4 Storytelling Lessons from a Former Washington Speechwriter

Disclaimer: This is not a political post. However, politicians and Washington staff may be referenced throughout the course of this blog.

Recently, I had the chance to listen to Jon Favreau, former speechwriter for President Obama talk about his time in Washington. While the stories he told – days on the campaign trail, working his way up to Chief Speechwriter, holing up in his room on Christmas Day to finish a speech – were fascinating on their own, it was Favreau’s insight on speechwriting that truly caught my attention.

Favreau outlined four lessons that he used in his writing when representing the most powerful man in the country. His tips are ones that we can all follow as PR practitioners representing our clients and brands.

Lesson 1: Focus on the story.

For Favreau, this was key in his speechwriting. He would find ways to convey messages about equal rights or healthcare by telling stories about the people these changes would impact.

In PR, we have the same goal. Oftentimes it’s easy to get caught up in the “key messaging,” the top points that you have outlined as the most important information to convey to your customers or constituents. But don’t lose sight of the story. Tell people why they should care about your promotion or discount by reminding them of the experience or impact it will have on them.

 

Lesson 2: Use words and phrases that people actually use.

An easy lesson, but a great reminder. When working in any industry, certain words and acronyms can become commonplace in your vocabulary. But don’t forget to take a step back and look at your writing through the eyes of an outsider. Would the average person understand what “TPA” means? How about “DMO”? Spell it out and keep it simple. If your grandma wouldn’t understand what you are saying, chances are you need to revise.

 

Lesson 3: Humor is one of the most underrated but effective methods of storytelling.

I love this lesson, but it comes with a word of caution. Favreau talked about how he often used humor to lighten up a topic and make it relatable to the audience. It also helped break up the drone of a long speech. But with all things, there is a time and a place for humor. You know the brands you are working on, and whether or not the subject matter allows for a more humorous tone.

As one of my favorite fictional characters, Albus Dumbledore would say, “Use it well.”

 

Lesson 4: Storytelling is fundamentally about maintaining your idealism. Caution is its greatest enemy.

Favreau’s final lesson was an interesting one. He cautioned the audience not to hold back in their writing. He noted that the greatest speeches are the ones that lay it all out on the table, that take risks, and that are not too cautious or careful in their messages.

Looking at that advice from a branding or PR standpoint, the message is clear. Caution doesn’t get you noticed or set you apart from the rest. It is the truly unique ideas, the ones that take a little bit of a risk that yield the most memorable campaigns.

Through his speeches, President Obama was using these techniques to inspire change in the country. He encouraged people to take action, to unite, and to fix the problems we have. In essence, that is what we are trying to do with the brands we represent. Tell a great story. Unite people. Inspire action.

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