Obama speechwriter’s tips on speeches

Cody Keenan knows a thing or two about writing speeches. As a speechwriter, Keenan worked with Barack Obama on more than 3500 speeches. Here are some of his tips on creating a memorable speech or presentation.

Give yourself a headline:

Keenan says he would always start by trying to come up with a headline for the speech. It might be one sentence, it might be three sentences. “But that headline is vital. That’s what you get to hang everything on, otherwise it won’t hold together,” he says.

(For another perspective, check our Blog on identifying your Controlling Idea).

Establish a connection with the audience:

Keenan and the Obama team called it a handshake with the audience. It comes at the very beginning of the speech, and it indicates that you – as the speaker – have done your homework. You know something about the audience, their fears, aspirations, achievements, needs. You are creating a bridge to your audience. Once you create that bridge and make that connection, you get permission to take the audience on a journey.

Have something to say:

“Whatever you are saying should be something only you can say. What makes it true for you? What experience do you bring to this? What’s your argument? What’s your vision?”

White House Director of Speechwriting Cody Keenan checking Barack Obama’s farewell speech one last time aboard Air Force One en route to Chicago. (WH Photo by Pete Souza)

Tell a story:

Every good speech is a story. And story will give you a structure for your speech – a beginning, a middle and an end. Build your story around real people, with real problems. The White House speechwriting team would read ten letters a day from the public, and often it was from those letters that they found the person who would be the human face of the story they wanted to tell.

Show empathy:

“Whoever you are speaking to, you have to put yourself in their shoes,” says Keenan. 

Tell good jokes:

Keenan says humour goes a long way in speeches, but it’s also very hard. He was lucky that his boss was good at telling jokes, and had good comedic timing. But Obama’s great strength was his self-deprecating humour: he would poke fun at himself. that’s much safer than telling jokes at the expense of others.

Keep it simple:

“You don’t have to sound like the smartest person in the room. Talk to people like you are talking to your best friend in a bar. Be colloquial. Be honest. Be real.”

Cody Keenan talked about speechwriting in a short BBC online feature. You can see it here.