33 Things I’ve Learned From Presidential Speech Writers

Over the last few years I have been lucky enough to work with speech writers for Barack Obama, Ronald Reagan, Tony Blair, Ginni Rometty, Steve Jobs and Al Gore. Some have been generous with their advice, to a not-so-young executive like myself trying to learn from the best, others have thrown me soundbites that I’ve treasured ever since. Mostly I’ve worked with writers for people that you’ve never heard of, but between them all, I’ve collected some pretty solid advice.
But then it occurred to me that all this advice lives in various notebooks, Post-It’s and scraps of paper, and I’ve never collated them all into one place. So why not make the most of my time no commuting anywhere (!) to pop them all into a click-bait friendly list that others might find useful?

So, if you need to win hearts and minds in doing whatever it is that you do, or if you ever need to pitch an idea, raise funds, or craft a go-to-market message for your business, this might be a helpful list to inspire you to sharpen your messaging and improve your rhetorical skills. I’ve even hid some wise words from comedy writers at SNL in here, including someone who wrote for the fake (but much loved) President Bartlett!


(Sorry to spoil your fun, but I have no pearls of wisdom from anyone on the current White House speech writing staff).


33 Things I learned From Presidential Speech Writers


  1. The Story Is More Important Than The Words. “In my experience communications too often focuses on finding the right words. Of course, words are important but the first question you have to ask yourself is: ‘What is the story I’m trying to sell?’”
  2. Keep It Simple. “Long speeches are the easiest to write. They are also the most forgettable. Audiences today can only handle so much information before they start losing focus. You should aim at twenty minutes max. That requires tremendous discipline, especially if you’re in an organisation with a lot of people in the mix. But remember that a speech about everything is a speech about nothing. Narrow your story down to the essential point.
  3. Always Address The Arguments Against Your Position During Your Presentation, Not After. Think about the objections you will encounter and don’t wait until the Q&A to answer them.
  4. Empathy is Key. “You have to know what the world looks like when you are in their shoes.” Successful speeches are easy to understand and address the issues that the audience is facing.
  5. There Is No Persuasion Without Inspiration. Emotion is the most important element of motivating an audience. “The best way to connect with people is through stories that are important to people’s lives”.
  6. Waste no words. You have only about 200 words to say something memorable. Don’t waste any on how you never thought you’d win, or didn’t prepare a speech. Instead of reciting a checklist of names, spend a few words on one person who helped make it possible for you to stand on that stage. Thank the rest later with a heartfelt note — or money”. Jon Favreau’s advice to Oscar winners on writing acceptance speeches.
  7. At the end of the day, people are not persuaded by what you say but by what they understand”. John C. Maxwell (Communications Coach to several Fortune 500 CEOs)
  8. If a man in high office speaks words which convey his principles and policies and ideas and he’s willing to stand behind them and take whatever blame or therefore credit go with them, the speech is his”. Ted Sorensen (Speechwriter for JFK)
  9. When big, serious, thoughtful things must be said, then, big serious, thoughtful speeches must be given.” Peggy Noonan (Speechwriter for President Reagan)
  10. Make sure you know your central point. Compress your message into one clear message of hope”. Philip Collins (Tony Blair’s speechwriter)
  11. Every speech should have a S.T.A.R. moment. “Something That they’ll Always Remember”.
  12. The enemy of good writing is not the good speechwriter. It is bad politics.
  13. You must apply a minimum of sound to a maximum of sense.
  14. One must communicate big ideas using small words and short sentences. (This became the slogan for my podcast series “Ten Words”).
  15. The greatest speeches are essays in simple language, easily comprehensible to a democratic audience, but works of beauty and profundity all the same.
  16. The finest public speeches tell the story of the unfolding of human accomplishment through politics.
  17. A great speech contains 3 elements: 1) An occasion of turmoil. 2) A setting which provides the speaker with a momentous forum. 3) Content & phrasing.
  18. An eloquent speech is not from the lip to the ear, but rather from heart to heart.
  19. One must speak to extreme emotions if you are to have any real impact. Focus on humiliation and dignity and you will always get a response.
  20. I’m either in the lighting or heating business. I’m either illuminating something for you, or I am stoking heat to provoke a reaction in you”. Thomas L. Friedman (3X Pulitzer Prize winning journalist from the New York Times).
  21. If a speech reads well, it must be a damned bad speech”. Comment from a West Wing writer I met in a bar in Washington DC (at least they said they were from the West Wing Wiriters) quoting 19th-century English politician John Bright, to illustrate how only 8% of what people remember are words. The rest is tone, cadence, sentiment, rhythm, style, venue, props, dress…)
  22. MLK’s speeches used soaring rhetoric and could give you goosebumps, even if you just read them from a page. But try reading one of President Obama’s speeches from a page. Most of them are unimpressive on the page. But listen to him give one of those speeches and you are often left feeling that it’s one of the greatest speeches you’ve ever heard.
  23. History likes to romanticize speeches such as the Gettysburg address as if they were scrawled on an envelope minutes before they were given. Truth is, most of the best speeches, including *that* 272-word greatest-speech-ever-written, were written weeks in advance and rehearsed several times.
  24. Most people have 75 seconds to make a good impression. That means you usually have about 150 words to create an impact. Even the best speakers (and comedians) test the goodwill of the audience if they haven’t won their attention within the first 3 minutes.
  25. There are only 3 elements to a great speech: 1) Tell them what you’re about to tell them. 2) Tell them. 3) Tell them what you told them.
  26. No matter how much you prepare, cut 10% of your speech the morning you are due to give it. I guarantee you it will be a better speech”. (Philip Collins for Tony Blair)
  27. Never speak for longer than 20 minutes”. (Jon Favreau for Barack Obama)
  28. Never have more than 10 slides, speak for longer than 20 minutes or use any fonts smaller than TS30”. (Guy Kawasaki for Steve Jobs)
  29. Don’t practice until you get it right, practice until you can never get it wrong.
  30. Winston Churchill was a master of the spontaneous speech. But the secret of his speeches was that they weren’t spontaneous. He wrote them in the style of Psalms and even added deliberate mistakes to make it seem like they were given off the cuff. In order to pull this off (and with no close up cameras to expose him) he wore his glasses on the end of his nose to read his notes, but made it appear like he was looking directly at the audience.
  31. If you have 20 minutes to speak, measure how fast you (or your speaker) talks. Most people average 130 words a minute with pauses. It sounds obvious, but the vast majority of people don’t write their speech and word and make sure that it’s less than 2,600 words.
  32. Pauses add power to any speech. They are the secret weapon of a great speaker.
  33. And finally, a wonderful reminder for anyone who wants to change things: “All we have at our disposal are beautiful words, but what a weapon to hold“.


For more commercial storytelling advice, you might like The 72 Rules of Commercial Storytelling. And if you are interested in studying rhetoric and public speaking more serious, EdX does an excellent FREE course with Harvard University on Rhetoric: The Art of Persuasive Writing & Public Speaking