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Article February 12th, 2018

The story of speechwriting for President Obama

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Want some tips on effective communication? Then look no further than former Obama speechwriter and bestselling author @DavidLitt

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How did a junior campaign volunteer become a speechwriter for @BarackObama in the White House? @DavidLitt tells us his story

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A mix of the speaker, the audience and the moment is what makes a speech great, says former @BarackObama speechwriter @DavidLitt

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Who's “holding the pen”?

The answer, increasingly so during President Obama's time in the White House, was David Litt, a former campaign volunteer who started working in the White House with only minimal experience as a speechwriter. A few years later and he was meeting with the president and tasked with drafting many of his most high-profile statements and addresses.

It's quite a story, and one that Litt expertly captures in his bestselling memoir, which combines laugh out loud humour with deep insight about the art of wordsmithing for a nation's chief executive. Fiercely modest and self-deprecating - both in person and in his book - Litt freely admits that he was somewhat thrown in at the deep end. “My experience in the White House was pretty different to other speechwriting jobs because of the sheer amount of time pressure,” he explains.

“I came in with some experience of writing speeches - not a tonne - in fact, I hadn't had a lot of experience doing anything. I certainly hadn't experienced writing speeches to incredibly tight deadlines under the level of scrutiny that an American president operates by. This was probably the biggest challenge and the area where I had to do the most learning on the job - and I had to do a lot of learning very quickly.”

Why speeches still matter

Leaders around the world have all manner of communications options to choose from. From tweets to YouTube videos, television clips to Snapchat, the landscape in front of them brims with opportunities to promote their message. With this in mind, it seems pertinent to ask whether speeches still matter. Are they as important as in previous generations? Litt is in no doubt.

“I think speeches still matter, and I think they'll continue to matter,” he says firmly. “The difference is that lots of other communication methods matter as well. So whether you're a politician or a CEO or anyone else, you're no longer just picking the message you want to send but also the medium by which you send it. This choice matters a lot more than it used to, especially as there are now so many options to choose from.”

He goes on to say that it is now incumbent on leaders - and their communications team - to know what works best and where. “Something might be ideal as an online video, for example, whereas others would make more sense as a speech or a tweet,” he says. “Knowing how to use different platforms to get your message across is something I think communications teams have to consider in a way that they didn't ten years ago.”

So, in his opinion, what makes for a great speech? Is it down to the oratory - such as President Obama's 2015 speech in Selma - or President Reagan's famous “Boys of Pointe du Hoc” speech commemorating the 40th anniversary of D-Day? Or maybe it is down to capturing the moment, such as Bobby Kennedy's iconic speech in response to the assassination of Dr Martin Luther King? Litt says it is down to a mix of different factors.

“Usually it's about the combination of the speaker, the audience and the moment,” he says. “There are definitely rules that can make a speech more effective and there are lots of potential mistakes that can make a speech less effective, but the speaker is only one element of the overall picture.”

Fortunately for Litt and his colleagues in the speechwriting shop, their boss was not only an accomplished writer himself - check out his edits to a Jon Favreau-penned healthcare speech early in his tenure - but also a storyteller par excellence. “Part of our job as speechwriters was to think about how to tell stories,” he recalls. “The stories in the book are obviously very different to what President Obama would have used in his speeches - for the most part - but that skill of storytelling and that experience of storytelling is something I think I have tried to use and take from one arena to another.”

Life inside the real West Wing

Any visitor to Washington, DC - first time or otherwise - normally makes a beeline for the White House at some stage. But you don't get very far. The perimeter, extended since a succession of fence-jumpers in recent years, not to mention the patrolling Secret Service agents, keeps tourists and passers-by from getting too close.

So what is it really like to work there? To be able to flash your security pass and stroll through security checks? To work a matter of feet away from the President of the United States? Litt admits that his time there was the experience of a lifetime, one that has left him with a rich abundance of memories great and small.

“One thing I remember over and over is watching President Obama walk into a room filled not with White House staff but with Americans, whether they were people visiting Washington or if he was on the road,” he says. “To be part of that moment when you know that everyone in the room is never going to forget that experience as long as they live, and to play a tiny part in making that happen, was pretty special.”

He also has some advice gleaned from his time there, useful for any new joiner to an organisation, not just the White House. “Don't try and reinvent the wheel,” he says. “When you're coming into an organisation which already has systems in place and is doing well, the tendency is to try and demonstrate how special you are. But first you need to demonstrate that you can keep pace, and only then do you get the opportunity to add something - that took me a little while to learn.”

He goes on to say that it is vital to know what your job really is, not just what your job title says. “Essentially, you need to know how you can make the lives of the people around you easier, and make sure you keep executing on that. And also, for anyone about to start work in the White House, there is a 30% discount in the cafeteria buffet from 2pm - so make sure you eat a big breakfast.”

“Anything is possible”

Today, Litt can be found working at the online comedy company Funny or Die, particularly appropriate given his skill for humour (among his roles at the White House was “holding the pen” for several of President Obama's speeches to the White House Correspondents' Dinner).

It is clear, though, that he remains fully engaged in politics and gives the impression of itching to step back into the arena. “Like millions of Americans, the one thing that has been hammered home over the last year is that you never get to take a complete break from being a citizen trying to improve your country,” he points out. “If you don't do it, it's not like someone else can be counted on to step in.”

And while he is clear that he wouldn't want to go back to full-time speechwriting, he has a deep reservoir of knowledge ready to be to be tapped into. So, what tips would he share with anyone looking to follow in his footsteps? “In a purely practical sense, if you can transcribe a conversation and use someone's language verbatim as much as possible, then use that as a building block,” he says.

“In the private sector, this is something I was able to do and it is very useful. I would also say - be absolutely sure what the one big idea is that you want the audience to take away. A lot of speeches seem scattered, and that's because they are scattered. Even impressive, important people don't have a clear idea all the time of the one thing they want the audience to remember.”

And did he, like esteemed American biographer Robert Caro, “know his last line” and write towards it? “Speeches are a little different,” he concludes. “You should know what the headline is for someone writing about the speech - even if that person isn't actually a newspaper reporter. You should always have this in mind.”



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David Litt Speechwriter and author
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