What you can learn from Bill Clinton, speechwriter

One of the most valuable things you can get back from a client after they deliver a speech you’ve written is the marked-up text – the changes they’ve made from what you wrote. You may not agree with every edit, but they’re very clear cues to what your client feels comfortable saying.

Two inches of hairline ago, when I was writing for Audrey McLaughlin, she was scrupulous about sending me her edits after a speech. Her tool of choice was a black Sharpie… which, I’d later learn from Michael Waldman‘s POTUS Speaks, was also Bill Clinton‘s. As president, Clinton was notorious for the number of drafts his speeches would go through, all of them coming back from the Oval Office densely edited by hand. He’d often take that process right down to the last minute.

Apparently, some things never change, and Bill Clinton’s last-minute editing proclivities are among them.

The Atlantic Wire‘s Dashiell Bennett has done an incredible service to speechwriters everywhere, taking the advance written copy of the speech Bill Clinton gave last week at the Democratic National Convention, and painstakingly marking it up with the former president’s insertions (italic) and deletions (red, strikethrough).

Now, there’s a reason for this. It turns out that advancing equal opportunity and economic empowerment is both morally right and good economics, Why? because discrimination, poverty poverty, discrimination and ignorance restrict growth, When you stifle human potential, when you don’t invest in new ideas, it doesn’t just cut off the people who are affected; it hurts us all. We know that while investments in education, and infrastructure and scientific and technological research increase it growthcreating more They increase good jobs and they create new wealth for all the rest of us.

(see What Bill Clinton Wrote vs. What Bill Clinton Said – Politics – The Atlantic Wire)

This is the kind of thing we rarely get to see. Of course, not all of these changes were written into the text that scrolled across his teleprompter; more than a few were the kinds of things a practised speaker may do on the fly. (I’ll bet that’s the case with a lot of those “Now”s at the beginning of sentences.)

But look at how often he edits to break up a long sentence, or turn a weak description into a superlative, or reinforce a parallel structure, or create a smoother transition (“Now, there’s a reason for this”), or signal a key point (“And so here’s what I want to say to you”).

For any of us who want to improve our craft, Bill Clinton just gave us a master class, courtesy of Dashiell Bennett. Many thanks to them both.


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