The Digital-Savvy Speechwriter

Rick Perry YoutubeWhat has the digital age done to speechwriting? There are few people in our profession better qualified to answer that question than Clark Judge, managing director of the Washington-based White House Writers Group.

At a November 2 luncheon meeting of the Houston Speechwriters Roundtable, organized by BP speechwriter John Barnes, Mr. Judge spoke eloquently and informatively about using the power of the Internet to maximize the impact of a speech.

At one time, he said, there were two principle means for deriving the maximum value from a speech. The first was by scheduling interviews with the speaker in the venue where the speaker was delivering the speech. The other was by turning the speech into an op/ed.

With the Internet, a speech can reach a far wider audience. For one thing, it’s possible to stream a speech live. For another, it’s even easier to videotape a speech and post in on a company’s web site or YouTube. Admittedly, said Mr. Judge, the Internet is vast and there is the risk that your video will be like a drop of water in the ocean. Still, he insisted, there will be lots of little audience “pools” that will be interested in the content of your speech. Friendly bloggers can help publicize the speech by imbedding it in their commentaries. Bloggers always need new material.

In addition to expanding the potential audience for a speech, the Internet impacts both style and content. According to Mr. Judge, when he was writing speeches for Vice President George H.W. Bush and later President Reagan, speeches lived or died by sound bites. The electronic media would carry only tiny snippets of speeches, and if the speaker did not come up with a particularly challenging or clever sentence, the speech would not appear on TV.

Today, with the Internet, people can view the entire speech on YouTube whenever it is convenient for them to watch it. So if word gets out that some eminent individual has given a particularly good (or risibly bad) speech, it will still be attracting an audience days and even weeks later. (Just ask Rick Perry about the rambling, leering and disjointed monologue that he delivered in New Hampshire last weekend. It has since been seen on YouTube by over 600,000 viewers. All Governor Perry can do at this point in the way of damage control is to have his friends insist that he wasn’t drunk when he delivered it. (http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=21z30aNO3cA)

The effect of having full speeches available on YouTube, said Mr. Judge, was evident as early as the Democratic primaries of the last presidential election. Essentially, he said, the Obama campaign understood how the Internet had changed the rules of political speaking while the Clinton campaign didn’t.

With a primary election almost every week, there was a limited amount of time that even the cable news services could give to the post-election speeches of both candidates. Since fairness required that each candidate be given the same amount of air time, the most either candidate could expect from the networks would be 15 minutes, tops.

Hillary Clinton invariably gave a traditional election night speech: Win or lose, she would say that she had fought the good fight, that her campaign workers were wonderful and that together they had fought the good fight. Then she would thank individual supporters by name. Then she would talk about the strategy for the next primary. But by the time she got to talking about what would happen next, she would have already used up her 15 minutes of air time.

Obama, in contrast, didn’t waste precious minutes on pro-forma sentiments. He immediately talked about what was next for his campaign. He saved the courtesies for the end, after the TV cameras had stopped rolling.

So the digital age has changed the rules of speechwriting – a bit. But we speechwriters are an adaptable breed and we can learn a few new rules. To me, the heartening lesson to be drawn from Clark Judge’s remarks is that while speechwriters must adapt, we are hardly obsolete. On the contrary, given the extent to which the Internet can enlarge the potential audience for a speech, it would seen that good speechwriters should be more in demand than ever.

Hal GordonHal Gordon, who wrote speeches for the Reagan White House and Gen. Colin Powell, is currently a freelance speechwriter in Houston. Web site: www.ringingwords.com.

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