Wednesday, August 31, 2016

The sounds of speechwriting: Where to find them in podcasts

Slate's podcast Working had a brilliant idea this year, the last year of the Obama administration. The series, which interviews people about their jobs, is doing a run of episodes focused on jobs in the White House. And recently, the series caught up with speechwriter Cody Keenan.

There's much for speakers and speechwriters to glean from this episode, including how the President works with his speechwriting team, layers of review, how speeches get started, and much more. Keenan estimates that, over the eight years of President Obama's administration, the speechwriting team will have worked on 3,500 speeches, a volume that explains the need for speechwriters. You'll also learn how much the president works on his own speeches, which is to say a lot.

There are other episodes in the series with relevance to speechwriting, including those on scheduling, and the office of correspondence, which sifts through the constituent letters that sometimes find their way into the President's speeches. (Using customer or constituent letters is a great way to give your speeches perspective from personal stories that have already been offered to you.)

It's certainly not the only podcast that has touched on speechwriting issues, particularly in this presidential election cycle. In the Hillary Clinton campaign podcast, With Her, episode two interviews her running mate Tim Kaine, who shares his tendency to avoid telling stories about himself in speeches--and why he changed his mind. Speechwriters' suggestions helped tip the balance.


There are plenty of podcasts with historical perspectives on presidential speechwriting. Slate's Whistlestop podcast is one of my favorites, and reporter John Dickerson's book by the same name is just out if you prefer to read the expanded version of these fascinating campaign stories--the book has much more detail, and there is an audio version. And as the Washington Post's Presidential podcast works its way through each American president, in order, you'll often find speechwriting gems. For example, this episode on Franklin D. Roosevelt includes observations by current White House speechwriter Sarada Peri, as well a look at how FDR wrote his famous Pearl Harbor speech--dictating it, and then editing it himself, since his two speechwriters happened to be out of town at that crucial moment. You'll learn how and where he made the changes that made that speech particularly memorable.

Not to be outdone, the White House itself issues an audio feed of the current President's speeches on iTunes, iHeartRadio, and other online sources; this feed is freely available. And for more historical perspective, the US National Archives has a podcast with historic speeches, interviews, and conversations with previous presidents.

(Photo: President Barack Obama works with Cody Keenan, Director of Speechwriting, in the Oval Office, April 17, 2013. (Official White House Photo by Pete Souza)

Speaking of speechwriting, join me in Edinburgh, Scotland, on October 20 for a new workshop, Add Meaning with Metaphor: Improve your Speeches with the Most Powerful Figure of Speech. It's a pre-conference workshop at the Edinburgh Speechwriters and Business Communicators Conference, designed to help both speakers and speechwriters use this powerful tool. You can register here for just the workshop, the conference, or both.

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