PHILADELPHIA—For all the attention paid to blockbuster speeches by VIPs like Michelle Obama and Joe Biden, names like this make up a small percentage of the slate at the Democratic National Convention. On the undercard are dozens of speakers with far lower profiles—many unaccustomed to addressing a crowd, almost none experienced in addressing a television audience of 20 million. Folks like this get funneled through the convention’s speechwriting operation. And that’s where the not-inconsiderable task begins of making human beings sound like human beings.
Take, for instance, Jensen Walcott and Jake Reed, who’ll be on stage and TV tonight in prime time. These two 17-year-old friends got hired at a Pizza Studio in Kansas City, Kansas—both on the same day, both with the same level of pizza-related experience. Yet when they congratulated each other on Snapchat, the story goes, Jensen realized she’d been offered a lower salary ($8 an hour) than her male friend Jake ($8.25). She asked her boss to explain the pay disparity. Instead of getting justice, both teens got fired. Cue a ton of media coverage and, whoa, a tweet from Hillary Clinton:
Eventually, the teens were invited to speak at the DNC. “I wasn’t sure what I was going to talk about, besides just telling my story,” Jensen says. And here’s where the speechwriting machine kicks into gear.
Jensen and Jake were assigned one speechwriter from among the 20 or so who work in a basement space here at the Wells Fargo Center in Philadelphia—where rough drafts fly off the printers at all hours and writers shout, “What did you think of that new last line?” across the room to colleagues. The teens’ designated speechwriter gave them a choice: Craft your own speech and I’ll edit it, or give me some bullet points, I’ll write the speech, and you can revise it. The teens chose the latter. So the speechwriter emailed back and forth with them, watched interviews they’d done on TV, and tried to capture their voices and story in just a couple hundred words.
David Litt helped write speeches for President Obama for several years, and he worked in the speechwriting boiler room at the 2012 DNC. (He’s at the convention this year as head writer and producer for Funny or Die’s politics arm in Washington, D.C.) Litt describes the whirlwind speechwriting experience at a convention as “all the intellectual work of speechwriting with all the energy of field organizing. It’s like taking final exams 12 hours a day for 10 days straight.” Most speechwriters work with 10 speakers at a time. Some speeches get locked down well in advance, but some are still in flux 30 minutes before showtime.
Amateur speakers like Jensen and Jake can in some ways be easier to deal with than a midlevel politician. “Some of these people have a stump speech they’re comfortable with,” Litt says, “and they’re also used to being the most important speaker everywhere they speak. You might be a congressperson who’s served for 18 years, but today you’re just one of dozens of warmup acts. In those cases, it’s about figuring out what to cut.
“The biggest reason it goes down to the wire is if you get a busy principal who doesn’t do any work in advance. If they’re not really engaged until the last minute, that generally ends in a rush. Maybe you tell them this 10-minute speech needs to be five minutes and they just don’t get back to you.”
Speechwriting on scene, for a live TV show, requires flexibility. “No one here would have expected that the opposing nominee would invite a cyberattack on the United States while the convention is going on,” Litt says. “And in a situation like that, it’s deciding whether or not to react. You don’t want to see something on Twitter and make the whole speech about that. But you also don’t want to be out of touch and not responding to issues people are focused on. I’d say that’s why the speechwriters get paid big bucks, but most of them are here as volunteers or taking huge pay cuts.”
The speechwriting team will work with a speech prep team (“a slightly different subgenre of professional services,” Litt explains) to walk the speaker through the whole spectrum of his or her performance. A keynote speaker might practice a speech several times over multiple days. But an amateur speaker will generally get only 30 minutes or so of prep, with one or two quick run-throughs.
“A lot of people aren’t used to talking for TV,” Litt says, “and when you’re in a huge room like this arena, you need pointers about how to respond. Because you might hear the crowd go crazy, and want to wait for them to stop applauding, but that doesn’t work on TV—you need to skip just a beat and then continue. Or someone’s shouting something, and you might want to react, but people can’t hear the shouting on TV so you’ve got to keep going or the viewer won’t understand what’s going on.”
Speaking in front of both a crowd and a TV audience requires a certain sort of emotional calibration. “If the crowd gets into it, you have to be more controlled,” Litt says. “You don’t want to sound like you’re yelling. What Michelle Obama and Bill Clinton did really well is speak to the viewer at home. It’s a different set of skills. They’re not matching the energy of the crowd—they’re a little less, they’re letting the crowd come to them. Jennifer Granholm in 2012 had a good speech, but people in the room were going crazy. And what seemed energetic from her in the room and got people fired up, on TV it was adding 10 decibels. The Dean scream is another good example of that. To people in the arena, it didn’t sound like a huge moment, but if you’re right in the mic, it’s very different.”
For Jensen and Jake’s speechwriter, the biggest challenge was the time constraint. In fewer than 300 words, the teens would need to tell their story, explain their connection to Hillary, and somehow hit on the theme of the convention: “stronger together.”
The first draft of their speech was split into two sections—first one teen speaking, and then the other. But Jensen and Jake asked for a little more back and forth. “He’s always finishing my sentences when we do interviews,” Jensen says. “We’re good friends, and we wanted people to see we have a connection.” And here’s where the convention theme got woven in. The teens wanted to express how important it is to “stand up for each other.”
The speech went to the research department, where it passed the fact-checking and plagiarism tests. The campaign signed off on the speech’s message. And on Wednesday afternoon, Jensen and Jake arrived at the arena for their walk-through. They were brought to the rehearsal space (actually, the Philadelphia Flyers locker room) with a practice lectern and teleprompters. “The teleprompters are huge and right in front of your face,” Jensen says, “so it was hard not to read along on them when Jake was talking. I had to remind myself to look at him instead.” They were reminded to talk over applause, instead of waiting. “The microphone is louder than the crowd,” Jensen notes, “so you don’t need to yell.”
Jensen got one main critique during her practice round. “Slow down. I’m a very fast talker. Especially when I’m nervous,” she says. “And I wasn’t nervous at all, but then I saw the Wells Fargo Center and how many people will be there.” I ask her what the biggest crowd was she’d ever previously addressed. “About six people.”
If all goes well, Jensen and Jake speaking to each other on national TV will sound like a reasonable approximation of Jensen and Jake hanging out with each other in Kansas. It turns out the process to achieve that effect requires multiple trained professionals and hours of effort. And that goes for all the other speakers, too. As you watch Thursday night, take a moment to consider the gears that turn behind the watch face.