Clinton speechwriter reflects on career
Photo Courtesy of University Relations
Terry Edmonds, the first African-American chief White House speechwriter, shared insight on the fundamentals of political speechwriting and addressed the many challenges that public advocates face in today’s political environment to a packed room of Hofstra students, faculty and community members on Wednesday, March 6.
The talk, given at the Guthart Cultural Center Theater, was presented by the Hofstra Cultural Center and department of writing studies and rhetoric in collaboration with the Hofstra College of Liberal Arts and Sciences, department of political science and the Lawrence Herbert School of Communication.
From 1995 to 2001, Edmonds served as chief speechwriter under former President Bill Clinton. Before he achieved his dream of becoming a professional writer, Edmonds was turned away from “Virtually every newspaper, radio and TV station in Baltimore.”
Progress started off slow, but once he found an open door in public relations, Edmonds was able to pursue and maintain a career as a professional writer for over 40 years. “Speechwriting is more an art than a science,” Edmonds said. He explained that it requires skills in communicating and connecting with an audience.
During his discussion, Edmonds used personal experiences to define the four key elements of speechwriting. The first guideline being “[To] be brief, be sincere, be seated.”
According to Edmonds, Clinton routinely demanded his speechwriters give him no more than 15 minutes worth of content, which he ultimately would stretch into a 20, 30 or 60 minute speech.
“Tell them what you’re going to tell them, tell them and tell them what you just told them,” Edmonds said. He explained that one can follow this second guideline through a “judicious use of humor, alliteration and repetition, illustrative quotes, a connection to the audience and, most importantly, storytelling.”
Edmonds recalled that every State of the Union since Clinton has featured brief stories from “real people,” who are chosen to illustrate some policy point or presidential achievement. “They say a picture is worth a thousand words,” Edmonds said. “I believe a story can make a speech a thousand times more worthy.”
Guideline three, as described by Edmonds, involves using elements of rhetorical persuasion correctly. These elements include ethos, pathos, logos and the lesser known kairos.
“Fact-based truth-telling is essential,” Edmonds said. “You may fool some of the people some of the time, but truth ultimately prevails.”
Edmonds’ final guideline was the importance of diversity and inclusion in the public affairs and speechwriting professions. Despite graduating during the height of the Civil Rights era with new doors beginning to open for African-Americans, Edmonds constantly found that he was the only black public relations writer in a room throughout his career.
“The reluctance to hire African-Americans and other minorities in public relations and the media is still all too prevalent,” Edmonds said. “It’s clear, diversity within public relations and speechwriting professions is not only the right thing to do, it is the smart thing to do.”
Freshman early childhood education major Mia Kelley left the event feeling inspired. “I want to be more politically involved,” Kelley said. “Diversity is a really big issue, and people don’t really address it.”
“Having a diversity of ideas, cultural experiences and insights at the table is critical to connecting with and expanding a consumer base, avoiding bias and increasing value for organizations and their stake holders,” Edmonds said.
Philip Dalton, a professor for the rhetoric and public advocacy department at Hofstra, emphasizes the importance of jobs like speechwriting to his students every day. “I tell my students all the time, there is no substitute for public political address or inspiring people and motivating people to work collectively to address any sort of an issue,” Dalton said.
“It is my hope that the path that I and others of my generation have paved will inspire more young people like many of you and more people of color and women to make a difference as speechwriters,” Edmonds said. “Prepare yourselves as writers and communicators, to be messengers of a better America and a better world. That is your mission and this is your moment.”