Words matter and a President’s words carry meaning to hundreds of millions of people; it helps sooth, comfort, and uplift a nation.
So there’s a lot we can learn about writing from the President’s young speechwriter Jon Favreau (not the guy who brought you Iron Man). This past week Favreau crafted one of his penultimate speeches for the President and shared some of his secrets gleaned while writing for the President.
First, nail the theme
One of the biggest mistakes you can make while writing an essay or a blog post is to blah, blah, ramble on relentlessly towards an unspecified goal in the far distance. Smart writers always get the theme right first, which helps with Act 1 and 3 of the piece, and then work around it to get Act 2 right – usually the toughest part.
The President’s working style with Favreau is no different.
“We wanted to make sure that we were going to pick one theme and not go all over the place. And the president said, “Look there’s the opening lines of the Declaration of Independence and for 200 years the American story has been about making those promises real,'” recalled Favreau. For an underlying theme, they settled on the notion that “alongside our rugged individualism, there’s another strand of American belief which is that we’re all in this together
e pluribus unum, out of many, one.”
Keep it short, keep it real
For cryin out loud, please keep it short. Everybody’s got ADD (thank you, Twitter!) these days, so holding their attention is gonna be your biggest challenge.
As Ted Sorenson, Kennedy’s speechwriter, said about JFK’s speeches:
No speech was more than 20 to 30 minutes in duration. They were all too short and too crowded with facts to permit any excess of generalities and sentimentalities. His texts wasted no words and his delivery wasted no time.
And, boy did Kennedy’s speeches work because of that very fact:
For he disliked verbosity and pomposity in his own remarks as much as he disliked them in others. He wanted both his message and his language to be plain and unpretentious, but never patronizing. He wanted his major policy statements to be positive, specific and definite, avoiding the use of “suggest,” “perhaps” and “possible alternatives for consideration.”
Yes. Always be specific.
“Write drunk; edit sober.”
Nah, I wouldn’t recommend that rule because not all things that work for Hemingway work for mere mortals. But, Hemingway was right about one thing – relentlessly edit your work till its worthy of public consumption.
Editing is an art form with the structure depending on how you choose to approach it. In some cases, logic will be the guide:
“He’s known for his rhetoric, right?” said Favreau. “But he’s also got a very lawyerly, logical mind. And so the thing he always does best is putting every argument in order.”
The night before the inauguration, Obama was done editing. All that was left were words to underline so that they’d get proper emphasis in the delivery. The president did a read through in the map room of the White House that night.
And, in other cases, reason will dictate the contents of a speech as Ted Sorenson describes JFK’s goal with his speeches:
At the same time, his emphasis on a course of reason –rejecting the extremes of either side –helped produce the parallel construction and use of contrasts with which he later became identified. He had a weakness for one unnecessary phrase: “The harsh facts of the matter are . . .”–but with few other exceptions his sentences were lean and crisp. . . .
But regardless, if there’s one thing I’d like you to takeaway from this post, it’d be edit, edit, and edit until your post is worthy of being seen by people. Or as Hemingway said to F. Scott Fitzgerald in 1934:
“I write one page of masterpiece to ninety-one pages of shit,” Hemingway confided to F. Scott Fitzgerald in 1934. “I try to put the shit in the wastebasket.”
Put it in the wastebasket, not on your blog.