How the White House speechwriter talks the talk

obama keenan 300x200 1

Cody Keenan, Chief Speechwriter for the White House and President Obama, delivered his first commencement speech last week. In fact, Mr. Keenan’s speech to NYU’s Wagner School of Public Service was the first public address he had ever delivered. Early in his speech, he quipped: “This is what it’s like to actually deliver a speech.” By his own admission, however, he’s studied hundreds of commencements speeches and has drafted or edited more than a dozen.

What speech writing tips and techniques can we learn from this communications expert?

To pinpoint specific learnings from Mr. Keenan’s address, we used our communication analytics platform to analyze his speech, focusing on the communication metrics that research suggests are most important to a commencement address. We then indexed his scores on a scale of 0 – 100, as compared to other special occasion speeches (such as acceptance and retirement speeches), and benchmarked his results against the hundreds of commencement speeches in our communications database.

The results were clear—Mr. Keenan’s commencement speech was expertly written:

Cody-Keenan-commencement-speeches-special-occasionThe communications expert has (now) spoken

Given that Mr. Keenan was able to write a commencement speech that was more effective than average in the ways that count most, keep these four tips and techniques in mind when crafting your next speech:

    1. Be clear.clar∙i∙ty n: a measure of how easy it is for the audience to follow and understand the contentMr. Keenan’s speech scores high on clarity because it is personal and conversational. This is a tip that he gives as an aside during this speech – “If you wouldn’t say that to a friend in a bar, don’t make me put it in a speech.”
    2. Engage your audience.en∙gage∙ment n: the ability of the speaker to capture and hold the attention of the audienceMr. Keenan’s speech scores high on engagement because he tells stories and makes them relevant to his audience, tying in the students’ experiences to what he’s seen in the field. For example, he said: “Public service is a tough profession, whatever flavor of it you’re heading into. All the theory you learned here is about to run up against cold, hard practice. And I promise you, anytime you try to change something, you will run into a chorus of cynics who tell you that you can’t do it; it won’t work; we don’t do things this way; fall in line. Ignore them.”
    3. Be persuasive.per-sua-sion n: the ability to move the audience to a belief, position, or actionMr. Keenan’s speech scores high on persuasion because he builds up his own credibility and he appeals to the emotions of his audience. A classic persuasive communication framework suggests the audience is more likely to be persuaded if the communicator appeals directly to their emotions, while explaining his or her own expertise. For example, he said: “But I can tell you from experience that you will have so much fun watching what your fellow students do.”
    4. Be credible.cred∙i∙bil∙i∙ty n: the degree to which the speaker offers reasonable grounds for being believed by the audienceMr. Keenan’s speech scores high on credibility because he talks about his own experiences and accomplishments. For example, he said: “The first is to remember that the career path you’ve chosen isn’t about you at all. Now, that’s kind of implicit in the words “public service.” But I didn’t get it until I worked in that windowless mailroom back in the Senate. There, I learned that politics is not about sexy walk-and-talks, power lunches, or using witty banter to solve the world’s problems in an hour.”

To learn more about how our communication analytics platform and communications experts can help improve your next speech, contact us at