Around 120 speechwriting and executive communications professionals shared their experiences working for international political and business leaders at the second Professional Speech Writers Association annual world conference in the Rafik B. Hariri Building from Oct. 6 to 8.
Speechwriters from nine countries attended the three-day conference, including former speechwriters for President Barack Obama, former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, former President George W. Bush and former President Ronald Reagan, among others.
The conference was sponsored by both the McDonough School of Business and Gotham Ghostwriters, a New York City-based ghostwriting firm. Attendance at this year’s world conference was more than double that of its inaugural session at New York University in May 2014, including a range of professionals from government, corporate, nonprofit and independent sectors.
“It is morning in speechwriting … but it’s a dangerous morning in speechwriting,” PSA Director David Murray said as he opened the conference Wednesday morning, alluding to Ronald Reagan’s famous “Prouder, Better, Faster” campaign ad in 1984.
Murray, who is also the editor of monthly magazine publication Vital Speeches of the Day, established the PSA in 2013 as a way to connect leaders in a profession that he said is often overshadowed by the speakers or organizations for which they write.
“Here is your first best chance … to open your hearts about the rigorous, dangerous and sometimes absurd moments of your profession,” Murray said, “To decide: Is speechwriting a lonely profession by nature or can speechwriters nurture each other?”
Participants at the 2015 world conference engaged in a series of panel discussions, question-and-answer sessions, roundtable dialogues and networking events that revolved around the growth of leadership communication.
Speechwriter for Clinton Lissa Muscatine began Wednesday’s question-and-answer session with a candid discussion on her own evolution as a speechwriter and the future of rhetorical craftsmanship.
“I came into the profession when speechwriting was not what it is today,” Muscatine said. “I had never written a speech before [applying to the position] … and had no connection with the Clinton administration.”
However, Muscatine said that she connected with Clinton on both her political actions and messages, finding value in speechwriting through end results.
“Speeches are some part of the historical record of what people of the time are thinking,” Muscatine said. “The speaker needs to be forced to make their case and go through the process of writing a speech. What beguiles me today is that I go into speechwriting courses … and textbooks are used as guides for students. … As soon as it becomes formulaic, you lose the potential for great speeches.”
Other presenters, including MSB marketing and international business professor Charles Scuba, discussed the creativity and strategy behind storytelling for a public audience.
Wednesday’s conference session ended with a panel of seven former presidential speechwriters from the Nixon, Reagan, Bush ’41, Clinton, Bush ’43 and Obama administrations, who shared their personal experiences with creating an appropriate narrative in times of crisis.
John McConnell, former senior speechwriter for George W. Bush, spoke about the high-tension situation in the aftermath of the space shuttle Columbia disaster.
“Pressure doesn’t just concentrate your mind. … It clears away the clutter,” McConnell said.
Adam Frankel, former senior presidential speechwriter for President Barack Obama, added that he thought of the victims when writing speeches addressing tragedy.
“You try to make speeches as unique and distinct as possible and to make them about the individuals affected,” Frankel said. “You imagine if the people who were suffering were in the room, and think about what they would want to hear.”
Because political speeches following tragedies garner high public attention, the panel emphasized the significance of writing a speech that resonates with the greater public.
“If [television networks] didn’t cover us, or The Washington Post or The New York Times, it may as well not have been said,” Clark S. Judge, former senior speechwriter for Ronald Reagan, said.
Former Bill Clinton speechwriter Jeff Shesol echoed Judge, noting that the evolution in media coverage from lengthier stories to fragmented clips places nuanced demands on political speakers.
“Presidents [today] are made to be seen and heard all the time,” Shesol said. “If you didn’t comment on everything then there’s a vacuum that people will exploit. … It’s harder than any day before to control the conversation.”
In light of the changes in media and other methods of communication, conference participants also engaged their peers and co-workers in roundtable and sector-based dialogue, fostering an exchange of strategies, pitfalls and experiences working in executive communications today.
These more intimate discussions concluded Thursday, with a mentoring session for members of the Georgetown University Speechwriting Advising Group — a student-run pro bono speechwriting organization on campus — who initially proposed holding the second annual PSA world conference at Georgetown last year.
GSWAG Co-President Will Simons (COL ’16) commented on the unique opportunity to speak with and learn from top-industry professionals as undergraduates interested in political communication careers.
“Hearing Lissa Muscatine speak was incredibly valuable because she focused on the relationship between speechwriter and client, and that’s something that is so hard to teach, and only with experience you can get better at,” Simons said. “This is just an unbelievable opportunity for all those involved in GSWAG to talk candidly with professionals in the field.”