Friday, May 15, 2015

"Lincoln Speaks": A Review

By Dana Rubin
“Public sentiment is everything,” declared Abraham Lincoln in 1858 during his first senatorial debate with Stephen Douglas. “He who molds public sentiment, goes deeper than he who enacts statues or pronounces decisions.”

Lincoln thought public speaking was a more profound tool for influence and persuasion than the legislative or executive arenas. And his tool of choice was language. The development of his linguistic and rhetorical skills is the subject of "Lincoln Speaks: Words that Transformed a Nation" at the Morgan Library & Museum in New York.

Reflecting on his use of language, Lincoln scholar Harold Holzer—himself a onetime speechwriter for Mario Cuomo—calls Lincoln “an aspirational model for the modern politician.”

But was Lincoln truly a modern writer? In notes, letters, poems, pamphlets, scribbles, and speeches, the exhibit traces the growth of his literary and persuasive skills. It was language that helped him win his senatorial seat and the Republican nomination and presidency, sway public opinion during the prosecution of the Civil War, and pave the way for post-war reconciliation.

Growing up poor in a frontier town, the son of an illiterate and abusive father, Lincoln found refuge in books and poetry. With limited access, his reading was broad but not deep. He read the same works over and over—the King James Bible, Dickens, Aesop’s Fables, Shakespeare’s tragedies and histories, and Edgar Allan Poe. It’s the exact opposite of our reading habits today.

In an age without television, radio, or internet, the public had a tolerance for a certain windbaggery. Speakers at debates, rallies, and conferences would routinely drone on for two hours or more. Their words were then printed as a pamphlet or broadside and quoted in the newspapers.

Lincoln broke with convention by using language more sparingly. His speeches, which he wrote himself, were tighter than his contemporaries, his word choices simpler, his arguments more direct.

Prominent in the exhibit are copies of the three speeches now considered his greatest: the Second Inaugural, his Cooper Union speech, and the Gettysburg Address.

The Cooper Union address, which won him national attention and helped him gain the Republican nomination, was printed as a pamphlet in 1860. In it Lincoln anchored his anti-slavery argument in the thinking of the nation’s founders and predicted the ultimate end of slavery.

The Second Inaugural was published not long after the inauguration itself on March 4, 1865 as a large broadside in blue ink. With the Confederacy weakening, he used conciliatory language to reach out to his enemies and heal the wounded nation. He ended with the vision of “binding up the nation’s wounds”—borrowed from the Hebrew psalms.

Many today consider it Lincoln’s finest speech, but at the time Southerners detested his message and bitterly fought his nomination and election. After the assassination on April 15, it was reprinted—this time in black ink.

Then there’s the Gettysburg Address. Only 272 words, it memorializes the sacrifices of those who gave their lives on the battlefield in now iconic language. Tony Kushner calls it “a spectacular prose poem.”

For those of us who might want to learn from Lincoln’s craftsmanship, there are no original drafts in the exhibit, no notepads filled with scratched-out lines and ink blotches. We know Lincoln revised his speeches over and over, up until the last minute. But once the speech had been delivered, proofread, and typeset, he threw the drafts away. He wasn’t thinking of the archives.

So what kind of model was Lincoln for wordsmiths like us? To contemporary audiences, his spare and direct language is clearly more modern than his contemporaries. Yet there’s a quality of restraint that still sounds antique. I think that’s because Lincoln believed that to win public sentiment, a speaker must appeal to reason, not emotion. As a speechwriter he relied on principles and rational argument to do the heavy lifting.

Today we do the opposite. We enthusiastically use raw emotion to sway our listeners. We whip tension into frothy peaks and sloughs of despair like the most heavy-handed and manipulative Hollywood scriptwriters. Our professional gurus tell us a good speech has to play to our audiences’ emotions. Make them feel it in the kishkes.

We also worship at the altar of happiness. As professionals, that’s the state we’re all striving toward, right? But Lincoln was a gloomy guy. He suffered nervous breakdowns, bouts of melancholia, a dark and macabre dream life.

So how was he able to summon the language that would define so profoundly those turbulent times? How did he carry on despite so much suffering? Despite the wealth of documents, this exhibit can’t explain it—except to suggest he prevailed through language.

See it quick! The exhibit ends June 7.

This post originally appeared on Vital Speeches of the Day.

Monday, April 20, 2015

Your Speechwriter: An Operator’s Manual

by David Murray
This post originally appeared on The Strategist via PRSA

[ikon images/corbis]
As far as PR positions go, the speechwriter probably has one of the most interesting (and borderline absurd) jobs. One describes his marching orders from the CEO as: “Write down my thoughts as if I had them.”

Until recently, this group didn’t have a formal forum to share what they do. But with the advent of the Professional Speechwriters Association (PSA) this past winter, we can now look into the realities of this position, thanks to the recently released results of its first-ever membership survey. The survey yielded insights about modern speechwriters that their managers and colleagues might find useful, as they try to coax sustainable excellence from this peculiar, but potentially powerful PR position.

The first thing to know about speechwriters is that many of them prefer to be referred to as something else. In fact, an argument broke out among the delegates at the first World Conference of the PSA about this point:

“The term ‘speechwriter’ is limiting,” someone said, questioning the wisdom of the name of the new association. One suggestion was to call it the “Leadership Communication Association,” in order to acknowledge the broader role that so many speechwriters have: building thought leadership platforms, crafting executive messages for many media and coaching executives through various communication opportunities.

But other speechwriters rose to the defense of the old term. One person said it’s useful because “it fences me off” from others in the organization who would water the job down with other duties. A self-proclaimed “speechwriter” is a kind of brand that “excites people,” as opposed to broader but blander descriptors such as “executive communicator.”

Don’t hide your speechwriter

The PSA survey revealed that speechwriters are older, more likely to be male, better educated, and better paid than their colleagues in public relations. The typical speechwriter is a 51-year-old man with a master’s degree. More than half of the speechwriters surveyed make more than $100,000 annually, with 23 percent pulling in more than $150,000 (and half of those making more than $200,000).

Speechwriters are also more likely than their well-coiffed PR colleagues to be unkempt, unruly, unconventional—or all of the above. But do not punish them for this. Every organization should have one person who is deeply—and perhaps even a little single-mindedly—devoted to helping the leader articulate the organization’s point of view as compellingly as possible.

Most leaders know this and will tolerate—and sometimes embrace—a little eccentricity in a person who helps them sound, look, and feel better in front of important audiences.

Help out your speechwriter

Even with the best client-speechwriter chemistry—JFK called his speechwriter Ted Sorensen “my intellectual blood bank”—the speechwriter struggles to get sufficient access to achieve a real mind-meld with the boss.

Now add the litany of common troubles that PSA members listed in the survey: solitude, short deadlines, slow workflows, lawyers, and indifference.

Speechwriters resent clients who “don’t care about content”—and bureaucrats who care too much: “I have to contend with constant micromanaging by people who see risk lurking in every corner and are afraid of letting the CEO take any kind of position,” one survey participant said. “They also have no feel for what constitutes good writing, yet exert a huge influence over the process.”

A PR manager should not be one of those risk-averse bureaucrats. And when the lawyers or the HR staff or the compliance people start sucking the life from a piece of leadership communication, fight valiantly on your speechwriter’s behalf.

Even if you don’t win, your speechwriter will appreciate having an ally instead of one more institutional enemy.

Know what makes your speechwriter happy

Asked what they like most about their work, speechwriters said “shaping public debates,” “finding and telling stories,” “intellectual and creative challenge and reward,” “the variety of topics and amazing people that I get to work with” and “the silent hours when I, through writing, try to understand and share something important.”

Speechwriters are like snowflakes; some succeed precisely because they’re CEO whisperers. But many of the ones worth keeping around are the oddest and most difficult to please. They have razor intellects, a restless curiosity and healthy—if not slightly obese—egos.

But remember, lots of speechwriters are older. So they know by now that life in leadership communication will not lay itself neatly before them. So if they can see that they are achieving something significant with their work, if they can be intellectually stimulated, if they feel that someone, somewhere in the organization believes that the corporate strategy can be advanced by articulate rhetoric and communication, they will stick around and keep giving their best, despite it all.

Thirty years ago, a corporate speechwriter wrote, “No one is recording these speeches. There are no books of them that readers save and treasure. Our files will be tossed on the scrap heap when we leave or retire. But we have been sitting at a typewriter making land, a sea, a sky, burning words. That’s enough. It is more than most have.”

In the end, it’s all your speechwriter requires. That, and a salary somewhere in the low six figures.

But in exchange for helping your organization’s top leadership communicate compellingly, is that too much to ask?

Friday, April 10, 2015

Blank Page, Blue Sky

by David Murray

I get it on the golf course every time I'm paired with a stranger. There's a wait on the fourth tee, and the guy says, "So what do you do for a living?"

(I generally want to avoid this conversation because I like to keep golf separate from life—the reason I play in the first place. Similarly, I don't take my business cards to bed with me in case I meet a potentially useful new contact in my dreams.)

"I'm a writer," I say, never able to hide the pride. It's cool to be a writer. It's old. It's elemental. It's a little like announcing that you're a fisherman or a hunter (or a clown or a prostitute). "Am a writer," my novelist mother once wrote. "Get to call myself that because I write."

But then there is dread. Dread because the response is so perfectly predictable.

"Oh, wow!" Pause, two seconds. "What sort of writing do you do?"

That last question means, "How on earth do you make a living? Or is your wife an investment banker and you're actually a bum and that's why you're on the golf course in the middle of the week?"

My pride forces me to convince the fellow that I do make a living, by hook and by crook, an exercise I resent. Once I've achieved this, his next line, if it's not the worst case ("I've got a story you should write!") is something to the effect of how interesting my work must be.

Which I take as a confession about how boring his life must be.

My old man, an advertising writer, used to see everyone else's job as a nightmare of tedium. Even a doctor! He said: "Can you imagine, day after day, hour after hour, patient after patient, describing the same symptoms over and over as if they were just the most important thing in the world? And you having to listen gravely, even though in most cases you know from the moment they walk into the office that you're going to prescribe amoxicillan."

Glad Dad wasn't a doctor? Me too. But maybe he was on to something. Maybe a writer does have a kind of blue sky that others don't. But the writer also has a blank page to contend with. (A bus driver once told me he pitied writers when he opened up the newspaper and tried to imagine some poor wretch having to write all those words!) A writer's work isn't done for him in the form of a full waiting room. A writer's work, however familiar the subject has become, must be done from scratch.

“People would say I must have had such a great life doing this, people who were engineers, doctors, insurance salesmen or whatever,” said radio comedy writer Tom Koch, who died last week. “But it was the kind of work where every morning I would wake up and think, ‘My God, I wonder if I can do it again today.’ There is no way you prepare to do it, or even know how you do it.”

And maybe that's the best thing about it.

This post originally appeared on Vital Speeches of the Day.

Friday, April 3, 2015

Around the Word

Here's the latest in our regular roundup of literary news.

Cover chosen for Harper Lee’s Go Set A Watchman
Michael Morrison notes that the jacket “draws on the style of the decade the book was written, but with a modern twist.” The cover, featuring a 1950s train forging off into the distance, touches “literally and figuratively on the book's content.” Surely, in contemporary celebrity fashion, Harper Lee’s fans will line up for half a mile just to catch a glimpse of the 88-year-old author’s winning smile.

Nine Launches, One Book
Can you be in nine places at once? In May, he folks at McPherson & Company, in an innovative experiment, will inhabit nine parallel universes—well, nine different bookstores—to launch the multi-author essay collection Every Father’s Daughter. Nine of the book's 20+ authors will host a simultaneous talk, with readers at one shop being able to Skype their questions to authors across the country. Join Gotham Ghostwriters (in nine separate realities) as we congratulate their achievement.

Centennial Stories
Best American Short Stories is celebrating its 100th birthday! Far from being infirm, crotchety, or behind the times, the series is vigorously planning a special anniversary edition to celebrate becoming a centenarian. 100 Years of the Best American Short Stories will feature seminal works from the last century, with contributions from literary luminaries such as George Saunders, John Cheever, Sherman Alexie, Edna Ferber, and many more.

To Self-Publish or Not to Self-Publish?
Lulu recently published an infographic based on a survey conducted by Digital Book World and Writer’s Digest, touting the benefits of going indie (self-publishing). Traditionalists beware! The revelations of the changing publishing landscape are gothic and dire. However, while the enticing “Indie Math” may lead writers to believe that navigating the dense forest of self-marketing is profitable, the article goes on to describe how difficult a venture this can prove.

Monday, February 23, 2015

To Write Well, Forget Everything Your High-School English Teacher Taught You

By Jonathan Rick

In today’s the-world-is-flat era, few things can differentiate you better than polished communication skills. Indeed, even at the world’s top PR agencies—among people who make their living off the written word—those who can write well are shockingly few (and increasingly well compensated).

Happily, the mechanics of good writing are eminently learnable. For most of us, the problem is readily diagnosable: our last English class was in college, and from our corporate perch today, we look down on continuing education—“Do I really need a two-hour seminar on something I do every day?”

Yes! We all do. (If you disagree, ask your boss.) In fact, the time you spend writing (emails, memos, reports, proposals, website copy, blog posts, social media content, e-newsletters, and so on and so forth) is a reason for training.

In that spirit, I hope you’ll page through the above presentation. A refresher on the myths and rules of good business writing, it contains cameos from House, Good Will Hunting, Saturday Night Live, Shakespeare, Churchill, Einstein, da Vinci, Orwell, and of course Strunk and White. Even the IRS makes an appearance.

Enjoy—and happy writing!

Jonathan Rick is the president of the Jonathan Rick Group, a communications consultancy in Washington, DC. For more linguistic learnings, pursue his blog, Sprachgefuhl.

Monday, February 16, 2015

GG is Hiring

Our firm is actively seeking candidates for three open positions to help us run and grow our business.

First, we are looking for two senior content pros with an entrepreneurial streak to serve as Managing Directors of our Bookwriting and Thought Leadership groups.

The MDs will be responsible for leading and scaling up our two main practice areas. The work will involve a mix of business development, brand ambassadorship, and client management.

You can find the full job descriptions here:

Managing Director, Bookwriters Group

Managing Director, Thought Leadership Group 

Additionally, we are looking for a highly organized self-starter who has a way with words to fill a Junior Associate position.

The Junior Associate will work closely with the President and other senior staff to help manage the firm's daily operations, support and service clients, and expand our brand.

You can find the full job description here:

Junior Associate 

If you are interested in being considered for one of these positions, please email your resume and at least three representative writing samples to:

Guest Post: Patrick Sweeney, on the three audiences

by Neil Hrab

Speechwriters, don’t let your eyes deceive you. When writing a speech, you’re typically trying to help a speaker connect with not one, but three distinct audiences. Patrick Sweeney, an author, speechwriter and corporate executive, explains the three audiences as follows:

“There’s the audience who requested you to speak, a separate audience whose job is to interpret your message, and then there is the audience of your audience. What I mean is that, first, there’s the audience who invited you because they are interested in your perspective. They are looking for you to engage, inform and inspire them. The second audience comprises journalists who are covering the event. Journalists are listening for content and style, substance and memorable phrases. They have an appreciation for words and language, so through your speech, you are also seeking to give them a place to take their story, realizing that your phrases can suggest possible headlines and lead paragraphs.”

“And then there’s the third audience—the people whom your listeners will interact with following the speech. You need to consider what they will remember about the speech and share with family and friends at the dinner table, for example. When drafting a speech for New Jersey Governor Brendan Byrne, my goal was to keep these three audiences in mind, and write something that would, hopefully, resonate on all three of those levels.”

A talent for connecting with audiences is, in some ways, the thread that binds together Sweeney’s multi-faceted career. After graduating from college in 1974, Sweeney worked as a newspaper reporter, magazine editor and assistant to the producer of a current events TV program. He also wrote feature articles for the New York Times.

In 1978, Sweeney left journalism to become the primary speechwriter to Brendan Byrne, who had just been re-elected as Governor of New Jersey. Being new to speechwriting, Sweeney particularly appreciated how generously Byrne shared his time, thought process and guidance on draft speeches. 

“In all honesty, it took a while to learn how to emulate the Governor’s style of speaking. I remember spending the first few weeks getting a sense of his cadence, his timing, and the way he liked to tell stories and make his points. He was very good at sharing with me what was working in a draft, and what I still needed to refine,” Sweeney recalled.

Sweeney would also research the subject matter for each speech, drawing on his experiences in journalism. “I would make sure the information in the draft was accurate, and then work with the Governor to create a message that clearly reflected his intent in a manner that was compelling.” 

Sweeney observed some similarities between his journalism and his speechwriting: “To me, speechwriting is a unique combination of the typical news story format, with elements of feature writing. These are two completely different ways of telling a story. A news story is all about facts, with the important information up front, in case it needs to be edited for length. A feature story, on the other hand, usually starts with some intriguing observation or story up front to pull readers in and grasp their attention. By putting these two approaches together, you can capture feelings and facts, thoughts and emotions – which is what I found myself doing for the Governor as a speechwriter.” 

While Sweeney was a journalist by background, and Byrne was a lawyer and former judge, the two shared a keen interest in ensuring that all speeches would connect in a moving way with their intended audiences.

“When he agreed to a speaking engagement, the Governor always had a very clear perspective on what message he wanted to communicate and how he would convey it. As we were developing a draft, he did not have to talk very long before I would often hear him say something that was very quotable. It was a very collaborative process, and the more time we spent with each other, the more effective I became as a speechwriter,” Sweeney said.

“With Governor Byrne, speaking engagements were opportunities to make a statement. So, he took the preparation very seriously. In the case of major addresses, for example, I would meet with him several months beforehand to discuss the speech. The Governor would explain the points he wanted to make and the impression he wanted to leave, as well as why he was doing the speech in front of this particular audience. I’d then craft the initial draft, and show it to him, and he’d say what he liked, where he wanted more details, where he might want the phrasing to be stronger, etc., and I would go back to work.”

For Sweeney, the most memorable speech that emerged from his work with Governor Byrne involved a March 4, 1981 speech in Philadelphia, PA. The Governor informed Sweeney he would use the speech to comment directly on then recently-elected President Reagan’s agenda. Byrne, a liberal Democrat, explained that he was not terribly impressed by Reagan’s claim that he could simultaneously balance the federal budget and increase military spending. “The math just doesn’t work,” Byrne told Sweeney. “There’s been a grace period for the new President, but I want to say that I feel like I am in the fairy tale where everyone seems to be admiring the new President’s clothes…but you can actually see right through them,” Byrne said.

Byrne further shared that, for this particular speech, he wanted Sweeney to confer via telephone with the renowned journalist and former editor of Saturday Review Norman Cousins. As a long-time admirer of Cousins’ work, Sweeney was thrilled to have the chance to collaborate with this legendary figure.

The speech delivered by Byrne to an audience of tri-state business leaders was a respectful but hard-hitting and carefully reasoned take-down of Reagan’s political program. It received extensive media coverage.

“I agree with the President that nothing is more important than our ability to defend ourselves,” Byrne said during the speech, “[but] the central question is: ‘What does our security depend upon?’ We cannot defend ourselves with 1890 ideas, any more than we can with 1890 weapons.”

On the President’s proposed military build-up, Byrne said: “We have human needs far more pressing than the foolish desire to continue building our stockpile of nuclear weapons…[For] if there was security in the arms race…we would certainly be secure by now….What are we doing [by building more nuclear weapons] except overloading our boats with life preservers to the point where there is no room for people?”

On the President’s plans to reduce the federal budget, Byrne adroitly observed Reagan wanted to “cut spending at every corner, unless those corners happen to be on the sites of military installations.” 

Sweeney subsequently left the Governor’s office in 1981 to begin working at Caliper, an international management consulting company based in Princeton, NJ. His accomplishments at Caliper include: serving as the company’s president; co-authoring two books with the company’s founder; and acting as one of the company’s key spokespeople. Sweeney recently decided to venture on his own, taking a page from a New York Times bestselling book he co-authored called Succeed on Your Own Terms. He is currently hard at work on a new book to be published by McGraw-Hill.

In his own speaking engagements, Sweeney has carried with him several lessons from his speechwriting days. One of them is that, as a speaker, Governor Byrne “was always true to himself. He had his own style of speaking, which he honed. My style of speaking is different from the Governor’s. Still, I carry with me his advice about being true to myself, being clear about my message, and seeking memorable ways to truly connect.”

Another lesson is to practice for speaking appearances, just as Governor Byrne would do: “It’s about honoring your audience, and showing that you’ve given the appearance your full dedication, commitment and enthusiasm.”

For Sweeney, pulling this all together is about ensuring that the perspective he is sharing, the points he is making, the humorous anecdotes, the poignant accounts, and all of the final touches he adds to his speeches are not just there to be amusing or interesting in and of themselves. “Stories enrich speeches, certainly. They can touch us in ways that are very deep and meaningful. What matters is that they come authentically from the speaker’s experience, interest and heart. That is when they truly connect and become much more powerful,” Sweeney said.


Sweeney shared one more piece of advice about connecting with an audience – inspired by a brief conversation he had with João Carlos Martins, the pianist known for his passionate interpretations of Bach. In 2007, just before Sweeney was about to go on stage to address a huge crowd at a leadership conference in São Paulo, he turned to Martins, an internationally-renowned performer, for some advice on connecting with such an enormous audience. Martins, who was featured in a book Sweeney co-authored, was scheduled to perform immediately after him.

Martins replied: “What I do beforehand is connect with my heart, and then I imagine the hearts of everyone in the audience. In this mediation, our hearts connect, and float up together. And, after that, I know everything will be fine.”

Sweeney cited Martins suggestion as an excellent way to sooth one’s pre-speech nerves. It’s one that other speechwriters-turned-speakers may want to file away for future reference. As Sweeney has learned, it is all about connecting.

This article originally appeared on Vital Speeches of the Day.