Michael Bierut | Essays

Speech, Speech

Editor's Note: This essay was originally published in January, 2007, but it seems especially relevant today, as we wait for Donald Trump's first State of the Union address.

Does this sound familiar?

Your client has a message to communicate: an argument, a sales pitch, a call to action. Your job is to give it form. You're an expert at this. You know how to take a complicated bunch of ideas and reduce them to their arresting, memorable, engaging essence. You come up with some big ideas that you're convinced will work and, detail by careful detail, you bring those ideas to life. But there's a problem: your work is second-guessed by a bunch of middle managers, some of whom are insecure, some of whom have their own agendas to inject, some of whom just like to say no. Despite all that, you refine and revise, hoping to keep the strength of your original idea intact. Finally, your work is approved, and it goes out into the world. If you're lucky, it really makes a difference: minds are changed, passions are fueled, your client looks great. And, somehow, hardly anyone out there knows you were involved at all.

It sounds a lot like graphic design, doesn't it? But I'm talking about something else: speechwriting. To a surprising degree, the two professions are remarkably similar.

My introduction to the world of speechwriting came through an unlikely (for kneejerk liberal me) source: Peggy Noonan's 1990 book What I Saw at the Revolution, her account of working as a White House speechwriter for Ronald Reagan and George H.W. Bush. At the end of her tour of duty, she was associated with some of Bush Senior's most parodied lines, "a thousand points of light" and "read my lips: no new taxes;" today she's a ubiquitous Republican pundit.

But in 1984 Noonan was still not far from her scrappy Irish-Catholic working class roots, working her way up the White House ranks, taking on small assignments and looking for her big break. That came five months into her job when she was asked to write a speech that Reagan was scheduled to deliver on the 40th anniversary of D-Day, before the cliffs of Pointe du Hoc at Normandy. It was a plum assignment. In one of the best parts of her book, she describes how she constructed the speech, building one vivid bit of description on another: if you're a designer, you'll recognize the pure pride of craftsmanship when you hear it. Amidst a lot of useless advice ("We want something like the Gettysburg Address," more than one nervous staffer told her), a fellow writer kept telling her to remember something: they'll be there. Noonan realized that he meant the aging Rangers who scaled the cliffs on D-Day, and not scattered throughout the crowd, but sitting together in the front row, just five feet from the president. It was a crucial insight, and from it Noonan derived the climax of the speech:

Forty years ago as I speak, they were fighting to hold these cliffs, Reagan said that day. They had radioed back and asked for reinforcements and the were told: There aren't any. But they did not give up. It was not in them to give up. They would not be turned back: they held the cliffs.

Two hundred twenty-five came here. After a day of fighting only ninety could still bear arms.

Behind me is a memorial that symbolizes the Ranger daggers that were thrust into the top of these cliffs. And before me are the men who put them there.

These are the boys of Pointe du Hoc. These are the men who took the cliffs. These are the champions who helped free a continent. These are the heroes who helped to end a war.

I don't care what you think about Reagan, Noonan, Republicans, or the military-industrial complex: that's a speech.

It made Noonan famous around the White House. She became "the girl who does the poetry." She got more important speeches to write, and with them came more important people to oversee her work. The fun of the early small jobs were replaced by the tension of higher stakes. She began to "hate the comments, the additions and deletions and questions...sending a speech out...to be commented on by presidential aides, and their secretaries and their secretaries' cousins." Her frustrations will be familiar to you, as will her fantasy that one day the Top Guy will demand to know who's been watering down his speeches, and demand "Get me Noonan." Her dream client had gone bad.

She got an opportunity with one more speech, the one that consolidated her legend. On January 28, 1986, the space shuttle Challenger exploded shortly after takeoff, killing all seven astronauts aboard, one of whom was Christa McAuliffe, the first member of the Teacher in Space Project; because of her, many schoolchildren witnessed the disaster as it happened. Reagan was scheduled to give his State of the Union address that night. It was cancelled, and instead the president delivered a speech that Peggy Noonan wrote that afternoon; time was short, there was little time to review it and, hence, as Noonan says, "no time to make it bad." It was short, extraordinarily moving, and ended with a quote from "High Flight" by John Gillespie Magee:

The crew of the space shuttle Challenger honored us by the manner in which they lived their lives. We will never forget them, nor the last time we saw them — this morning, as they prepared fro their journey, and waved good-bye, and "slipped the surly bonds of earth" to "touch the face of God."

A deluge of mail and calls followed. But does it surprise you to learn that during the attenuated review process, someone from the National Security Council suggested that that the end be changed — quoting, of all things, a then-popular AT&T commercial — to "reach out and touch someone?" Noonan described this as "the worst edit I received in all my time at the White House."

The Library of America has just released the landmark American Speeches, which collects, in two volumes, over one hundred speeches from Patrick Henry to Bill Clinton. But, as William Buckley, Jr., has pointed out, nothing is said about their genesis. We have to turn elsewhere to unravel the mystery of how much of JFK's inaugural address ("Ask not what your country can do for you...") was written by the president and how much by speechwriter Ted Sorenson; or to learn that the climax of Martin Luther King's "I Have a Dream" was an improvised departure from the prepared script.

I've worked with many writers over the years. Some of my favorites have been former speechwriters. In my experience, they really know how to work with a designer. They know they have to fight for an audience's attention; they know that what matters is not word count but persuasion; they know that words do not just provide information but reveal the essence of a person, or an organization. And they know to be appalled — but never surprised — when someone on the client end tries to ruin everything with a barrage of inept suggestions.

Tonight, George W. Bush — a man whom even his supporters would not hail as a great orator — will deliver his seventh State of Union Address. A small army of writers are busy trying to put together an address that will wipe out memories of Bush's last outing, the less-than-persuasive unveiling of his latest plan for Iraq. "A mediocre speech that was flat," speechwriter emeritus David Gergen told The New York Times. "It was solid, but they miss Gerson." Gergen was referring to Michael J. Gerson who left the White House last summer. Gerson, according to the Times, is credited with Bush's best speech, the one he delivered to the joint session of Congress nine days after the September 11 attacks.

It's been a long time since George Bush has delivered a speech like that. But don't blame his speechwriters. Maybe they're working for a bad client.

Posted in: Arts + Culture, Business, Politics

Comments [19]

I love the resemblance: poetry, craftsmanship, persuasion, and purity. It is everything we dream of.
Gilbert Lee

And, somehow, hardly anyone out there knows you were involved at all. It sounds a lot like graphic design, doesn't it?

Sounds like something else to me. I just wonder Madame Curie's secret to getting in the history books.

You can't write a speech without the knowledge, or can you?
design student

Speaking of Micahel Gerson, the New Yorker had an excellent profile of him that also expands on the speechwriting craft.
Tyson Evans

It's so rare that the person delivering the speech is the same one who crafts the words (let alone the ideas!) There was a memorable State of the Union speech given by Bill Clinton (I can't recall the year) during which the teleprompter failed. He ad-libbed for 10 or 15 minutes while the techs fussed with the prompter. Most who saw the speech agreed that the ad-lib was one of the most literate, passionate, cohesive intervals of Clinton's political career.

Ah, the good old days...
Rick McCleary

Wow, I actually had never read that speech before. I'm sure it was quite emotional to witness it spoken at Normandy. I think a combination of extraordinary surroundings and fast deadlines can bring about the very best in us. The speech after 9/11 was profound, because I believe it was from the heart. Since then we've heard lots of talk, but nothing much passed that.

I'm not hoping for much tonight. I'm more interested to see how the Dems treat him tonight, especially after the way in which they were tossed aside for the last 6 years.

And you're right. That's a speech.

Is anyone interested if Nancy Pelosi will feature dress design as nice as Julia Timoshenko or as radical as Petra Kelly?
fashion design student

A side note: The Democratic Leadership reportedly gave Jim Webb a pre-written speech to deliver after the SOTU. He junked it and wrote his own. I'm not a fan of Webb's protectionist economics, but the speech was a lot better written and delivered than the typical opposition party response.
Virginia Postrel

Quite a few typos for an article about writing..... Nice job though.....

Quite a few typos for an article about writing..... Nice job though.....

The article is written from the perspective of a designer. Everyone knows designers cannot spell, hence why we have writers and editors. Makes sense to me.

"It sounds A LOT LIKE graphic design?"

The clear and powerful delivery of a solid idea IS design, is it not? ("graphic" deliberately ommitted).

"And I think people who want to be a citizen of this country 'ought to learn English."

The Pres.

Joe Moran

I suppose at the end of the day, it is all communication.

My professional career was polluted with middle managers who would not know good typography or a great color scheme if it fell out of the sky and broke their windshield...in fact, I found myself wishing something, very large, WOULD fall on their windshield...preferably before our critique. Now, as a teacher, I think the students feel the same way about me.

Design is design is design. It is based on experience, and organization of information, and logic, and fun, and cultural awareness, and sociological and psychological perception, and passion, and...

Most of the good copywriters I ever worked with were really funny...so are most of the good designers. Too bad most of the middle managers are not. Maybe the solution is to leave them out of the process.

BTW--a preposition is something you should never end a sentence with.

Madame Curie--like most great artists, are not interesting until they are dead, or close to it. I think everyone wants to talk about her because of the way she died...not necessarily because she was a fashion maven, or because she had a wardrobe malfunction in front of millions--now there is something important to talk about! Right?
Cynthia Busic-Snyder

I can not agree more with this articles essence in which any form of communication, be it speech or graphic design, will always be criticized or misinterpreted by middle managers or know it alls.

I myself have had many of my designs scrapped, changed, challenged, or even out right downgraded due to someone else's ignorance of color theory, placement, and various other design aspects.

What annoys me the most is when my work is scurried along the masses and butchered by anyone and everyone with an opinion, and you know what they say about opinions. The sad thing is the customer would rather listen to anyone else but the artist themselves and then sell the corrected idea to the artist at any cost.

Although this may have inconvenienced me, my work, and efforts; some times some suggestions are good and educational; however, those occasions are rare.

Samuel Padilla

Any advice for a young designer and writer, who is just starting out, starting to play poker with middle managers in corporate circles. Learning by default seems "le plat du jour." Playing with schizophrenics, I assume, is always part of the game, the shame. But is there anything else?

Any constructive or proactive advice?
Any good books, resources to suggest?
Michèle Champagne

Stay home, have children, wonder in the beauty, functionality, irrationality of their design. They will be your most fascinating teachers. Apply that to a school start at age 45, become a wunderkind at 60. It could work for your generation, if it did or did not work for mine.

the ability to express your ideas are fundamental to its success.

success now
Rishi d

Of course, it's not just design and speechwriting which are undermined by 'consultation'. Every human activity that is second-guessed by a tier of middle management suffers in this way, from military campaigns to philanthropic enterprises.

It's perfect example of how what are often described as 'a safe pair of hands' aren't safe at all. But it's worth observing that people are only brought in to comment when a decision maker lacks courage - courage to trust someone (a designer, a speechmaker, a general), courage to trust their own judgment that something brave can also be right.

Apple is a beautiful example - for all his many alleged flaws, Steve Jobs has one redeeming virtue. He trusts Johnny Ive. And thus Apple has been able to do what no other computer manufacturer seems capable of: to launch one after another innovative, outstanding products. (By their totally lacklustre offerings, one gets the impression that Dell, Toshiba, Sony et al no longer employ designers - just middle managers).

But everybody knows that courageous decision making is how success is created. Management books are full of examples of brave, confident, risk-taking leadership. Unfortunately what nobody seems to know is how to create brave, confident, risk-taking leaders. The generation that read these books, and go to these thousand bucks gee-whizz seminars, nod their heads sagely - and do nothing.

Even design seems to be giving up on courage these days. For what else is 'usability' than middle-management in a box? A sure-fire do-it-yourself way to lose your nerve even before you get to the client?
james souttar

Enjoyable post. I think the most important commonality between the graphic design and political speech writing is the need for honesty and authenticity. Just as consumers see to be increasingly responding to marketing materials/messages that are more organic, it seems that the voting public is thirsty for real talk. Exhibit A: the recent popularity of Barack Obama, largely fueled by his apparent ability to connect to audiences.

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