Friday, January 27, 2012

The State of the State of the Union (Part II)

By Dan Gerstein

After taking note on Tuesday of the near total absence of pre–State of the Union hype this year, we canvassed a number of our fellow speech pros to get a bead on what was behind this unusual lack of buzz. In particular, we wanted to know whether the ho-humness of the 2012 edition was an indication that our Super Bowl was losing its mojo—or whether it was just a matter of today's political moment.

The consensus take: it was the circumstances, not the pomp.

Most of the pros we consulted pointed first to the circus attraction/distraction of the Republican presidential campaign. Or, as Vital Speeches guru David Murray explained: "Because Newt Gingrich isn’t going to have the chance to stand next to the president smirking, and he doesn’t get to punch the president in the face. The politics-consuming public is addicted to the violence of these twice-weekly Republican brawls, and the prospect of watching the president shadowbox for an hour—meh. And then a thoughtful, articulate televised response by Mitch Daniels? Please."

Former Clinton speechwriter Heather Hurlburt said she wasn't surprised that this SOTU did not generate much heat, pointing to the all the political and policy news that was breaking in the run-up to speech night and sucking up most of the commentariat's attention. "Consider that this week you had the South Carolina primary Saturday, the GOP debate Monday, the SOTU Tuesday, a GOP debate Thursday, and the rollout of the first Pentagon budget cut in a decade Thursday. Oh, and a carrier sailing through the Straits of Hormuz," Hurlburt added. "It’s like holding the Super Bowl during the Olympics."

Another significant factor, our pros noted, was the White House's conscious strategy of downplaying this year's speech and not leaking out new policy tidbits to pump up the Beltway hype machine. Again, D.C.-based pro Michael Freeman said, this was predictable, given the current budgetary and political environment, which is not exactly hospitable to buzz-worthy ideas. "Obama cannot, no matter how determined he may be, get an initiative of any meaningful scope through this Congress," Freeman explained. "If he offers ideas of magnitude, the words are hollow because the proposals can't go anywhere. If he sticks to things he can get done, we're in Bill Clinton V-Chip territory. Yawn."

But our experts did see one troubling larger trend at work: the corrosive effect of the widespread anger at and frustration with Washington. "Cynicism is carrying the day," said Freeman, who served as chief speechwriter at the Social Security Administration. "Congress's approval ratings are nearing single digits. Obama's are mired below 50. There's no confidence that anything said in the SOTU is going to dramatically change the state of play in America." Added Hurlburt: "Not just the SOTU, but do all the performance rituals of Washington matter less to a country and media that sees them all as equally compromised, empty, and meaningless?  Maybe."

Gerstein is President of Gotham Ghostwriters and a regular political analyst on Fox News.

Wednesday, January 25, 2012

10 Must-Have Books for Speechwriters

By Michael Long
This article first appeared on Ragan.

Those of us who write for a living know that most books on “how to write” are far more for the benefit of the author than the reader; that is, they are often make-a-buck hardbacks for resourceful authors, dangled before people who prefer to imagine the writer’s life than to indulge in its air-conditioned torment and capriciously timed paydays.
The few “writing” books I find worth my time offer unique supporting material not available on the Internet, and encourage me to think about my work from a new perspective. On that basis, here are ten or so titles that every speechwriter—every writer, actually—can learn from, and even enjoy.
The Elements of Style by William Strunk and E.B. White. This comes first because by comparison everything else is mere ornament. Strunk and White provide a lesson in clarity delivered with wit and brevity. You can’t read this and not become a better writer.
Lend Me Your Ears: Great Speeches in History by William Safire. This reference is a tour of styles in their eras, yet also a reminder that elements of persuasion and structure are as old as time. That points to the next title...
The Trivium: The Liberal Arts of Logic, Grammar, and Rhetoric by Sister Miriam Joseph. Speechwriting as a class or even a course of academic study is a recent phenomenon. Most of us who write speeches landed the job by insisting we could do it, not by studying technique. But speechwriting is in many ways nothing more than a sophisticated application of reasoning and expression. This dense and powerful book (which is enjoying a little renaissance just now) is a detailed tour of the function of language and communication, and the power of precision.
The Political Speechwriter’s Companion by Robert Lehrman. This 2010 textbook is by novelist and former Al Gore speechwriter (and Ragan presenter) Bob Lehrman, who will be giving a few talks at the March Speechwriter’s Conference in Washington, D.C. Forget the title. This is a clear, even joyful guide to the mechanics of all speechwriting, with some down-to-earth direction on wordsmithing on top of it all. Speaking of wordsmithing...
Tunesmith by Jimmy Webb. Essayist Jay Nordlinger quotes an old professor of his:  “You want to write better? See a ballet, listen to a symphony—get some art in you. Get some artistry in your prose.” Just so. Webb is among the most talented and successful songwriters of the last 60 years, and in this book he explains where his memorable turns of phrase come from—and he doesn’t prescribes simply waiting for the muse. Webb talks about poetry and prose in structural terms, and he attaches method to what most of us imagine to be only born-with-it inspiration.
Save the Cat by Blake Snyder. Here’s a book on screenwriting that breaks down modern drama into points of a story, all of which build on the classic idea of tension and release. Snyder’s lesson for speechwriters is that prose gains color and, therefore, power when it exploits dramatic tension. Snyder shows step by step how to create drama in general and tension in particular, among many other lessons that the creative speechwriter will use over and over again.
Speech is performance—a form of acting. Speechwriters who understand this can better balance detail with emotion and will put into proper perspective (and practice!) what ought to be at the center of the craft, which is its often-ignored theatrical aspects. The best mainstream guide to this idea is also a delight to read:  2010’s Theatre by David Mamet, arguably the world’s greatest living playwright. 
A few more to round out the list:  Any joke book on the remainder table at Barnes & Noble is worth your money, because simple jokes are always in demand, and the Internet will lead you to the same few chestnuts over and over. This Day in Business History by Raymond Francis is a splendid collection of anecdotes that are perfect for introducing or illustrating any topic, while Condemned to Repeat It by Wick Allison, Jeremy Adams and Gavin Hambly explores, in essay form, several dozen historical incidents as demonstrations of lessons in business and life.
Finally, Amusing Ourselves to Death by Neil Postman explains how the nature of communication is inseparable from its content. Written before the rise of the Internet, its psychological and sociological points are still true (and still disturbing) and important for all speechwriters to know.
A frequent presenter at Ragan conferences, Michael Long is a freelance writer and speechwriter in Washington, D.C., and an adjunct professor teaching writing and public relations at Georgetown University. His website is

Tuesday, January 24, 2012

Two Cheers for the State of the Union

By Robert Lehrman

Even Richard M. Nixon rebelled.

This pragmatic president told his speechwriters in 1970 that he didn’t want the traditional “laundry list” State of the Union speech. No “pragmatism,” he insisted. “I want an idea speech.”

At one point, Nixon put his feet on the desk and said, “Good God. Agriculture in a State of the Union isn’t worth a damn.”

He wasn’t the only one who disliked the 222-year tradition that President Barack Obama carries on Tuesday night.

It’s common for a president’s enemies to skewer what we now call SOTU—“platitudes, platitudes, platitudes,” one described Obama’s last year.

But plenty of others hate it, too. And for the usual reasons—it’s:

Dishonest: No matter the real state of the union, presidents always assert it’s strong. Despite the economy, Obama said those very words (“our union is strong”) in 2010, saying he’d “never been more hopeful.”

Dumbed down: One academic has blasted the SOTU for abandoning the complex language of George Washington—about the reading level of a college graduate—for the language of grade-school kids. Last year, Obama’s was rated 8.7. (This op-ed? 8.0.)

Theatrical: “Policy demands packaged in pomp and circumstance,” writes one blogger. The ceremonial parade in, the scripted applause lines, the saccharine tributes to guests in the balcony. That’s a lot of pomp.

Endless: One White House speechwriter asked his mom for advice before writing one. “Keep it short,” she said. Washington’s was 1,087 words—a few hundred longer than this piece. In 2000, Clinton’s was 7,452. Last year? 6,800.

There are other complaints: partisanship, a disgracefully short opposition response and, yes, platitudes. So should we all ignore what Obama says on Tuesday? No.

The fact is, this imperfect tradition deserves two cheers, at least. It is—gasp!—useful. Anyone listening or reading on Tuesday can learn a lot. Because the speech is a:

Guide for what’s ahead: Like movie trailers, the State of the Union previews what will happen. Really. In the past 50 years, presidents averaged about 36 requests per SOTU. Even with divided governments, about 41 percent on average become law. Disregard the platitudes. Find the policy. Like Waldo—it’s there.

Statement of broad themes: The address lays out big themes that divide the country. Woodrow Wilson, who restored the SOTU to oratory rather than a written message, did it partly to show he was as vigorous as his Rough Rider predecessor, Theodore Roosevelt. He also did it because he believed in activist government—calling for things that left even Democrats aghast. Obama will also outline ways he favors activist government, setting the stage for next fall’s debate.

Blueprint Americans can understand: Is the reading level of today’s SOTU too low? Not if you think most of the 40 million or so Americans tuning in deserve to grasp it. Americans average a seventh-grade level. Four out of ten Americans would have trouble reading even last year’s speech. How many more should we cut out? Really, that most Americans will be able to watch, read—and understand—Tuesday night’s speech is a virtue.

Sometimes a really historic document: Most of the 220 SOTUs aren’t worth reading now. But some are, and for good reason. Take 1822, when President James Monroe announced what’s now called the Monroe Doctrine. Or 1941, when President Franklin D. Roosevelt unveiled the Four Freedoms.

Or 1961, when a speechwriter named Ralph Williams wrote a line that President Dwight Eisenhower liked. Now Ike’s most memorable line is that warning about the “military-industrial complex.”

And that laundry list?

“People like laundry lists,” says former chief Clinton speechwriter David Kusnet, who helped write several SOTUs.

Why? For the same reason Civil War soldiers, who originated the phrase, started making them: to keep track of clothes they needed back from the cleaners. Sometimes we need a list of the tasks ahead—even if the prose needs work.

Back in 1970, White House speechwriters were frantically trying to give their anti-laundry list boss what he wanted. Against drugs in theory, the administration let White House doctors give speechwriter Ray Price the drug many anti-war activists loved: speed. After two amphetamine-fueled all-nighters, Price saw the result. His desk appeared  both in front of him—and against the far wall. Luckily, a young aid  Richard Blumenthal, now a Democratic senator from Connecticut—saw him safely home.

“It was unsettling,” Price said.

When Blumenthal takes his seat in the House chamber Tuesday night, expect him to draw on decades of experience to examine Obama’s version of America’s laundry list. We should, too.

Because buried inside the sentences and paragraphs of chaff, we’ll find what, in 1970, Nixon wanted: ideas.

Maybe even about agriculture.

Robert Lehrman served as a White House chief speechwriter for Vice President Al Gore. He is author of
The Political Speechwriter’s Companion and an adjunct professor at American University, where he teaches speechwriting, and co-runs the blog Punditwire. This article originally appeared in Politico.

The State of the State of the Union (Part I)

By Dan Gerstein

Over the last few years we have had much fun partaking in the pre-game chatter around the State of the Union with our fellow speech junkies, and we had every expectation of doing the same with the 2012 edition. But a funny thing happened on the way to Statuary Hall this month—instead of pundits, we heard crickets.

Indeed, this has to be the least hyped or talked about SOTU I can remember since the dawn of the digital age. We have been tracking the commentariat pretty closely the last two weeks, and outside of a few scattered obligatory preview pieces in the political press in the last few days, there has been none of the usual build-up of buzz. No splashy front-page curtain-raisers on the President's big new proposals, no political Page 6 gossip about who will be sitting in the First Lady's box, no profiles of the speechwriters toiling in the shadows.

One telling barometer of this year's snooze-a-palooza is how Politico's Playbook, the political insider's bible, has played the speech Monday and today. Normally, in the last two days before the SOTU, it's the topic of conversation in Washington, but in Monday's Playbook there was not one item devoted to the event; today's edition led with an announcement from Bill Gates and several items related to the Republican debate in Florida last night and Mitt Romney's tax returns, before getting to a post-speech preview from a White House official and a couple small speech tidbits.

Even more notable, though, has been the lack of interest in and engagement by the speechwriting community. Unlike past years, when speech blogs were offering a steady stream of pre-SOTU analysis and viewing tips, those sites have been relatively silent on the subject over the past two years. Vital Speeches, Pundit Wire—not one post on either industry-leading blog about the SOTU in the last week (and we are just as guilty here). What was once seen as our Super Bowl has been greeted like a preseason scrimmage.

That's got us more than a little curious. Is this a temporary reflection of the moment and this particular contextual combination—Obama's tenuous political standing, the White House's low-key approach to the speech, the riveting circus of the Republican presidential campaign (can tax reform really compete with open marriage revelations)? Or, or as savvy Politico columnist Roger Simon recently suggested, is it part of a larger pattern/trend around the SOTU as an institution itself?

We invite our fellow speech pros to weigh in with their thoughts—in particular about the long-term implications for our profession. We'll share those insights and judgments in a post-mortem piece later this week.

Gerstein is President of Gotham Ghostwriters and a regular political analyst on Fox News.

#SOTU Tips Direct from Twitter

For all of you tweeting about the SOTU tonight, we thought you might find this official prep memo from Twitter helpful.
This year's State of the Union is sure to be one of the most tweeted-about political events of the season. While we expect the #sotu hashtag to be especially prevalent (last year the #sotu hashtag appeared in more than 80 percent of Tweets about the speech), we also will see a deeper granularity in how hashtags will track the movement of the speech.

For the first time ever, the White House has identified hashtags outlining key sections of the speech:

Twitter will be analyzing themes in the conversation and distributing the results for you to use through this Newsletter and the Twitter Blog. With your help we can make this data as representative as possible. Consider adding these hashtags to your Tweets when appropriate, and encouraging your audience to do the same. The use of hashtags in persistent on-air graphics, in particular, is a proven driver of audience engagement and will help us provide you with the most editorially-relevant measurement of reaction volume following the speech.

Monday, January 23, 2012

SOTU Live Tweetchat

We're gearing up for our third annual State of the Union Live Tweetchat tomorrow night, and we invite you to join the conversation.

We'll have a few of our political speechwriting pros offering running commentary during the speech, and we welcome our friends and followers to jump in and pop off if and when you want.

You can find and follow the discussion here.

Use the special hashtag #GGSOTU to have your comments appear in our stream.

If you want to get your words out to the wider Twitter-verse, also add the general hashtag #SOTU.

In the meantime, be sure to check out our Facebook page over the next couple days for the latest news and views on the speech.

We look forward to seeing you online Tuesday night!

Friday, January 20, 2012

Writer Profile: Mike Long

Gotham Ghostwriters knows a lot of writers. In our Writer Profile series, we share some of them with you.

Mike Long is a D.C.-based writer, educator, and dramatist. When he's not writing speeches, he's teaching in the master's program at Georgetown University, where he lectures on speechwriting, PR, and other writing-related matters. He's also often on the road leading seminars on writing, and is working on a textbook on PR writing that will be published by Pearson in 2013. On top of all that, two of his one-act plays—"Hostages" and "Arithmetic for Art Majors"—have been produced by the Players Theatre in Greenwich Village, and his screenplay "How to Save Your Own Life" is currently a semi-finalist in the Vail Film Festival. For even more about Mike, check out his website or find him on Facebook.

What led you to become a writer?
I've loved writing since I was a kid, but I didn't think you could actually make a living doing it, so I pursued science, and followed that career for a decade. As I got out into the world, I discovered that there are all kinds of writers-for-hire out here, a realization that coincided with my growing dissatisfaction with being a systems analyst and programmer. Finding that many speechwriters had the same disparate interests and non-writing education backgrounds as my own, I made friends with some of them, and they opened the door to a career change. I've been ridiculously happy ever since.

What have been some of your favorite projects?
Can't tell ya. That's part of being a ghostwriter: pride in the work has to take the place of public credit. But I can say that I'm especially proud of a couple commencements I wrote for delivery at big-name universities, and I wrote an inaugural address for a governor, which was pretty exciting. Oh—I wrote the liner notes for the DVD release of Jerry Seinfeld's documentary Comedian. That was cool. 

What do you do when you're not writing?
Ha—when I'm not writing for a client, I'm writing for my own amusement; I'm working on more stageplays just now. And I always have a lot of things going on: I like hacking around on the guitar, I'm a computer nerd from way back, I'm a stand-up comedy junkie (I did stand-up, long ago), and lately I enjoy grilling and smoking meats. I suppose the unifying idea behind all of it is that I like learning how to do new things.

What makes a client good to work for?
I appreciate clients who pay well and pay on time. Maybe that's crass, but for a freelancer, it matters. As for the kind of work experience I like, give me someone who trusts me. I want them to call on me because they see that they can give me an assignment, work with me to figure out what it should be, and then I'll go away and work, and bring them back just what they're expecting. A clean experience for all concerned.

What advice do you have for aspiring writers?
Get into this career only if you know for sure that you enjoy the act of writing; don't mistake that for the good feeling of "having written." Writing is work. It's not taxing like digging a ditch, sure, but it does take concentration, patience, and thick skin. Another thing: Be curious. Give yourself permission to investigate anything that interests you. What you furnish your mind with is what comes out on the page. You can't help it. That's how writing works. So if you want to be an interesting writer, be an interesting person. Most of all, be interesting to yourself.

Monday, January 16, 2012

Around the Word

Ladies who speechify. Although today is a day to honor Martin Luther King, one of the country's best-known orators, he's not the only one who could deliver an incredible speech. In early 2011, the blog The Eloquent Woman started compiling a list of outstanding speeches by women in a weekly feature, "Famous Speech Friday." They've got quite an impressive list—from luminaries like Sojourner Truth, Phyllis Schlafly, Helen Keller, and even Lady Gaga.

Classes for all: Want to take a food-cart tour, learn to print a poster, or study the art of great conversation? No? Well, maybe "Intro to Memoir Writing" or "Nuts & Bolts of Writing Nonfiction Book Proposals" are more up your alley. Either way, Skillshare, a community marketplace that aims to democratize learning, has you covered. Anyone can teach a Skillshare class, so the topics are eclectic, and courses are offered all over the country. If you're looking for classes on writing, GalleyCat has a short list of those here.

User-generated magazine: In a bold move, Ladies' Home Journal plans to start letting their readers write much of the content for the magazine, AdAge reports. This is especially daring for a publication whose readership skews older, and points to the brand's desire to court younger readers and remain relevant. And lest you think this is simply a way to stop paying for content, Editor-in-Chief Sally Lee allays those fear, saying, "We're going to pay [the writers] professional rates."

Wordy meals? In the latest attempt to revitalize their image, McDonald's will begin distributing something new in their Happy Meals across the UK—books! They've signed an agreement with HarperCollins to give away six different books from the Mudpuddle Farms series over the next few weeks. According to The Telegraph, "In 2011, sales of children's books averaged 1.16 million per week...which means that McDonald's will be handing out considerably more books than are usually sold in the UK in the same period." Incredible!

Thursday, January 12, 2012

Gotham's Gerstein Joins NYU Adjunct Faculty

We're very pleased to announce that Gotham Ghostwriters' president Dan Gerstein has been appointed an adjunct instructor at New York University. He'll be joining the NYU School of Continuing and Professional Studies faculty in the Master's Degree Program in Public Relations and Corporate Communication.

This semester Dan will start off with a course on communications ethics. In the future he plans to teach a range of courses focused on professional writing, thought leadership, and public affairs.

Wednesday, January 4, 2012

From Ragan: Bad Writing Is Killing America

If you work at a writing firm (or are given to perusing the blog of same), a headline like that is bound to catch your attention.

Over on Ragan, Mark Ragan has an interview with Peter Shankman, founder of Help a Reporter Out, who is just a little bit upset about the rampant bad writing in the media, especially in places like Twitter. He says: "Having an audience is a privilege, not a right. It's much like wearing spandex."

Check out the full interview below.