes the two overlap.) “For a politician, it’s not just about getting laughs,” says Eric Schnure, a speechwriter who has written for both Democrats and Republicans. “It’s about being liked.” Some humor is therefore off limits. No impersonations. No joking about loss of life. No cursing. It’s just not worth offending someone you have to work with the next day.”

This doesn’t necessarily apply across the board, but I think it can be applicable in preaching, though I don’t recommend ever aiming for lame jokes. And you should almost never pause expecting laughter. Wait for laughter, then pause.

“Luckily for speechwriters, the bar isn’t that high. Even the lamest jokes get laughs. “The weird thing about all these jokes is, none of them are funny,” says one Senate speechwriter. It’s more about seeing normally stentorian politicians crack wise. The mere fact of it is entertaining. As Attie puts it: “It’s humor in a suit.””

There are a couple more insights in the original article.

Speech Wars

This little site lets you pick two words and compare the number of times they’ve been used by US Presidents (and candidates) in State of the Union, inauguration and election campaign speeches from the 2008 election.

I ran some interesting tests – firstly with the candidates on their own names. It turns out Obama talked about McCain by name a whole lot more than McCain talked about Obama – although he did forget his name a few times…


Then looking at State of the Union addresses I ran tests on faith v hope, war v peace, and must v cannot… the results weren’t surprising – hope is more popular than faith – I think because it’s more positive. Speeches should be positive. War is more popular than peace – and that’s pretty logical when you look at US foreign policy. Must is more popular than cannot – because taking positive action is better than not doing something negative – and there are a lot of synonyms for cannot but not many with the same power as “must” for the affirmative side.

Here are the pics:

Six easy steps to speaking like Obama

Interesting little article from the SMH on Obama’s oratory and the elements of a good speech. Which, according to a Sydney businessman who plans to make money offering a course on how to imitate Obama, actually come out of his writing style first and foremost.

This guy’s theory is based on an analysis of Obama’s books – and the common elements he finds between books and speeches  are as follows:

a) Clarity – simple english, easy to understand vocab and short sentences.
b) Tone – not vocal pitch but the “voice” in which you establish yourself – for Obama that meant a blend of self deprecation and confidence.
c) Nuance – explaining complexity with a simple turn of phrase and picking up on subtleties, tying them together and presenting a strong case in the listeners mind.
d) Poetry – the use of metaphor, a poetic voice and literary tools to create a sense of more than just straightforward prose or buzzword filled jargon.
e) Rhythm – developing a common refrain like “yes we can” that links ideas into a broader narrative and develops catch cry status.

The sixth point was a bonus/afterthought. It’s the idea that infusing your messaging with religious imagery and undertones will add that extra touch of inspiration. I guess that’s one that’s particularly transferable to the pulpit. 

Clarity is the low hanging fruit – and the most important element for any piece of communication. It’s also where so many politicians and speakers fall over. If people can’t figure out what it is you want them to know it doesn’t matter how beautifully phrased it is or what sort of rhythm you develop.  It just won’t stick.

Celebratory oratory

I’ve mentioned Obama’s speechwriting before. His victory will no doubt be analyzed by political scientists and communicators for years to come. His campaign was a triumph of marketing driven (not market driven) political campaigning, he framed a narrative from very early on (even in his published autobiographies) that carried through the campaign and generated grass roots support never before seen picking up new media technologies, and engaging and organising a community or tribe like nobody else has before – except perhaps Kevin Rudd with his Kevin 07 campaign – but Obama started before Rudd – he has been campaigning for the past two years. Rudd came in the middle.

Here is Obama’s speech in full.

Here are some highlights of modern political speech writing – and in fact of all communication…

His pitch for unity embraces juxtaposition of binary oppositions:

“It’s the answer spoken by young and old, rich and poor, Democrat and Republican, black, white, Latino, Asian, Native American, gay, straight, disabled and not disabled – Americans who sent a message to the world that we have never been a collection of red states and blue states: We are, and always will be, the United States of America.”

His heartfelt thanks to his family – and promise of a puppy to his daughters was a nice human touch that has already been picked up by news cycles everywhere – a nice contrast to some of the hubris and arrogance that has been attributed to him by both the McCain campaign and his own admission of arrogance.

I would not be standing here tonight without the unyielding support of my best friend for the last 16 years, the rock of our family and the love of my life, our nation’s next first lady, Michelle Obama. Sasha and Malia, I love you both so much, and you have earned the new puppy that’s coming with us to the White House. And while she’s no longer with us, I know my grandmother is watching, along with the family that made me who I am. I miss them tonight, and know that my debt to them is beyond measure.

Obama is a genuine family man – it will be interesting to see how he juggles parenthood with this new responsibility. Self deprecation is the new black. So he threw in a bit of his grass roots background to resonate with the common man. His campaign – like he himself, was built in backyard suburbia…

I was never the likeliest candidate for this office. We didn’t start with much money or many endorsements. Our campaign was not hatched in the halls of Washington – it began in the backyards of Des Moines and the living rooms of Concord and the front porches of Charleston.

Obama is at his oratory best when talking about breaking down the old “two party” mindset – it’s what won his speech at the 2004 Democratic Convention the accolades that propelled this push to the White House – so he had to throw some of that in to this speech too…

Let us resist the temptation to fall back on the same partisanship and pettiness and immaturity that has poisoned our politics for so long. Let us remember that it was a man from this state who first carried the banner of the Republican Party to the White House, a party founded on the values of self-reliance, individual liberty and national unity. Those are values we all share, and while the Democratic Party has won a great victory tonight, we do so with a measure of humility and determination to heal the divides that have held back our progress. As Lincoln said to a nation far more divided than ours, “We are not enemies, but friends … though passion may have strained, it must not break our bonds of affection.” And to those Americans whose support I have yet to earn – I may not have won your vote, but I hear your voices, I need your help, and I will be your president too.

His call to arms “Yes we can” which was as prevalent in his campaign as Rudd’s “Working families” got a real run in the closing story with a 106 year old case study. It’s stirring stuff – so I’ll put it all here in case you haven’t clicked the link to his speech.

This election had many firsts and many stories that will be told for generations. But one that’s on my mind tonight is about a woman who cast her ballot in Atlanta. She’s a lot like the millions of others who stood in line to make their voice heard in this election except for one thing: Ann Nixon Cooper is 106 years old.

She was born just a generation past slavery; a time when there were no cars on the road or planes in the sky; when someone like her couldn’t vote for two reasons: because she was a woman and because of the color of her skin.

And tonight, I think about all that she’s seen throughout her century in America – the heartache and the hope; the struggle and the progress; the times we were told that we can’t, and the people who pressed on with that American creed: Yes we can.

At a time when women’s voices were silenced and their hopes dismissed, she lived to see them stand up and speak out and reach for the ballot. Yes we can.

When there was despair in the dust bowl and depression across the land, she saw a nation conquer fear itself with a New Deal, new jobs and a new sense of common purpose. Yes we can.

When the bombs fell on our harbor and tyranny threatened the world, she was there to witness a generation rise to greatness, and a democracy was saved. Yes we can.

She was there for the buses in Montgomery, the hoses in Birmingham, a bridge in Selma, and a preacher from Atlanta who told a people that “We Shall Overcome.” Yes we can.

A man touched down on the moon, a wall came down in Berlin, a world was connected by our own science and imagination. And this year, in this election, she touched her finger to a screen and cast her vote, because, after 106 years in America, through the best of times and the darkest of hours, she knows how America can change. Yes we can.

Obama had no doubt been working on this speech for some time. It’s a triumph of triumph. What worries me though is that for all the promise of change there’s still this idea that America is somehow the saviour of the world. And Obama is being painted as this Messianic figure – almost the second coming…

And to all those watching tonight from beyond our shores, from parliaments and palaces to those who are huddled around radios in the forgotten corners of our world, our stories are singular, but our destiny is shared, and a new dawn of American leadership is at hand. To those who would tear this world down, we will defeat you. To those who seek peace and security, we support you. And to all those who have wondered if America’s beacon still burns as bright, tonight we proved once more that the true strength of our nation comes not from our the might of our arms or the scale of our wealth, but from the enduring power of our ideals: democracy, liberty, opportunity and unyielding hope.

I guess the economic crisis is America’s fault through their NINJA loans – I’m still not sure what the “A” is for in that acronym – so maybe it’s their job to fix it. But as for the rest of the world’s problems – just because they have the biggest military stick – sabre rattling is so last millenium… hopefully Obama’s desire for united, unilateral approaches to problem solving in his own country will extend to foreign policy. And h
opefully he’ll know what the G20 is.

The real art in election night oratory is giving a good concession speech. And John McCain’s – while laced with apple pie American sentiment – was that and more. Here’s the transcript. Like John Howard almost this time last year – the concession speech was gracious and humble.

The ingredients of a concession speech are as follows:

1. A gracious admission of defeat.

“My friends, we have – we have come to the end of a long journey. The American people have spoken, and they have spoken clearly.

A little while ago, I had the honour of calling Senator Barack Obama to congratulate him.”

2. An acknowledgement of the efforts of the victor.

In a contest as long and difficult as this campaign has been, his success alone commands my respect for his ability and perseverance. But that he managed to do so by inspiring the hopes of so many millions of Americans who had once wrongly believed that they had little at stake or little influence in the election of an American president is something I deeply admire and commend him for achieving.

Let there be no reason now … Let there be no reason now for any American to fail to cherish their citizenship in this, the greatest nation on Earth.

Senator Obama has achieved a great thing for himself and for his country. I applaud him for it, and offer him my sincere sympathy that his beloved grandmother did not live to see this day. Though our faith assures us she is at rest in the presence of her creator and so very proud of the good man she helped raise.

Senator Obama and I have had and argued our differences, and he has prevailed. No doubt many of those differences remain.

3. A promise of a united way forward.

Senator Obama and I have had and argued our differences, and he has prevailed. No doubt many of those differences remain.

These are difficult times for our country. And I pledge to him tonight to do all in my power to help him lead us through the many challenges we face.

4. A thanks to supporters – and an expression of hope for their support of the other guy.

I urge all Americans … I urge all Americans who supported me to join me in not just congratulating him, but offering our next president our good will and earnest effort to find ways to come together to find the necessary compromises to bridge our differences and help restore our prosperity, defend our security in a dangerous world, and leave our children and grandchildren a stronger, better country than we inherited.

Whatever our differences, we are fellow Americans. And please believe me when I say no association has ever meant more to me than that.

It is natural. It’s natural, tonight, to feel some disappointment. But tomorrow, we must move beyond it and work together to get our country moving again.

5. A heartfelt thankyou to family/campaign team/VP candidate etc.

The road was a difficult one from the outset, but your support and friendship never wavered. I cannot adequately express how deeply indebted I am to you.

I’m especially grateful to my wife, Cindy, my children, my dear mother … my dear mother and all my family, and to the many old and dear friends who have stood by my side through the many ups and downs of this long campaign.

I have always been a fortunate man, and never more so for the love and encouragement you have given me.

You know, campaigns are often harder on a candidate’s family than on the candidate, and that’s been true in this campaign.

All I can offer in compensation is my love and gratitude and the promise of more peaceful years ahead.

I am also – I am also, of course, very thankful to Governor Sarah Palin, one of the best campaigners I’ve ever seen … one of the best campaigners I have ever seen, and an impressive new voice in our party for reform and the principles that have always been our greatest strength … her husband Todd and their five beautiful children … for their tireless dedication to our cause, and the courage and grace they showed in the rough and tumble of a presidential campaign.

6. A patriotic promise to serve king and country (or a God Bless America in this case).

I would not – I would not be an American worthy of the name should I regret a fate that has allowed me the extraordinary privilege of serving this country for a half a century.

Today, I was a candidate for the highest office in the country I love so much. And tonight, I remain her servant. That is blessing enough for anyone, and I thank the people of Arizona for it.

MCCAIN: Tonight – tonight, more than any night, I hold in my heart nothing but love for this country and for all its citizens, whether they supported me or Senator Obama – whether they supported me or Senator Obama.

I wish Godspeed to the man who was my former opponent and will be my president. And I call on all Americans, as I have often in this campaign, to not despair of our present difficulties, but to believe, always, in the promise and greatness of America, because nothing is inevitable here.

Americans never quit. We never surrender.

We never hide from history. We make history.

Thank you, and God bless you, and God bless America. Thank you all very much.

McCain’s speech ticked all the boxes.

Obama’s speech was largely free of apple pie American superiority – even with the acknowledgement of renewed global hope at his election – I guess now the proof will be in the pudding. He’ll no doubt at some point be regarded as not the messiah – but just another naughty boy. But hopefully he’ll at the very least end unpopular wars and try to fix healthcare and the economy in the US – which wouldn’t be a bad legacy. And at least we’re spared the horror of a Palin Vice Presidency.