How does Obama deliver his speeches?
Obama's speech writer Szuplat: This is how he wrote the speeches for the ex-US president
WirtschaftsWoche: Is there a speech that you are particularly proud of?
Terence Szuplat: That was, for example, a speech given by US President Barack Obama at the Hannover Messe in 2016. He spoke about the importance of the European Union and the partnership between the countries. It was an appeal to Europe, but also to the people around the world, not to succumb to nationalism. Not to close our doors to refugees and people in need, not to put up walls between countries.
Where did you hear the speech?
As speechwriters, we go on trips with them, but we are not there for every speech that is given. After all, the next speech has to be written. In this case, I was watching on the computer in my hotel room.
How does such a speech come about?
The chief speechwriter was often the president himself. The core ideas came from him. A week or two before the speech, we met with the President in the Oval Office and discussed it, listened to his ideas, what was important to him and what he wanted to focus on. Afterwards we exchanged messages with political advisors, Europe experts and embassies in order to get a good feeling for the mood in the country. Three or four days before the speech, a first draft was circulating among a few dozen people in the White House. They then had the opportunity to read them back and comment on them.
That sounds like a lot of different opinions.
Yes, yes, but it was our job to coordinate these partly conflicting opinions and to preserve the voice and vision of the President.
How fulfilling is it to hear your own words come out of the President's mouth?
It's not our words and our ideas. We helped ensure that the President's voice was heard.
How do you manage to write the way someone else speaks?
Each person has a unique way of talking and thinking about problems. Listening is therefore one of the most important skills of us speechwriters.
Are there certain words that are typical of President Obama?
For him it is more the structure of a speech, which, due to his past as a lawyer, often resembles a plea. He didn't think too much about individual lines.
How long did it take you to learn President Obama's speech?
It takes a while, of course. As I said, listening is the most important thing. As a speechwriter for a US president, you are lucky enough to have almost every word recorded by him. So I played his speeches on the computer, put on my headphones and just listened. Sometimes I would also turn off the screen so I wasn't distracted by the video. I wanted to hear his words, the patterns of his voice. You don't write what you would say yourself, but a script for someone else. Hence, you have to hear their voice in your own head. You could say we speechwriters are a little crazy because we hear other people's voices in our heads.
Where did you get your inspiration for the speeches from?
From the president. A speechwriter's dream is to put your heart and soul into the words and for the President to present them with the same passion and eloquence.
So there wasn't a special place where they could write extremely well?
Our office in the west wing of the White House was only a little bigger than a closet and had no windows. We also wrote a lot in Air Force One while other people were sitting around us. But that didn't bother me very much. But when I could write in a hotel room with a view of a city or a river, it was always very inspiring.
Don't be distracted from sitting in Air Force One and having to write a speech while people are discussing around you.
For this we had headphones that shield the noise.
How long did it take, on average, to finish a speech?
If it was a short speech and we didn't have much time, we could do it in an hour or two. But with a speech like the one in Hanover, it can take several weeks for the last note to be incorporated.
Did you have a lot of comments?
If the president already knew what he wanted to talk about at the beginning of the process and we had listened carefully to the speechwriters, it was less than if the president and his advisors pondered what they wanted to discuss for a long time.
Was there a moment when the final changes were very close?
President Obama was actually very relaxed about that. However, we speechwriters were often rather panicked. When we were backstage, the audience could already hear and the President read over the speech in peace. Because we then had to incorporate the comments into the script as quickly as possible, swap pages. That could be nerve wracking.
Was the necessary technology such as a printer always nearby?
In most cases, yes. But once I sat in the motorcade with my laptop on my lap and tried to incorporate the latest changes. Only there was no good internet connection. I actually ended up kneeling on the sidewalk next to the venue, trying to get a wifi signal.
The most difficult were the trips abroad to Europe or Asia. They usually lasted seven to ten days and each had several speeches. As a speechwriter, you always think two or three days ahead. For example, you're in Berlin, but this speech has already been written, so you're thinking about what the President in London could say.
It sounds like you have to be very structured.
Yeah, right, you can never break your deadline because the president is going to take the stage and he has to find a speech there. There are no excuses.
Always wanted to be a speechwriter?
Already here at the University in Washington D.C. I was interested in governments and politics. Then in my senior year I got an internship on the White House speechwriting team. For me, the most impressive job has been helping the President speak to the American people, to the whole world. Since then, I've been fascinated by the job. 14 years later, I came back to the White House as a real speechwriter.
What were the biggest differences to your internship?
As an intern, you were allowed to write and try out a few things. But in the end, those in charge rewrote everything because I was so bad. When you return as a speechwriter, you have your own interns and can give them tips on how to develop into writers themselves.
In the end, what is more important: a good speech or a good speaker?
A good speaker, definitely. You can write a wonderful speech, but if the speaker doesn't deliver it convincingly, it won't do any good. It is only a speech when someone gives it. Until then, it's just words on paper.
More on the subject: At shareholder meetings or employee meetings it is regularly shown that bosses are not selected based on whether they are convincing speakers. The good news: You can learn to act rhetorically even without a natural talent.
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