The enduring power of the spoken word: A conversation with Professional Speechwriters Association Executive Director David Murray

As companies look to promote their ideas, they have an ever-expanding number of communications channels—from traditional to social media—at their disposal. Tailoring content to each format can be a challenge, but speeches and live presentations are in a category of their own: while the basics of storytelling still apply, writing effective speeches calls for writers to master several additional skills.

David Murray, executive director of the Professional Speechwriters Association, is ideally positioned to weigh in on how writers must adapt their approach. An accomplished author in his own right, Murray works with speechwriters at all levels to help them hone their craft. In this conversation with Leff, he discusses the leap from words on the page to live presentation and highlights the common elements of the best speeches. 

Leff: With so many ways to share ideas, why are live speeches still relevant?

David Murray: Speeches are the oldest form of communication. Thanks to innovations—the Guttenberg press, radio, TV, and now the internet and YouTube—there are more efficient ways to communicate. So why do we still find ourselves sitting in an audience, quietly staring at the speaker? I think we do it because there’s something physical, and emotional, and close to spiritual about sitting with a group, listening to and watching a leader speak. Something happens. It’s when the speaker says something, and an audience member turns and looks to the person next to him and says, “Whoa, did you hear that? That resonated with me,” and he can just feel that it resonated with the person next to him too.

Leff: How does speechwriting differ from other forms of writing?

David Murray: When I write prose , I literally lean forward because I’m trying to write as efficiently as I can. In contrast, a speech is about emotions, it’s about sound, it’s about music. As prose writers, we’re almost self-conscious about using alliteration and repetition because it feels a little hack-ish. You almost can’t overdo that stuff with a speech.

When I write a speech, I sit back in my chair. A speech needs to be about pacing and rhythm; it needs to be aired out and slowed down. If you say something thought-provoking, what happens? It provokes a thought. And when people have the thought, they’re not listening to your next sentence.

Writing good speeches also requires an understanding of how the information will be received. When you watch Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s “I Have a Dreamspeech, look at the crowd. He’ll say something, and you can see the crowd sort of ripple. That’s the thing that happens only with a speech.

If you’re giving a speech that doesn’t galvanize the audience, you’ve wasted an opportunity. It happens all the time. The CEO of a company gets all the employees together for a town hall meeting and spends the first 50 minutes out of the hour reciting the financials from a PowerPoint deck that people could have read in advance. Do they realize that nobody’s working? Everyone is just sitting there, watching them recite numbers.

Leff: When you write a speech, how do you tailor it to the speaker?

David Murray: Unless you have a relationship with a speaker like Ted Sorensen had with John Kennedy, it’s all about the other person’s ideas. You need to do everything you can to find out what this person thinks about the world, how they talk, and the stories that they have. Try to hang around and see how that person interacts with others. That’s how you end up writing things that are truly genuine.

This is critical, because people want to feel that a particular speech could only have been given by this person to this audience at this time. Now more than ever, audiences resent the idea that a stiff speech was written for the speaker by some corporate hack. If you’ve inconvenienced them by making them sit and listen to a speech right now and not look at their phones, they really demand some kind of genuine expression. The only way that can be achieved is with a relationship between a speechwriter and a speaker.

One of the best relationships was between Michelle Obama and Hurwitz. She wrote for Michelle Obama for the whole eight years of the presidency. And they worked together day in and day out. They got to know each other. They gave each other confidence. It’s unbelievable what Sarah Hurwitz and Michele Obama were able to do as a collaborative pair. And that has to do with longevity, closeness, and giving the speechwriter access. All those things don’t always happen, but when they do, it’s pretty awesome.

Leff: We emphasize to author teams that they need to engage and share their experiences and insights to elevate their content. How do you accomplish that in speeches?

David Murray: It can be difficult to get leaders to tell stories about themselves. I understand their reluctance: sometimes people have great origin stories and sometimes they don’t. But it doesn’t have to be a personal story. They could tell a story about their business and the market or about an employee but in a way that shows how passionate, thoughtful, and observant they are. That’s just as good as the origin story, and it might even be better.

Communicators and speechwriters are wrapped up in finding these stories, partly because of TED talks. It seems like every TED talk has to be, “I’m a brain surgeon and I had a stroke.” It’s getting a little pat, to be honest with you. I encourage speechwriters to get their leaders to tell stories about other people in the organization and tell them in a way that demonstrates that leader’s commitment.

Leff: What are the speeches you look to as the exemplars, and what elements do they have in common?

David Murray: One of the speeches I show all the time at conferences is the 1968 speech by Robert Kennedy on the day Martin Luther King was killed. Kennedy was on his way to an all-black part of Indianapolis for a campaign stop. When he got off the plane, he learned that King had died, and everybody advised him not to go. And he said, “I’m not going to give my campaign speech, but I have to go and talk to the people.” He insisted, even though the police refused to give him a security detail.

In the speech, he takes people through the entire possible progression. He tells them of the significance of the moment. And then he paints a vision for a country that is about tolerance and love and trying to understand one another. At the end, he actually has a call to action.

That speech wasn’t written by a speechwriter; it was scrawled on an envelope on the way to an event, but it’s a speech completely based in Kennedy’s experience. And he delivers a human, honest speech in front of people who needed to hear it. Indianapolis was the only city in the United States that didn’t riot that night. That’s a more complicated story than just the speech, but it’s not a total coincidence either. That’s what we’re trying to do with modern speeches.

There’s another great speech where Fred Rogers testified on Capitol Hill in 1969. In just six minutes, he basically got $20 million from the Senate to fund his PBS show when they’re trying to cut his whole budget.

These moments come from human beings who are completely committed to their cause, who have thought and felt deeply about what they’re doing, why they’re doing it, and why they are leaders. Speechwriters can help in those situations.

Scott Leff

Scott is the founder of Leff. He's spent his career helping executives and subject matter experts tell their story in a compelling way. In the process, he's had the opportunity to work with C-suite executives, politicians, academics, and Olympians, not to mention dozens of talented writers, editors, and designers in the business world. Scott developed the concept of "lean content creation" as a cost-effective way to support comprehensive, integrated communication strategies.

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