I’ve mentioned before how popular representations of speechwriters don’t always chime with lived experience. Along the same lines, whenever I’ve been asked what qualities a speechwriter needs most, I tend to point not to the rhetorical ability and the technical skills – useful though they are to speechwriting – but to soft skills.
So, for example, speechwriters need a heavy dose of humility. Phrases you love will be cut. As someone-or-other said, “In writing, you must kill all your darlings.”
As a result, speechwriters need to be willing to bite their tongues.
Very hard, sometimes.
A better way to put it is that speechwriters need to be strategically acquiescent. It’s true that the speaker has, literally, the final say. It’s also true that constructive criticism, at the right moment, can be greatly appreciated.
Patience, too, is a virtue. Especially on the fifth round of edits, when the speaker begins reinserting material they previously edited out.
Leonid Pasternak, “The Passion of Creation” (1892)
But these are all personal qualities, when really I think that a speechwriter’s value is in their willingness to disappear.
On the one hand, I mean that the speechwriter needs to be able to remove all trace of their self from their work. The speechwriter should, as Simon Lancaster has put it, write the speech that the speaker would have written if they had time.
On the other hand, and this is my key point, I mean that all the skills for which the speechwriter has been brought on-board – the rhetoric, the literary flair, the wordsmithery – need to be invisible.
A speech shouldn’t scream “Look at me and all my rhetorical devices!” And when the speakers sits down to review the draft, they shouldn’t be thinking, “Ah, there’s the rule of three, there’s the parallelism, there’s the epiplexis…”
The converse is also true: the speechwriter shouldn’t have to point out a speech’s rhetorical gestures for their effects to be felt. Like jokes, speeches that need to be explained haven’t worked.
Rhetoric and its effects should be self-evident. The speechwriter’s work must disappear, to leave behind a speech whose power is greater than the sum of its parts.