Mastering the art of storytelling to drive change.

President Biden’s speechwriters need a new strategy

01 / 11 / 2022

President Biden’s speechwriters are doing him a serious disservice. His presidential addresses do not leave lasting impressions. They are missed opportunities.  

To be clear, Biden is not a great speaker. He wasn’t a charismatic communicator even in his prime. This is why his first two presidential campaigns went nowhere. And if the Democrats hadn’t needed a vanilla option on the ballot in 2020 to get rid of the Albatross — and if Congressman Jim Clyburn hadn’t thrown his weight behind Biden in South Carolina — he’d be 0-3. 

Joe Biden is a good man. In my book, just getting to the finish line and winning was the towering achievement over his half-century political career. Not because he became president, but because he jettisoned the Albatross. 

But now it’s harder than ever for him to make an impactful speech — which is exactly why these speechwriters need to start keeping it tighter. Shorter. More focused. Stop with the long poetry; he’s talking to the country, not the NPR faithful. 

In his speech on Tuesday, Biden said he wants to nix the filibuster. That was the point of the speech. But what’s the quotable nugget from it? The catchy one? The one people will remember? Got me. 

Several years ago, I managed a Democrat for Congress in a district that was slightly Republican. The candidate was highly intelligent and liked to give expository answers. 

When we coached her for the main televised debate, we had to beat that instinct out of her. I had to keep interrupting my boss — over and over — and tell her that she kept leaving out the main message that we wanted to tattoo onto the brains of reporters and voters: Our our opponent was “extreme — and out of the mainstream.” And to cite examples.  

She hated distilling it down to that hackneyed phrase and even more so hated repeating herself. Repeatedly. 

After many failed attempts during our mock debate, I finally lost my patience and said: Don’t you _____ understand? You want people to remember one message. And you want the newspapers and local TV to quote that line verbatim. That’s why you have to say it over and over again. So start _____ saying it!! 

She looked at us silently for several seconds, which felt like an hour. Then she nodded and said: “Go again. Ask it again.” 

She nailed the debate. Crisp and clean and clear. The next morning the local newspaper’s coverage quoted her twice describing our opponent as extreme and out of the mainstream.  

Another candidate I managed was incredibly charming and articulate when he was in small settings. Sharp as a Hattori Honzo sword. But when he’d read speeches I wrote for him — it was painful. Because that wasn’t his talent. So I started writing him bullet points to riff off of. And we practiced keeping the points short and sweet — but spoken with passion and strength. 

Reading a speech in front of an audience or a camera is a very hard thing to do in the first place. Even on a teleprompter. Being able to do it with grace and with pop is a rare talent — especially on a national stage. Kennedy had it. Reagan had it. Bill Clinton had it. Obama had it… Hillary Clinton didn’t. Romney didn’t. Dole didn’t. Dozens of others that you’ve never heard of didn’t. 

Most people don’t have this gift. Try watching member of Congress give speeches on the House floor. Ninety-nine percent of them are an effective cure for insomnia. 

That’s why speechwriters have to tailor addresses to their speakers’ strengths. Biden desperately needs this service from his staff. Include short quotes from history. Reference a poll showing that Americans do favor changing the filibuster. Say it in simple terms. 

What’s the dramatic takeaway of the speech? Incorporate it into the text at least four times. For example, place the same phrase at the end of several passages. Get some rhythm into the damn thing. Like a chorus in a song. 

I’m not sure anyone wants to eliminate the filibuster more than I do. I’ve been voicing it for seven years — long before Obama, Sanders, Warren, Biden — even the Albatross — came around to supporting it. 

But Biden’s speeches on his party’s failure in the Senate have not been memorable enough to move the needle. He needs one central, repeatable theme. Simplify the message. Distill it. Then drill it. Again and again. Did I already mention this? Yes. I did. That’s the entire point.