How to Survive Writing a Speech (and Zombies)

What do speechwriting and zombies have in common? A lot. At least according to Taylor Clark, a 20-year veteran of the U.S. Navy, who spoke about the rules of survival for speechwriting at a recent speechwriters conference.

He noted that his tips not only help with writing a speech but also work for surviving a zombie apocalypse.

The first rule is about cardio – you have to keep going and going, especially if you’re trying to outrun zombies. If you’re working on a speech, everything must be about the document.  As a speechwriter you should either be researching or writing. That means no checking emails and no watching cat videos on YouTube.

Rule #2 is all about the double tap. You shoot once, that’s fine. You shoot twice and that’s being thorough, which is needed with zombies. With speech writing, it’s all about accuracy. So check and recheck. Today’s speeches live on social media, and they live on the news. The speech must be accurate.

Writing a speech uses the same skills that are needed to survive a zombie attack. (Photo by Cynthia Price)

Writing a speech uses the same skills that are needed to survive a zombie attack. (Photo by Cynthia Price)

As a speechwriter you also can’t become too attached, which is rule #5. Becoming too attached is not only frustrating, but it can hurt your confidence. “I’ve worked so hard to dig deep and pull out the right words only to have them lined through and taken away,” Clark said. “You have to separate yourself emotionally from the words.”A final rule was to have a go-to weapon. With zombies it might be a chainsaw, a shotgun or a banjo. For speechwriting, Clark said his go-to choice is Evernote, which lets you take notes, sync files across devices, capture inspiration and share ideas.

“It’s a way to literally put anything in there and never run out,” Clark said. “And you always have the draft with you.”

Clark also discussed what he calls the “Trifecta of Speech Perfecta,” which includes paper, feet and mouth. “It’s like a weird paper, rock, scissors game,” he said.

Since the majority of speeches are on paper, you will have to print the speech repeatedly. For those who don’t like wasting paper and killing trees, Clark suggested giving a donation to the Arbor Foundation. Printing the speech is critical to ensure proper line breaks and spacing. And by printing it, you can stand and practice the speech, which leads to the feet of speech perfecta.

Speechwriters must get up from their desks and stand at a podium and recreate the speech. Clark has a podium in his office and stands at it to edit speeches.

Finally, he notes that the ear is neglected, which means as a speechwriter you must give the speech out loud and then edit it. “If it doesn’t sound right coming out of your mouth, it’s not going to sound right coming out of your boss’s mouth.”

Clark’s final rule focused on being ruthless and pushing past your comfort zone. He urged speechwriters to not just copy and paste from prior speeches. “You don’t want to become a zombie yourself.”

Writing a Memorable Speech

Writing your own story is difficult. Now try telling a story in the voice of another person. That’s speech writing, and it’s a fine art.

I was cleaning out files and came upon my notes taken when speech writer Megan Rooney spoke at a VPW meeting. She has written for First Lady Michelle Obama and for Secretary of State Hilary Rodham Clinton.

She noted, “Most people don’t have a distinctive voice. It’s really about clarity purpose and organization.”

So how does one achieve that? She gave three tips —

1)      Put your message in a story. Make it personal, if possible.

2)      Keep it simple. Use signposts, such as “here’s what I’m going to say.” Include facts. The key is to find the dazzling ones and use them.

3)      If possible, try to be a little dazzling.

Once you have done that in your speech conclude with a call to action.

What have you done to make your speeches memorable?