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A Professional Speechwriter Offers Lessons from Political Conventions

Anyone who has watched even a small portion of the political convention coverage these past two weeks would realize that there are speeches and there are Speeches.

As corporate communications professionals, we are often called upon to help leaders prepare and deliver carefully crafted messages, not unlike what is done at these conventions. The topics may differ, but the concepts are similar.

What can corporate communicators learn from the orators at the conventions? Quite a bit, according to Joellen Brown, a professional communicator and chief speechwriter for Verizon's chairman and CEO, Lowell McAdam.

“I love conventions,” she says. “They’re like Bonnaroo for speechwriters.”

We asked Joellen to consider what the conventions can teach us about a successful speech. Here are some of her thoughts.

On Melania and Michelle

Two thoughts. First, plagiarism is surprisingly easy to commit. The best defense – besides good software – is having an original thought. Second, when I heard Melania deliver the purloined section, I thought, “platitudes.” When I saw Michelle Obama deliver the same lines, they were still platitudes, but suddenly they came alive through the power and sincerity of her delivery. Amazing how passion can redeem even the most banal of sentiments.

On Michelle Obama

And when that passion is married to words that paint a picture, the result is pure magic. Why did this speech stand out? Because we felt like she was talking to us from her heart. She brought us into her life (that picture of her girls getting into the Secret Service limo, of her daughters playing on the lawn of a house built by slaves). She showed us what’s at stake (vote for your children’s future). She asked for the sale (“Let’s get to work”). All in her own voice, with an emotional investment in her message that radiated across a huge auditorium.

On how to begin a speech

Aristotle was right. The first words in Bill Clinton’s speech were: "In the spring of 1971 I met a girl." No "happy to be heres," no "I’m going to tell you three things," no clearing-your-throat intros to give the audience a chance to settle in. Bill Clinton started, per Aristotle, in medias res – in the middle of things – and did what good speakers do: he told a story, with a beginning, a middle and an end … and a moral.

On the differences between men and women as speakers

Apparently on Mars you’re allowed to shout. On Venus you’re not. Just saying.

On overcoming challenges

Want to see someone wrestle cultural norms to the ground and win? Watch this: the speech Anastasia Somoza gave at the Democratic convention.

On the importance of the messenger

In corporate speechwriting, we tend to think that a speech is about the information it contains or the point of view we’re selling. But almost two weeks’ worth of speeches remind me that the most important message is the speaker herself or himself. Every time your CEO speaks without a teleprompter, or shows up in sneakers and a polo shirt, or talks in English rather than corporate-speak, or shows he/she can take a joke, it says something to the audience … not just about his or her own personality, but about the culture of your institution.

On speaking in the age of instant sharing

Speeches used to be ephemera, or at least they would live on as oral history or urban legends. But now they live on in a multitude of forms and are subject to the instant-replay, instant-analysis that we associate with sporting events. It puts even more pressure on speakers who aren’t Meryl Streep or Lebron James … or, dare I say it … Donald Trump – to compete with the pervasive celebrity culture we swim in 24x7. 

On performance

In an era when “messaging” is supposed to be conveyed in 140 characters and we’re told that people have the attention span of fruit flies, it’s good to be reminded that there’s still a place in our public discourse for The Speech: a long-form piece of writing that reveals the speaker’s intellectual concerns, vision of the future, and if we’re very lucky, his or her emotional center. But of course, it’s not just a piece of writing – a speech is also a performance. Standing in front of an audience, subjecting yourself to the public gaze, inviting scrutiny of your clothes, your hair, your voice, your mannerisms is both an intensely personal form of self-revelation and a confrontation with powerful cultural norms, many of them about gender and physical abilities. The speechwriter can help make the narrative itself successful. But only the narrator can do the rest.

Joellen Brown is the chief speechwriter for Verizon's chairman and CEO, Lowell McAdam, and leads a team of executive communicators responsible for strategic messaging, positioning and placement for Verizon's C-suite executives and for coordination of executive messaging across the company through the Verizon Speaker Bureau. Joellen is a Verizon veteran, having written speeches for the CEOs of Verizon and its predecessor companies for longer than she cares to admit.

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  1. Monica Brown

    Aug. 1, 2016

    Excellent post! And a great reminder that as corporate communicators, we sometimes forget to focus on the overall impact of our speaker, and how he or she can deliver a message very powerfully. Instead, we spend more time agonizing over every word! Great piece, loved it.


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