When you ghostwrite a speech for someone else, it means you only have that person as your audience. It can be a good thing or a bad thing depending on which angle you look at it. On the one hand, you only have one person to impress. On the other, you really have to know what that person believes for your words to truly resonate with them and in turn, resonate with their real audience. That is probably the greatest challenge that Rob Noel has had as a speechwriter for some of the biggest political and corporate figures out there, including Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, US Chamber of Commerce President and CEO Tom Donohue, Undersecretary Keith Krach, and US Senator and Presidential candidate Mark Rubio. An award-winning speechwriter and executive communications advisor, Rob is also the President of the Washington Writers Network. Join in as he let us take a peek inside a day in the life of a speechwriter in this conversation with Dr. Diane Hamilton.
I’m glad you joined us because we have Rob Noel here. He’s the President of the Washington Writers Network, and he writes speeches for some of the biggest politicians out there. It’s going to be a fascinating show.
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Writing For An Audience Of One: The Art Of Speechwriting With Rob Noel
Rob Noel is an award-winning speechwriter and executive communications advisor who’s worked with senior corporate and government leaders, including Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, US Chamber of Commerce President and CEO Tom Donohue, Undersecretary Keith Krach, and US Senator and Presidential candidate Mark Rubio. He’s the Founder and President of Washington Writers Network, an agency that connects clients across sectors to a growing network of more than 80 professional writers in the DC area.
It’s so nice to have you here, Rob.
Nice to be here. Thank you for having me.
I found you because I noticed Keith Krach had responded to something that you had written on LinkedIn and I have done a lot of different things with Keith. From being on the board of advisors at DocuSign or to Global Mentoring Network, and he wrote the foreword of my last book on curiosity. He’s such an impressive guy. I was excited to see who impressed him and you obviously did. I’m curious to find out a little bit more about your background. I’d like to know how you met Keith and what you’ve done with him.
I told him I was coming on your show and he sent me the foreword that he did for your book on curiosity. It made me buy the book. It’s good and in fact, it gave me a lot of thoughts on speech writing which we should get to at some point. I started as a communications assistant for Rubio in the Senate. I volunteered to do some writing because I enjoyed it. Started out with blog posts and eventually graduated to op-eds and video scripts. They tried me out on a speech. I didn’t know it at the time but that was coming from the senator. They said, “Want to try this guy out.” I passed the test. They made me the speechwriter. I did that for about three years.
I then went to the US Chamber and wrote for Tom Donohue, who was a completely different person, a different type of writing. Marco came from a blue-collar background. His mom was a maid in hotels, his dad was a bartender in hotels, they were both Cuban refugees. Tom Donohue made $10 million a year. He was driven around in a black car with tinted windows, Brooklyn, and tough as nails. It was great getting to write for a different style of person. I learned a lot about the craft and making that shift.
I then interviewed with Pompeo when he was at the CIA, and I was originally going to work for him there. When I went in to meet with him, that was the day that he was nominated for Secretary of State. He said, “Why don’t you come with me to State?” That’s what I did. That’s how I met Keith. I got to know him when I was at the State Department writing for Pompeo. I was working on his speech about Keith for his swearing-in ceremony. He had been confirmed as Undersecretary.Speechwriting is a character study because your ability to write for somebody always comes down to your ability to understand them. Click To Tweet
The secretary at the last minute had to end up canceling that but as I was writing that speech, I went and met with Keith in his office and we both hit it off. He eventually ended up inviting me to come work for him and I took him up on it even though I was, in a sense, demoting myself going from writing for his boss to writing for the undersecretary but I liked Keith. I felt that we thought fairly similarly, which is more than nice to have. It’s foundational to a creative partnership, which is what speech writing is but also, of course, I wanted to start my business and who better to learn from but Keith.
I don’t think there’s a person alive who met Keith who didn’t like him. He’s the most interesting, down-to-earth guy, and a billionaire who has done everything and yet he seems so approachable in many ways. That must have been fun to work with him. As you were talking about him, I’m thinking about adjusting to each person’s style. That’s going to be challenging. How do you do that? How do you know how to sound in their voice?
That’s the job. Take Keith for example. As you said, he’s a unique guy by government standards. He’s the opposite of a bureaucrat. He’s not a politician. He’s this tech CEO with this massive personality. His mind works in a special way. He didn’t care about upsetting the status quo. In fact, he preferred to go against the grain, which is interesting to watch in the Federal government because it’s by nature, constrictive and bureaucratic but he viewed it as a public service rather than as a career move.
He would tell me, “I don’t care if the President fires me for this. We’re going to do it this way.” That this is an aside but that’s not to say he had nothing to lose. People don’t realize he gave up a lot to take the job. He had to divest all of his stake in DocuSign and then while he was at State, DocuSign stock tripled because of the pandemic. Keith effectively gave up probably $1 billion or more to join the government but he didn’t care.
He already had enough money and he knew that what he was working on at that time, during the pandemic especially, which was securing PPE from around the world, which was in short supply at that time. Ten million masks from Bangladesh. One billion gloves from China. Ventilators, medicines, getting them back the frontline health care workers. He knew that was literally life-saving work. He was uniquely well-equipped to do it because it didn’t just involve diplomacy. He had to enlist the help of a lot of American companies.
Keith would call the CEOs of FedEx and UPS. They both sent fleets of aircraft to these foreign countries to help airlift the medical supplies back to the States. He then had to have the distribution networks in place once the planes landed. Companies like Cardinal Health, McKesson. It was a massive operation. It was a whole government operation but Keith played a critical role that I don’t think anyone else could have played.
To answer your question, the best part about speech writing is getting to work closely in a personal capacity with exceptional people who are uniquely successful necessarily or else they wouldn’t need a speechwriter. It’s a privilege. When you’re working with Keith or anyone else on their communications, I view it as a character study because my ability to write for them always comes down to my ability to understand them.
I talk about this a lot with the younger writers in my business. It’s not a good idea to view speech writing as an opportunity to express their views. You may see this a lot in political speech writing. People think this is my chance to inject my opinions into the debate. You’re going to fail if you do it that way because the only way to write a good speech is to write something that the person truly believes and that resonates with them on a deeply personal level. When they deliver, they deliver it with feeling. If they believe it, the audience will feel it as a result. I like to say that the job of a speechwriter is to write for an audience of one person, and that’s your boss.
It’s got to be challenging if you write things and then they think. I’m sure you get feedback. You have to because everybody is going to have their own little unique things that maybe they don’t want you to say this or that. How is that on your ego sometimes? You think you’ve written the perfect thing, then maybe they have some corrections. Is that hard? I would think it would be a little hard.
It’s definitely hard. A lot of writers, there’s a natural pride in authorship and what you’re doing and why you want it to reflect well on yourself. There’s a component of your own creativity that’s involved as a speechwriter. If you take the same principles say Keith or Barack Obama and you give 100 speech writers equal access to him and the exact same topic and parameters to write a speech on, you’ll get 100 different speeches and they’ll range in quality. The best one is whichever one he likes the most because the principal is the only person that matters. It’s not the audience, which is what a lot of people think. It’s not what another speechwriter would think based on the technical merit of the speech. It’s all about the principle and jiving with their personal way of looking at the world.
I guess you would also have to worry about anybody critiquing from the public if they don’t like the message to some extent or the way it was said. Have you had to deal with that as a writer? How do you handle that?
It’s a consideration, particularly with political writing. If you’re working for a candidate but I tried to not make that my concern because with an audience of one. It’s your risk tolerance. Whatever the person you’re writing for is risk tolerances and a lot of the job, particularly the higher-level principle you’re writing for, there’s a lot of people reviewing the speeches. It’s everyone from political consultants, attorneys, to policy experts. A lot of the job is fighting to keep things out, fighting to keep things, then that’s particularly difficult with the edgy stuff. Edgy material is what people remember in a speech. It’s important to maintain some risk tolerance when you’re writing.
It is hard just because I give my own talks and do my own things like this and write books and I know that there’s a lot of us who have content knowledge but maybe it’s hard to write it in the best way or speak it in the most effective way. Do you see a lot of that in Washington that there are these people who have such great ideas but it’s hard for them to get it out in the best way possible? Unless they hire somebody like you.
There’s a component of that to it I’m always hesitant to say that it’s like these people that you’re writing speeches for are less talented in some way than you, and you’re being called in to make them sound better than they otherwise would because in most cases, they’re where they are because they’re extraordinarily gifted at communicating their ideas. A lot of it is saving them time. For high-level people, it’s not worth their time to be sitting at a keyboard clacking away on a speech when they should be writing legislation or on the phone with like the King of Jordan or something like that, which is the case with Pompeo. It’s saving them time. The best compliment that you can ever get from someone that you’re writing for is, “That’s exactly what I think and you said it as well or better than I could have.” That’s what you want to hear.
Don’t you have to go sit down with them and figure out what they want to say? How do you get the content that you’re going to need to write?The job of a speechwriter is to write for an audience of one – your boss. Click To Tweet
That depends. Ideally, you want to get as much time with them as you can, particularly on the front end, when the relationship is just starting. You want to get to know them in a relaxed setting, almost interview them the way you would for a podcast. You ask them questions even that are tangential to the topics you’re going to be writing on because you want to know their background. I mentioned with Rubio, the family story. That was incredibly integral to the way that he thought about policy, the way that he communicated and message this idea.
If you wrote for the son of immigrants from Miami, parents who only spoke Spanish, the same way that you wrote for Tom Donohue at the chamber or for Mike Pompeo. He came from a working-class background as well but he was in West Point at 18, officer training. Born to lead people. You’re going to fail if you treat everyone the same. Spending that time with them to get to know them is where your work on curiosity interests me because you have to take almost like a therapist’s or a psychologist’s approach to sitting down with someone where you’re taking a professional, detailed interest in them. A lot of it is letting them talk, letting the conversation go where they want it to go, and being curious about the way that they organize their thoughts, the way that they think about the world, and all of that. It’s a challenge but it’s the fun of the job, in my opinion.
When I talked to Keith, that’s why I wanted him to write the foreword because as you said earlier, he was so against the status quo. That’s what I was getting at with developing curiosity was getting out of status quo thinking. I know he credits a lot of things to his mother. He called her Mama Croc. I’m sure that came into play when you’re thinking of his influences and different things. You’re dealing with him because he’s, as you talked about and I talked about, a big leader in the business world so you don’t just write speeches for politicians. You’ve got professional writers in the DC area working for leaders too, other industries?
Speech writing is as important in the corporate world at the Fortune 500 level, but even down from that to midsize companies, it’s like what I was saying, it’s not worth their time usually. If you’re leading a company, you’re managing a staff and a few thousand people. You’re dealing with profit concerns and all sorts of things. You want to have a thought partnership with someone that you can trust that understands the way that you think, who can save you time, who can help you craft persuasive, powerful on-brand content for you and for your company. It’s like Keith always says, the CEO is 50% of the brand of a company. It’s a worthwhile investment for a company to make to get the right person in there to work with their executive.
In the political realm, I’m curious as you’re watching some of the speeches either you wrote or other people have written and you’re watching people deliver them. How often did they go off script? Do you sit there and look for those kinds of things and go, “That can’t be in the script?”
Yes, and it’s great when someone goes off-script. In fact, in some ways, I take it as a compliment when you craft an argument that gets them so excited that they have something else to say about it they go off from their excitement to elaborate on a point. That’s often where the gold is. I like seeing that audiences generally respond well to it. It can get you in trouble sometimes, but most of these guys are savvy enough to speak carefully at a podium but you do see that a lot and that’s a good thing.
Do you put in things that you think, “I want this to go down in history,” like ask not what your country can do for you kind of things? Are you thinking, “This could be a cool soundbite forever posterity or whatever?”
The goals are always different. For the secretary, we were writing with an eye towards history and the way that the policies of the administration would be remembered, and the impact that they would have. For a corporate client, sometimes you’re writing an earnings call script. In those cases, it’s better to be straightforward, fact-based, someone in a dime in the presentation because it can swing your stock price if you hit too hard or anything like that. For others, the concern is the media. You want to have lines in there that can make for a headline or else the speech isn’t likely to be covered. If it’s not covered, you are wasting your time because the thing has to have legs after it’s delivered, or else your audience is limited to whoever was in the room.
Are you looking for controversy then? Is that a part of it?
Sometimes you are. We don’t want to get into politics but you saw this a lot with Trump. He was good at understanding the way that media responded to certain things. He was an entertainer and a showman. That’s reflective of a broader trend and content creation society where we have so much content competing for our attention at any given moment more than ever before in history by far. The message has to be authentic. It has to somewhat sizzle so that people talk about it. You’ve got some water cooler talk on it.
The media, it’s not their fault, they’re a business and they’re chasing clicks and chasing viewers like everyone else. They want to cover the things that are going to make you click on them. I watch this carefully myself when I’m browsing Google News or any other compendium of news. I’m clicking on things that are controversial or make me curious and interested. There is some of that but it all comes back to understanding your principle and the goals that they have and staying within the fences that they built for you.
I’m curious how thick their skin is after they give these speeches and then things are taken out of context or written about them in a negative way. Are they used to it being in politics that they’re expecting it or does it sting?
There’s as much diversity and personality at the top as there is at any other level. You’ve got a lot of thin-skinned people. That’s part of their ambition. The fact that they care a lot about what people think about them and the way they’re perceived. You then also have a lot of people who are gunning and going for it. They want to upset a certain portion of the public or the audience because they see an appeal in that. There’s a big variety.
A lot of people reading this aren’t in politics and they want to write a great speech. How can they learn from what you do to craft a presidential equality type speech? What are some of the things that you can share with them?
The key is authenticity. This is, of course, a word that you can’t escape from. It’s been hijacked by a lot of sleazy PR types and sort of corporate holiday and brown bag lunches where they’re teaching on this stuff but everyone defines it differently. I’m convinced that the biggest signature of authenticity, at least in the context of speechwriting, is a certain kind of risk-taking. It’s a willingness to say what you mean even if it might alienate a subset of people and the reason.
This is because back to your earlier question, it’s the primary way that I can tell whether a speech was written by a ghostwriter or by the person actually delivering the speech. When you see something that shoots from the hip in a powerful way with a lot of thoughtfulness and emotion and energy, it’s probably coming from that person because a speechwriter, in many cases, is writing to please the boss. There’s a certain risk aversion inherent to that because you don’t want to look stupid sending the boss something that goes out too far on a limb. Risk doesn’t mean that you’re being unnecessarily edgy or intentionally controversial because that’s not authentic either. People can sniff out phoniness. People have a sixth sense for that sort of authenticity. It just means that you’re confident in your message and you’re willing to throw every persuasive tool in your toolbox at it within reason.
Do you need to be a great storyteller to be a good speechwriter?
That’s a big key. Stories are what people remember much more than your three points on policy or whatever else. It’s the anecdotes. This has been studied. There’s a direct correlation between the vividness of the language, the relatability of what you’re saying, and how it casts someone in a human light. Vulnerability is a powerful tool for speakers and it’s another signature of authenticity. Telling the right stories, telling them tightly, you don’t want to lose people. Sometimes the people will wind on and drone about things that are tangential or uninteresting to the thesis of the speech but generally, storytelling is huge.
That’s a challenging thing for people. I’ve had a lot of Hall of Fame speakers on the show a lot of them I’ll speak to him after the show or even on the show about what they do and their storytelling. Some say they write down things that happened to him and then they make them bigger and more dramatic. How do you get to be like that? How do you hone that skill?
With experience, writing for various people and then going and seeing the speeches that you’ve written and delivered, which can be a painful experience. It’s not always enjoyable to watch your speeches because it always sounds different in your head when you’re writing it on the page.
They may put a different emphasis somewhere than you expected, that kind of thing?
That kind of thing, you’ll write in an applause line, you’ll even bracket it, and make clear to the speaker that this is something to emphasize here, with some emphasis but sometimes they’ll flub those things, little tepid applause or something like that and it makes you cringe. Other times, they nail it. When that happens, you learn a little bit about the way to write it, the way to keep each sentence propulsive, moving the argument forward, and moving the speech in a new direction that keeps people interested.
I like to think about attention spans. This is another thing about our culture, partly a product of the technology that we have now, where attention spans are much shorter. This has been studied where at the turn of the century. Years ago, it was something twelve minutes which is pretty short. There’s probably a time not long before that, it was twenty minutes. Now, they say it’s five minutes and online it’s six seconds. If you think about scrolling through Instagram or Facebook, you’re not spending more than six seconds on an Instagram post before you’re like, “What’s next?” You got to be careful about not losing an audience that’s hard to do. Tight writing is important, punchy writing is important, vivid language is critical.
As you were saying about the tone and things not coming out, the jokes not landing. It reminds me, I had Dion Graham on my show, who’s an actor. In the First 48, he’s the voice behind that. He does a million voiceover things for books and stuff, so I had listened to him. I listened to Neil deGrasse Tyson’s book Death by Black Hole. I thought it was Neil at first and I then realized it was Dion. What I appreciated was how he got Neil’s sense of humor. I would love to get Neil on the show to see if he did because it seemed like he punched it right when I would think it would be punched in that thing.
You’re talking about some of that stuff. If someone wants to make sure that you capture their intent, you can’t listen to past speeches without knowing what you’ve written because they don’t give credit to you in their speech. How do you get people knowing that’s yours? Is it like a ghostwriter where they don’t want you to say you wrote it? Is it the thing where you can go to clients and say, “This is what I’ve written? What do you think?”The biggest signature of authenticity is the willingness to say what you mean even if it might alienate some people. Click To Tweet
I’m careful about that. I tried to consider it a principle and a respect thing when you’re working with someone you don’t advertise that you’re ghostwriting for them. There can be a stigma with it. Confidentiality is important. I’m always happy to sign NDAs with clients if that’s something that they request. If I want to share a writing sample with another client, I always ask permission first. With someone like Pompeo or Keith, there’s an expectation. They have a speechwriter. It’s on your LinkedIn. People know who you are. It’s sometimes reported who’s writing what. There’s less of a concern there.
I’m generally not in it for the credit. I’m in it for the joy of getting to know these people, the honor of getting to know them, and getting to work with them in such a personal capacity. It’s special. You learn a lot beyond speech writing. I mentioned Keith. It was one of the big reasons I decided to jump from Pompeo to him. I was like, “This is a guy I want to learn from starting my own business,” and how extraordinarily successful he’s been at almost everything he’s done. It’s great.
He does a similar thing, and that he surrounds himself with people who know a lot of things. On the Board of Advisors I was in, there were hundreds of us on there. There were amazing people to interact with. The more people like that, you learned much. As people are reading this, and they’re thinking about developing their both written and oral skills, do they form partnerships with you at all to have you help them? If Keith had to write his own speeches from now on, he would have a different way of going about it because of what he learned from you? I’m curious how that partnership works.
Keith is nice enough to become a client of the business. I’m still working with him on things. I’m sure he wouldn’t mind me sharing that but it’s different for each person. For someone who’s looking at. “How can I improve my communications? How can I take my speeches to the next level?” You have the keyword there, which is partnership. Viewing it as a partnership rather than as a chance to farm out your content on someone then be totally hands-off.
That is a frustration for me when I’m working with clients and they don’t seem willing to invest the time and the energy upfront in building the relationship because it’s hard to deliver what they need if you don’t get to know them first. Having a thought partner is critical for everybody. It doesn’t have to be something that you pay for. It can be your spouse or business partner but someone that you can sit down within a way that’s relaxed and you don’t feel like you’re having to overthink everything you’re saying.
Let the conversation flow and let the person both bounce your ideas off of themselves but also the other way around, throw things in like, “Have you thought about it this way?” There’s a natural evolution to ideas when they’re brought out of your head and put into conversation with someone. With a professional writer, the skill that you’re paying for is the ability to have someone who will capture that and take the appropriate notes. Do the in-depth thinking after a phone call or a meeting like that to flesh out and develop each of the arguments into something that’s consistent with what you already believe in the guidance that you’ve already given. It can be useful for almost anyone who’s speaking publicly with regularity.
Another thing I’ll flag and I found this to be important for the business during COVID when there’s not a lot of speeches to be given for obvious reasons, there’s a lot of other forms of ghostwriting. There’re op-eds which are incredibly valuable. When I speak with clients about op-eds, I’d like to remind them, “If you were to run an ad in the Wall Street Journal, you’d be paying $80,000 for an ad. For an op-ed, it’s free in terms of the journal.” You got to pay for the writer, the pitching, and the placing cost but it’s much less than $80,000. You get incredible exposure.
No one is sharing an ad on Twitter. People will share op-eds, though. They’ll spread. People will be interested in them. That’s an equally powerful way as a speech to get a message out. It’s equally important that the writing be good and tight. There’s somewhat of a formula to it that’s different from the formula for speeches, to the extent that there is one for speeches. It’s an art form but it’s valuable. Also, there’re blogs. There’re books. There’s a lot of other forms of writing that a ghostwriter can offer.
As you’re saying that, let’s say somebody is reading this, and they’d want to create an op-ed to get published in Wall Street Journal. How likely is it that you can help them get in there? The competition for that is going to be huge. Do you help them pitch it? Do you help with all of that or do you help them write it? How much of that do you do?
We do handle the pitching and placing. Not everyone does but I like to offer that service because it aligns my incentives with the client. It’s one thing to take a client who’s not an expert on op-eds. They ask you for something and you give them what they asked for. In the back of your mind, they’re never going to get a place because it’s not what opinion editors at these publications are looking for. When you’re doing the pitching and placing, it gives you more leverage to talk to the client directly and say, “Here’s why that approach would not be as successful as this other approach. Here’s what I recommend.”
There’s also a lot of value in knowing the opinion editors having some relationship with them. Our business has people who have been doing this for four years, pitching and placing client op-eds, news stories, and other things. They have deep contacts. It’s a triangulation between the relationships that you have and the content of the piece. It needs to be news-y. It needs to be focused on something that is in the headlines and relevant to the discussion. Something that is a broad think piece that could be published as easily a month from now as it could be now. That’s less likely to be competitive for placement in a publication, but particularly one as prestigious as the Wall Street Journal. There’s a wealth of outlets now including online-only outlets that can be valuable too.
The third issue is the authorship of the piece. It’s not always the right thing to have the CEO or the top-level person at the organization that’s hiring you to sign the op-ed. Quite often, if their goal is to talk about a trade issue that’s impacting their industry, it’s better to have a small business owner who you’ve never heard of before but who has an intensely personal story to tell about how that issue has impacted their business. That’s more appealing to many opinion editors than someone from a so-called elite background or high-profile name.
I have a lot of people who read this show who have written books. They would like to somehow get featured in The Wall Street Journal. For nonfiction authors who were speech givers but aren’t as good at writing for those kinds of things, what kind of advice would you give them?
The first would be read the opinion pages of whatever publications you’re targeting regularly. See the kinds of things that they publish, the style of the pieces that they like. Every publication is different. You mentioned the Journal, I’ll say about them that they’re right-leaning in their political perspective on their opinion pages, at least not the newsroom so much. It is smart to have a tie-in to some political or cultural issue that is in the news and to say something smart and original on it that is unique to you that makes sense for the author of the piece to be writing on.
If you’re a business leader, maybe it’s not the best idea to get into political philosophy, and vice versa. That’s important. There are other little quirks. The Wall Street Journal likes to have almost a reporting quality to their op-eds. Citing lots of sources, quoting. A lot of times, you’ll see in the first paragraph, they’ll quote Janet Yellen or something like that and then go into an argument about what was said and why it’s right or wrong. You can think as a journalist and gain some credibility that way.
I know when I would write pieces for Forbes, they would check, “Do you have a relationship to this person that you’re citing,” and different things? Do they do that in the Wall Street Journal, those types of magazines? Do they care in those kinds of pieces?
No, if the person is a public figure that you’re quoting. You don’t need to know them personally. If you do, better yet, you can note that in the piece. That can help.
They don’t want you to have an association. I noticed they say, “Are you going to get any credit for this? Are you making any money for it?” That’s what they’re more worried about that you’re citing something that’s a business relationship, is that a problem?
There is a general allergy among opinion editors to anything that’s too promotional. A lot of PR firms are asked by their clients to place op-eds about whatever issue the client is trying to run a PR campaign on. That can be difficult because opinion editors can sense that there’s some angle at play here, and they don’t want to be used to advance something. It’s got to be about the argument and about communicating a message that’s unique and interesting. If you make it about yourself too much, or in a way that’s not relevant to the thesis, if you’re shoehorning in some self-congratulatory saying, or if you’re name-dropping without a real purpose, that’s probably not going to help your chances.
Since we’re talking about content, I want to get back to the speech writing just for a second because that gets confusing to a lot of people. I’ve had people on set saying, “It’s all about the beginning and the hook,” others say, “You got to have a great outline,” or they’re saying, “Tell them what you’re going to tell them.” Is there a formula? What advice would you give somebody about how you set it up?
There isn’t a formula. There are various formulas. Secretary Pompeo was adamant about beginning speeches with a story and he’s not wrong. If that’s his preference, that’s legitimate. That’s a good way to engage someone right out of the gate with a speech but that’s not a hard and fast rule. If you’re speaking to an in-person audience, “Why is COVID wind you down?” It’s smart to include acknowledgments upfront that is personal, funny, engaging. There’s a prominent speechwriter who said once, and I thought this was a great idea. It was Churchill.
Churchill likes to weave in acknowledgments throughout the speech, which when I heard that I thought, “That is a good idea,” because it’s an interesting way to keep the audience on their toes. When you’re five minutes into the speech and you call out someone who’s there and you say, “This person did a great job.” All of a sudden, it tied that. That can be a great thing to do. There’s no one formula. There are lots of tips and tricks that we could spend hours getting into. If there’s one hard and fast rule, it’s authenticity. It’s got to be you.
Not everyone has a dynamic sense of humor, so trying to force jokes in for someone who’s not going to deliver them correctly. It’s only going to create awkwardness, so that’s not always the right thing to do. Some people are more cerebral, calm, and thoughtful. That can work well for them if you write it in a way that’s natural to them. Whereas someone like Keith who’s extremely dynamic. He wants to tell a lot of stories, wants to get out from behind the podium and do the sort of TED Talk, tech keynote style of engaging, directly moving the hands around, engaging directly with the audience with a lavalier mic. Everyone’s got a different style. The one thing that you’ve got to always remember is to capture that style of the person.If there’s one hard and fast rule in speechwriting, it’s authenticity. Click To Tweet
That’s important. That was part of his vision with that global mentor network that I’m part of that he started. It’s getting everybody’s unique perspective out there. It’s hard to mentor people in a global way, virtually. I learned a lot from him in that respect. As we talk about some of these talks, the way people communicate, and all the things that you mentioned before, having tight, punchy, vivid. I’m trying to remember the words you used in your writing. There’s content overload. For me, when I’m writing some of my speeches. They’re so long and I got to cut this out. I end up changing it a million times. The first time I gave it, it looks completely different from the 10th time I’ve given it. Do you find that’s what happens a lot? How do you make it tight?
Brevity is a good rule. There are exceptions to it. It depends on the goal of the speech. If you’re trying to capture the attention of an audience that’s in-person, brevity is a good idea. Sometimes, you’re asked to give a keynote, and you’re given 45 minutes. In those cases, 20 to 25 minutes speech can be okay as long as it never dies on the person, as long as it keeps moving. It doesn’t have long lulls of getting into some granular detail on one particular point, just keep it moving.
After that twenty minutes, when you’ve got a longer time, it’s a good idea to do Q&A because that tends to be more engaging and a good way to keep people involved in what you’re doing and more participatory. It’s a good point that you make about how the speech evolves the 10th time you’ve given it. That’s exactly how it should be you. You hone and hammer it like the blade of a sword and get it sharp. Each time you see how an audience reacts to something, and you say, “This joke kills it, so I’ll move that one up and start with that,” and this is the nature of a stump speech which you hear about mostly in the context of politics. I tell our corporate clients, “You should have a stump speech because you want to have that time to sit down.”
Define stump speech for those who don’t know.
In the case of politics, it’s a speech that’s 10 to 15 minutes generally, it can be shortened and expanded as needed. A speech that you give over and over again. If you’re on the campaign trail, and you’re in Iowa, one afternoon, and then the next morning, you’re in New Hampshire, and you’re speaking to a different audience every time. You don’t need to craft a different speech each time. You want to have something that works that captures the essence of your message and your brand.
For a corporate client, you can think of it like an extended elevator pitch. You’ve got your go-to way of talking about your core issue. It’s been crowd tested and focus group tested without actually using focus groups. That’s the way to do it. Ronald Reagan had a quote that I like where if I’m saying it for the 10th time, you’re hearing it for the first. If people feel shy about repeating things over and over again like they’re somehow cheating an audience. It’s not the case because people have a bad habit of thinking that everyone saw that tweet they put out. No one saw the tweet. You can say things over and over again.
These guys are so good because they’ve given the same thing 100 million times. Once you’ve said something, you feel like it’s old but for them, it’s the first time. A lot of the best speakers have told me that sometimes they modularize things in their heads. They know they’ve got time. This story takes five minutes, I could fit that here. If you start running out of time, you can cut this because it’s five minutes and you start to modularize things in a way.
It’s interesting that you use that word because that’s the word Keith likes to use. I’ve never heard anyone else use it for speech writing. The modular approach makes a lot of sense where you can almost think of it as a Word doc with a table of contents. At the top, you’ve got a section for jokes, and you’ve got these jokes that work. You’ve got a section for anecdotes. You got a section for arguments. In the case of Keith, China policy and other sections for business arguments, you can pull from those and assemble a speech based on different parts of things and you know each part works. You got to weave it together. There’s got to be seamless transitions and things like that. It can save you a lot of time. It can also increase your confidence in what you’re saying because you know you’re using things that work.
I like to think that way. For me, I talk too fast sometimes. Sometimes I’ll need to add extra content. If I forgot something or left a part out, it’s nice to know you have a module and I can add that here. That helps me a lot. Anything that I think like Keith, I’ll take as a huge compliment. This is all helpful to people who are reading. Everybody has to communicate. Everybody’s challenged. A lot of communications happening virtually with Zoom. Everything’s changed. Do you have any final comments for people about what you think they could be doing to communicate better in this complicated time?
Knowing your audience is important. I write for an audience of one that’s true from the speech writer’s point of view but for the speaker’s point of view, you’re always thinking about what is going to land and what isn’t with a particular audience that you’re in the room for. In some ways, it’s harder, the more specific the audience is. If you’ve got a general audience, you can go to your points and keep it broad and high level.
Taking the time to understand who you’re going to be speaking to, or writing too if it’s an op-ed. Making a phone call to the organizer of an event, or to someone a little lower level, who’s going to be in the audience, and not so much saying, “What do you want me to talk about?” Saying, “What do you think about these issues? I’m excited to speak to you. Here’s kind of how I think about it,” and make it a conversation and see where it goes if it gives you any ideas. That can be a good rule of thumb and a great exercise.
A lot of people are going to want to know how they can find out more from you or follow you. Is there a website or something you’d like to share?
We have WashingtonWriters.com. The business is called Washington Writers Network. What we’ve done is we assemble together 100 or so freelance writers who are all hard to find on their own. They’re not branding themselves. They don’t, in many cases, have websites and they’re working their personal networks to find clients. We put all these people together under one roof sharing economy approach, where they’re all independent contractors in relation to the company. What we do is matchmaking and that’s what we pride ourselves on. Learning about you, finding that perfect fit for you, that ideal creative partner, sending you some options and taking it from there, and handling the contract and the paperwork. They can check out the website and reach out anytime. We’d love to hear from anybody.
Although you’re in Washington, if Keith’s still using your services, he lives in San Francisco, so I assume you work throughout the United States. Anywhere else?
The writers are in Washington. It’s funny I incorporated the company as American Writers Network because at some point, I would like to expand it to other writers and things. We work with clients all over the country, all over the world. We’ve got some international clients. It’s a thrill getting to know people from all different backgrounds, different locations, and different industries. There’s no wrong candidate for this service.
Thank you so much, Rob. This was helpful to so many people. Thank you so much for being on the show.
Thank you for having me. This was a lot of fun.
It was and you’re welcome.
Thanks, Rob for being my guest. We get so many great guests on the show. If you’ve missed any past episodes, you can catch them at DrDianeHamilton.com. You could also find out all the stations where we air and you can read the show because we transcribe it on the blog. Everything is there that you need to know. I hope you enjoyed this episode and I hope you join us for the next episode of Take the Lead radio.
- Rob Noel – LinkedIn
- Washington Writers Network
- Keith Krach
- Dion Graham – Previous episode
- Death by Black Hole
About Rob Noel
Rob Noel is an award-winning speechwriter and executive communications advisor who has worked with senior corporate and government leaders, including Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, U.S. Chamber of Commerce President and CEO Tom Donohue, Under Secretary Keith Krach, and U.S. Senator and presidential candidate Marco Rubio. He is the founder and president of Washington Writers Network, an agency that connects clients across all sectors to a growing network of more than 80 professional writers in the Washington, D.C. area.
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