Political conventions are designed to accomplish a few things: galvanize the party around its platform heading into the election, showcase rising stars in the two major parties, and allow for presidents—past, present, and future—to get up on stage and make their case for their party's nominee.
A good political speech can inspire, enrage, or even move people to tears, and a lot of that has to do with the person delivering them—their conviction, their tone and tenor. But ad-libbing and riffing alone won't get you into the White House (well, uh, if you're Donald Trump, at least not yet). This is where professional speechwriters come in, who have a battle-tested formula for writing speeches that win hearts, minds, and votes.
Here's a breakdown of what makes for a good presidential speech, according to the collected wisdom of former White House speechwriters.
"An acceptance speech has to answer a few questions," David Kusnet, a speechwriter who co-wrote Bill Clinton's acceptance speech at the 1992 Democratic Convention and later served as Chief Speechwriter in the Clinton White House for two years, told me over the phone. "One of them is 'Who am I?” Another is, 'What do I believe?' or 'What is my assessment of what the American condition is today?' And the fourth one is 'Where do I want to take this country?' and the fifth one is “What’s wrong with my opponent?”'
"Tell the audience what you’re going to tell them, then you tell it to them, and then you tell them that you told them that."
In 2012, former Bill Clinton speechwriter Jeff Shesol told Time, "The most successful acceptance speeches are those that really draw a strong connection between the man and the moment."
Bill Clinton's speech in support of Hillary at the 2016 DNC worked so well because it helped to refocus the spotlight away from him and his presidential past to her presidential future.
"Acceptance speeches can be different, depending on how familiar the nominee is to the public," Kusnet says. Take Donald Trump for example. He's never held public office and spent close-to-no time on his background in his speech accepting the Republican Party nomination.
"The emotional structure of a speech is that you first establish a common bond with an audience," Kusnet says. "That can come from the self-introduction or making points that the audience will agree with. Then at some point you bring them down, you challenge them, you talk about a problem, you talk about what’s wrong with your opponent, but you do something that brings them down. And then you bring them back up again."
One of the ways to accomplish this is with humor. In 2012, The Atlantic analyzed 40 years worth of acceptance speeches and noted that humor in a speech can deflect (or even disarm) critics, as well as hook undecided voters at home, citing George W. Bush's 2004 re-nomination laugh line, "Some folks look at me and see a certain swagger, which in Texas is called 'walking.'"
The idea behind doing this, according to Kusnet, is to bring the audience to a higher emotional point than where they started in the speech. If the attendees start clapping, then you know it's working.
Former Reagan and George H.W. Bush speechwriter Peter Robinson agrees. He told Time in 2012, "You want the crowd in front of you applauding and screaming and climbing on their chairs to stamp with delight. At the same time, the nominee at least needs sympathy from those sitting in front of their TVs. You want both audiences thinking, ‘That’s my kind of guy. He cares about what I care about.'"
But at the same time, you don't want to alienate anyone. As the 2016 conventions have shown, audiences respond better to positivity in their speeches, so while answering that fifth question of what's wrong with your opponent, you don't want to resort to name-calling. Talk yourself up instead, or, to quote First Lady Michelle Obama, "go high."
"You may want policy detail, but you want it in plain English," Kusnet explains. "You’re not talking to an audience of Congressional staff, you’re talking to the American people."
Brevity is your friend while delivering the speech, but even more importantly, you need your points to land. If listeners don’t understand what’s been said, the speaker can't stop and go back. The speech, so to speak, must go on.
If the audience is clapping, chanting, or crying, then it's working. To get there, techniques like repetition, alliteration, or groups of threes ("the human mind is hardwired to respond to 'three'") are employed.
“A government of the people, by the people, and for the people. The ‘I Have a Dream’ speech? 'Free at last, free at last, free at last?' You can’t have a higher note than that," Kusnet tells me. "You need to have what’s clear, something that wraps it up, that’s upbeat, and that leaves the audience knowing it’s over, satisfied that it’s over, and responsive to the speaker."
One trick Kusnet suggests is ending on the same note you began on, but with the emotional intensity raised.
"In Bill Clinton’s acceptance speech in 1992, he had been introduced as 'The Man from Hope,' [Clinton is from Hope, Arkansas]. His conclusion: 'I end tonight where it all began for me. I still believe in a place called Hope.'
"In any speech you don’t want to end on a routine, 'Thank you for inviting me, I enjoyed it very much,' Kusnet explains. "You want to end with some kind of sum up, some kind of call to action, some kind of an expression of an ultimate value that you and the audience share."
David Matthews operates the Wayback Machine on Fusion.net—hop on. Got a tip? Email him: firstname.lastname@example.org