Tips From the Insiders: How to Write a Political Speech

  • Grades: 3–5, 6–8

We've gathered together an unbeatable team of expert political speechwriters to tell YOU the secrets of winning a crowd and winning an election. Meet . . . The Insiders.

The Insiders are:

Paul Begala, longtime Democratic speechwriter and campaign manager who played a leading role in President Clinton's 1992 campaign;

Rock Brower, who wrote for former Pennsylvania Governor Richard Thornburgh during his time as President Bush's Attorney General;

Mary Kate Grant, who covered the 1988 campaign of President Bush as a journalist and then joined the Bush team as a White House speechwriter;

Bob Lehrman, leading Democratic strategist and speechwriter for Michigan Representative David Bonior;

Bob Shrum, who first became involved in politics at age 9, and who is now considered "the dean of Democratic speechwriters." He is best known for his work for Massachusetts Senator Edward M. Kennedy;

Charles Sweeney, who served as head writer for former Democratic National Chairman Ronald H. Brown, who is now President Clinton's Secretary of Commerce.

You're running for class president. You're going to a City Council meeting to talk your neighbors out of turning a park into a parking lot. You've just been named manager of the New York Yankees and you need to face the press. You're presenting your theories to an international gathering of scientists. You're the Chief Executive Officer of a major corporation, and you need to make your annual address to stockholders. What do you say? How do you say it? Where do you start? And how can you get some help?

The Insiders are in the business of helping their employers persuade others to support their ideas. Their best advice? As Rock Brower told us, "Always write something you believe for someone you believe in," especially if that someone is yourself. All the Insiders told us that their advice for Presidents would be the same as it would be for class treasurers — win your audience's confidence, get to your point quickly, and make that point clearly, because many listeners may only take away a "sound bite" (a memorable, catchy, 8-to-10-second excerpt) from your speech.

1. Get to the Point — Quick!

You can't start a speech until you are sure of your central point — the idea you need the audience to remember, even if they remember nothing else.

Lehrman: First, your theme should be simple enough that it can be expressed in one sentence. There are really only a few ideas an audience is going to grasp and remember. People have done research on how much people remember from a speech, and it's amazingly little. You know, in a speech people can't look back if they miss something, like they can in a book.

Sweeney: And you always want to know what your bite is, your sound bite. It should be snappy but clearly connected to your central idea, not just an unrelated one-liner.

2. Make it Look Easy

After deciding on a theme, you have to consider the tone of your speech. Every step of the way, the Insiders said, you must remember that what you're writing will be read aloud, not on a page. A speech must be appropriate for the size and location of your audience, as well as for its familiarity with your topic. Also, successful speeches have a conversational tone, in the hope that people will almost forget that what they're hearing is a prepared text.

Begala: Always remember you're writing a speech, not an essay. Your points have to be clearer and your sentences have to be shorter, because people can understand a lot more complex things when they're reading than when they're listening.

Shrum: Write like people talk.

Lehrman: In a speech draft, you'll see a lot of things English teachers would be horrified at -- sentence fragments, no verbs -- much more the way people talk than the formal way they write.

Sweeney: So it helps a lot if you always read your speech out loud while you're working on it.

3. Make 'em Laugh

Now you know what you want to say and how you want to say it. But how should your speech begin? The opening lines of a speech are critical to its success, the Insiders said.

Grant: You always want to establish some kind of rapport with the audience first. You want to establish up front this connection, so they will continue to listen to you. Your first opportunity is with the acknowledgments, to establish a rapport with the people who are in the front of the audience. The next thing you usually do is tell a few jokes.

Sweeney: If possible, ones that are specific to the location.

Begala: That's the standard, and usually the best way to do it — with jokes.

Grant: If you have a situation like the anniversary of Pearl Harbor, where it's inappropriate to use jokes, telling a very personal story can serve the same purpose to get them to identify with you.

4. Get Them to Your Side

The Insiders warned that if an audience isn't listening, it doesn't much matter what you say. Try to make audiences identify and sympathize with a speaker early on in a speech, so they'll want to hear what he or she has to say. One of the best ways to do this, the Insiders said, is to tell stories or anecdotes that illustrate a topic, or show that the topic is something that could have a real effect on the audience.

Lehrman: It's not enough to provide a bunch of statistics to prove that something is true. People need anecdotal material, stories, to make a point.

Begala: You have to give the audience a stake in the speech, too.

Sweeney: Make it emotionally compelling somehow.

Lehrman: Also, be concrete. It's concrete detail that keeps people interested. Which is a more effective line, "The president's gone abroad," or "The president's hopped on a jet to Rome"?

Begala: For instance, if you're talking to high school seniors about Vietnam and you tell them that it ended in 1974, well, that may even be before they were born, a whole generation ago to them. But if you tell them that the average age of a combat soldier in Vietnam was 19, and they're 17, it strikes a lot closer to home.

5. The Meat and Potatoes

Now you've reached the heart of your speech. The Insiders said you should keep things simple and make sure to tell your audience what you're going to say before you say it, so they won't miss your point. For example, if you're trying to get people to agree with your solution to a problem, make sure you tell them why the problem is so serious.

Grant: When you start in with what you're talking about, you usually try to limit it to two or three points under the main topic.

Begala: Try to signpost the things you're going to be talking about — you know, "Today I want to talk to you about three great issues facing America," and then list those three things.

Shrum: For persuasive speeches, the classic structure is "problem-solution."

Lehrman: You say, "Here's a problem, here's why things are terrible," and in the second part, "Here's what we can do to make things better." In the problem section, you have to be strong — to alarm people, and to show you understand it's a real problem, as they do, and so your solution will make sense to them.

Grant: And usually between points two and three you want to put in some more jokes, so there isn't this thud in the middle of the speech, boring everybody to tears because it's all policy. Then you come to the end, and try briefly to reiterate what you've just said. It's inappropriate to do jokes there. You want to leave it with a serious thought, and then say your good-byes.

6. Go For It!

1. The Insiders repeatedly stressed the importance of the opening paragraphs of a speech. As a warm-up exercise, imagine three situations in which you might make a speech — a number of them are mentioned in this article — and write opening paragraphs that follow the Insiders'guidelines.

2. Now, try writing a full-length speech of one to two pages based on one of your paragraphs. You should know your topic and be sure of your opinions; you might first spend some time in your school library for research. Also, be specific about what your role is in dealing with the subject you're discussing, who you are speaking to, and where the speech is being given.

 

Adapted from Scholastic Voice

  • Subjects:
    Public Speaking, Persuasive Writing, Politics, The Presidency
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