Writing a speech? Don’t Listen to “The SpeechWriter”

GQ calls The Speechwriter, “the best political book ever” – high praise for a memoir that revolves around a sex scandal, but leaves out the sex.

Cover of "The Speechwriter"Barton Swaim was a speechwriter for South Carolina Gov. Mark Sanford during the “hiking the Appalachian Trail” fiasco. But Swaim’s ire isn’t about the governor’s Argentine mistress or his lies to his staff. Swaim has a writer’s minor complaints: The governor says “Aahh,” over-relies on Rosa Parks anecdotes and insists on exactly three points per speech. (Swaim finds this baffling, quoting the governor as saying: “I’m not getting out there to talk about two stupid points.”)

It is a funny book, but please don’t use Swaim’s advice on speeches. At C2 we’ve written thousands of speeches for scores of leaders. Here are (ahem) three things we’ve learned:

  • Speeches aren’t about making the speechwriter look smart. In fact, speeches aren’t even about making the speaker look smart. A good speech is about connecting to the audience, which is basically the opposite of wowing them by your intelligence. Swaim mocks Sanford for talking about Parks – but Parks works well in speeches because people “get” her and understand her story.
  • Speechwriting is intensely personal. A speaker is immediately exposed to the crowd’s judgment. If a joke falls flat, or an analogy doesn’t work, the speaker is the one who has to keep going while audience members squirm in their seats and look at their phones. A successful speechwriter respects that. The right jokes and the right analogies are the ones the speaker feels comfortable with.
  • Check your ego. Swaim, it seems, wanted to come into the office and be the hero. He thought he would utterly transform the way Sanford spoke, wrote and thought. But that isn’t the role. As a speechwriter, your job is helping the people you work for sound like their best selves. That’s what success sounds like.

-Beverly Bartlett,

C2 Senior Strategist

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