Where presidential speech ideas come from

Posted By Steve | December 10, 2013 | No Comments

If you’ve ever wondered where the idea for presidential speeches come from, I have a mole in the White House that just gave me an insider’s peek at how the concept for President Obama’s latest speech on income inequality was developed.

Here’s how it played out:

SCENE: Barack and Michele are lying in bed awake. Barack is very fidgety, waiting for Michele to fall asleep so he can sneak outside and smoke a cigarette. Michele puts down the copy of Cooking Light magazine she’s been reading, and turns to Barack: 

Michele: “Hey B, did you see that the new Pope gave a big speech?”

Barack (very distracted): “Oh yeah? I love big speeches. What’d he talk about?”

Michele: “Income inequality. And people loved it. I mean, they went ape shit on it. The guy really struck a chord.”

Barack: “Hey, I’ve given big speeches on that before! Tons of times!”

Michele: “Yeah I know, B. We built an entire re-election campaign on it, remember? But you haven’t hit it in a while, and now that the Pope has given a speech on it, I think you ought to give a speech on it again, too. I mean, people really liked that Pope’s speech.”

Barack: “Oh . . . I don’t know.”

Michele: “What? There’s no downside! You can even reference the Pope! Everyone loves this guy. Make it sound like you and him are in on this together!”

Barack: “I don’t know, Mich. You know, I always feel kind of bad that I talk about this so much but I never really do anything about it.”

Michele: “Come on baby. You know the drill. You give the speeches and then blame Republicans when nothing gets done. Everybody knows they want to euthanize all the poor people in this country anyway.”

Barack: “Yeah, but it’s not just that. I always feel a little hypocritical when I talk about that 1 percenter stuff because, well . . . you know . .  . we’re super rich. And all our friends are super rich. We don’t even know any poor people. We don’t even know any middle-class people. We only know people in the top one percent of the top one percent.”

Michele: “That’s not our fault, baby!! We both went to Ivy League schools. And what about those human props you sometimes bring up on stage with you when you give speeches. Some of them are poor, I’m sure. Didn’t you make friends with any of them?”

Barack: “Not really. I mean, this one guy was nice. But . . . well, you know, we really didn’t have anything in common. He didn’t even play basketball.”

Michele: “Well, you can’t worry about the hypocrisy thing. I mean, look at the Pope! He’s up there talking about income inequality, and the Vatican has more money than . . . well, than God!!”

Barack: “I guess you’re right, baby. Plus, it could get the press to stop talking about the damn health-care Web site.

Michele (turns off the light): “Bingo! But don’t wait too long. Got to piggyback on the Pope before people forget about his speech.”

Barack lays in the dark for 20 minutes. Then slowly reaches under the bed, where he has taped a pack of cigarettes and a lighter, grabs them, and starts to creep out of bed.

Michele: “Don’t even think about it, B!”

Barack gets back in bed with a huge sigh.

Barack: “Yes, dear.”

Michele: “And you give that speech, you hear?”

Barack: “Yes, dear.”

Michele: “And you do better than that old Pope, you hear?”

Barack: “Yes, dear.”

Michele: “Oh, and B? Make sure the boys in speechwriting work Mandela into it somehow, too. You know, so it’s like you, the Pope, and Mandela are all in this together.”

Barack: “Yes dear.”

Editor’s Note: Just so nobody thinks this was a politically motivated post, which is certainly was not, I’ve asked my insider source at the White House to give me the background behind one of George W. Bush’s most famous speeches. I’ll tell that story later this week.


Boehner makes startling announcement . . . and other political news

Posted By Steve | March 21, 2013 | No Comments

This just in . . . breaking news on the political front!

When asked by CNN Washington Correspondent Jake Tapper if he ever aspired to be President, House Speaker John Boehner replied: “I don’t want to be president. This is not anything I’ve ever thought about.”

Boehner reportedly has also never thought about being a unicorn, a wizard, a leprechaun, a kangaroo, or a woman . . . all of which he has a better chance of being than President.

In related news, other people who say they have no interest in being president include Kim Kardashian,  Charles Manson, Carrot Top, Dennis Rodman, and Ted Bundy, the serial killer who was executed in 1989.

But . . . even with those people out of the running, however, there is no shortage of people who do want to be president. In recent weeks, the people have gone on the record as saying that they do, in fact, want to be president include:

Oprah Winfrey (“Dr. Phil would make a great VP, because he’s as useless as a bucket of spit.”)

Bill Clinton (“I managed to have oral sex in the Oval Office four times a week and still run the country better than these last two yahoos.”)

Tim Tebow (“God told me I’d be a good President. Of course, he also told me I’d be a good quarterback, but I doubt He’d be wrong twice.”)

Ryan Seacrest (“The only way to guarantee gay rights is to put a damn gay in the White House.”)

Rick Santorum (“The only way to guarantee gay rights is to put a closet gay in the White House.”)

Hilary Clinton (“Admit it, you all wish you voted for me in 2008, don’t ya? Don’t ya?”)

Rick Perry (“People think I’m crazy, but that’s just because I say a lot of stupid crazy shit.”)

Reverend Jesse Jackson (“I think this country is ready for a black President.”)

Michelle Obama (“I think this country is ready for a strong black female president who just looks like she could kick the living shit out of that little dude from North Korea.”)

Charlie Sheen (“What this country needs is a little Tiger Blood in the White House! Yeah, Tiger Blood! And cocaine. Butt-loads of cocaine. And hookers.”)

Barack Obama (“What? FDR had three terms, and that dude was in a wheelchair. I can do three terms. Shit, I could do five terms. It’s gonna take me that long to clean up Bush’s mess anyway.”

Stay tuned to this space for further updates on the 2016 election, and ongoing political news as it breaks.


Forget the ‘Harlem Shake,’ . . . the “Obama Five-Step Shuffle is more fun to watch!

Posted By Steve | February 26, 2013 | 1 Comment

All the modern-day presidents had their own style of governing.

Reagan used his charm, personality, and relentless optimism to win over the so-called “Reagan Democrats.” He even managed to get some things done with his adversary Tip O’Neill, who once called Reagan “the most ignorant man who had ever occupied the White House.” (And you think today’s Republicans hate Obama!)

Clinton made his famous “move to the middle” and by doing so, was able to work with people who hated him enough to try and impeach him to accomplish things like welfare reform and balance the budget.

And, alas, George W. hitched his wagon to the neo-conservatives, and governed with a fierce loyalty to their beliefs, despite what the polls showed or popular opinion. Which, while it didn’t turn out that well for us, is admirable in its own way.

And now we have President Obama. After five years, we can finally start to get a sense of his governing style. Now that he has settled into the day-to-day governing in his second term, you can start to see a definite pattern, a strategy for governing. I call it the “Obama Five Step Shuffle.”

Here’s how it works.

Step One: He either creates a crisis (Draconian sequester spending cuts) or takes advantage of one (fiscal cliff) to try and get what he wants.  Peggy Noonan calls this Step “Politics by Freakout,” and Obama has it mastered.

Step Two: Obama then rides in on a white horse and outlines his plan for digging America out of this crisis, and saving “Main Street, U.S.A.” That plan, of course, is raising taxes on evil rich people. While outlining that plan, he is sure to let everyone know that his plan is all about Main Street, and any plan offered by the Republicans, even plans he hasn’t seen yet because the hasn’t actually talked to them in months, is all about bailing out “Wall Street.”

Step Three: This is the step where most Presidents roll up their sleeves and, after having set the public relations strategy,  they get to the governing strategy, and actually sit down and negotiate with the other party to get something done.

But Obama hates negotiating. He hates that part of politics, which unfortunately for him is 90 percent of what politics is. So he skips that phase and sticks with the public relations strategy. He leaves Washington, and goes on a campaign-style whistle-stop tour to drum up public support for his idea (singular), hoping that will sway the polls and the Republicans will cave in to his demands.

Obama is very good at Step Three. He ha mastered the little things, like using human props. At one recent speech, he surrounded himself with firemen. At another, he surrounded himself with defense workers who might lose their job if the spending cuts go through.

Throughout the “campaign,” in every speech, he uses scare tactics, class warfare tactics, and smear tactics to make people believe that he is for the “little guy” while Republicans want to give everybody’s money to billionaires, eat small children, burn the elderly alive, and destroy the Earth.

Step Four: Obama returns to Washington, still refuses to sit down with Republicans, and starts complaining about how everything bad that has happened to this country has happened because House Republicans refuse to work with him. He pisses and moans and cries and complains and does everything short of trying to actually negotiate with the enemy.

Step Five: He sits back and hopes America is dumb enough to believe his bullshit.

So far, the Obama Five Step Shuffle seems to be working. In fact, he won reelection using it.

But let’s see if he can keep it going. I mean, it’s easy to fool people for four years. It gets a little trickier after six, seven years, when nothing seems to ever change.


I’m willing to be the Pope . . . if they are willing to make some changes

Posted By Steve | February 11, 2013 | 9 Comments

It’s official. Just got the call from the Vatican. They want me to be the next Pope. I agreed, providing they make a few small changes to their doctrine. Ten tiny changes, to be exact:

1. Reverse their stance on gay people, and encourage people to be who they are. I figure they’ll go for this one, since many of their priests are gay.

2. Reverse their stance on birth control, so people in poor countries like Mexico don’t keep having kids they can’t afford, just so the Church can continue to grow. I checked the bible. Nothing in there about not wearing rubbers, so they should pass this one, too.

3. Reverse their stance on women not being allowed to be priests, because anything men can do, women can usually do better. The Democrats talked about the Republican War on Women, but that’s nothing compared to what the Catholic Church is doing to them.

4. Reverse their stance on allowing priests to marry, because it’s inhumane to tell someone they can’t have an intimate relationship for their entire adult lives. Plus, you tend to attract more perverts that way. Again, there’s nothing in the Bible to support it. The only reason they outlaw marriage is the almighty dollar. If you allow priests to marry, they’re going to have children and want their own places to live. Which means you’ll actually have to pay them.

5. Speaking of perverts, change the culture so that instead of protecting pedophile priests, and allowing them to continue to rape little boys, they must turn over all pedophiles to the authorities immediately. The immediate shortage of priests that will happen as a result will be offset by provision #3 and #4.

6. Shorten the Mass to seven minutes. Start with a prayer. Have the priest give a short homily, and end with a song. That’s enough religion for anyone. All the rest is bullshit. And all that chanting gives me the creeps. “Let us proclaim the mystery of our faith . . . “. Let us not, okay? Catholics know what they believe in; they don’t have to chant it every week.

7. Knock off this whole eating Jesus and drinking his blood stuff. It’s creepy, and cult-like, and way too medieval. Catholics make their communion in second grade. So you’re telling 7-year-olds that they are eating a human. What the hell is the matter with you.

8. Don’t make priests wear dresses anymore. It probably adds to the perversion factor.

9. Get rid of all the bishops and cardinals who live lives of incredible luxury. All they do is suck money from the local churches that need it more. As Pope, I won’t need them. And I can’t stand their hats. As Pope, the only hat I’ll wear is a Cubs hat.

10. Move the Vatican to Chicago until my son graduates high school. Then we can move it back to Italy, since he’ll be away at college anyway.

I’m still waiting to hear back from them . . . but I’m sort of assuming it’s a done deal. When it happens, I’ll keep this blog, but change the name of it to either “Papal Matters,” or “Papal Infallibility My Ass.”


Leaping the biggest hurdle to creative communication

Posted By Steve | February 8, 2013 | No Comments

Here’s my latest feature from our new monthly newsletter: Low Hanging Fruit.  


The obstacles to being creative inside an organization are many, varied and tough to overcome … but it all starts with taming the approval process.

Writing for organizations is hard. Being creative inside organizations isn’t easy.

Sometimes, it seems as if everything is set up to prevent us from creating the kind of content that people will actually read and pay attention to.

A recent informal survey of communicators at one of my writing seminars revealed six common barriers that people face as they labor to create better content. In no particular order, here they are:

1. The approval process
2. Fear of creativity or “doing something new”
3. Audiences who don’t care that much about our stories
4. Internal clients with the wrong agenda
5. Lack of access to important people
6. Boring subject matters

On their own, any one of those things can suck the creativity out of even the best communicators. Taken together, they can suck out your soul. But out of all of them, the hardest one to deal with is the beast at the top of the list: The dreaded approval process.

Which is a shame, because approval processes are supposed to be good things. They are supposed to exist to keep people out of trouble and to make sure we get our facts right. The approval process should, more than anything else, be a fact-checking process.

But it’s not. Instead, most approval processes turn into a group editing exercise. It’s writing by committee. Everybody gets to take a crack at the article: Subject matter experts, managers, executives, HR, legal, compliance . . . everybody is lined up with red pens and their own agendas.

Try to imagine this conversation taking place inside an organization:

Scene: An architect’s office at a major construction company’s headquarters. An architect sits at his desk, poring over a set of blueprints for a new building. There is a knock at the door. It’s the corporate communicator.

Communicator: “Uh, Ed? You got a minute?”

Engineer: “Not really, Bill. What’s up?”

Communicator: “Uh, it’s Phil, actually. And I was just wondering if maybe I could take a look at that blueprint for a second.”

Engineer: “Why would you want to do that?” You can’t run anything about this project in your newsletter yet.”

Communicator: “I know. But I think I have some suggestions for you on how to improve it. See, in fourth grade, I won a statewide Lego competition. I built an entire Hobbit village. I think I can probably give you some good advice.”

That conversation would never happen, right? And yet once the story on the new building iswritten, and it’s given to the architect for his “approval,” he’ll feel qualified to change the headline, tinker with the lead, massage the quotes, and otherwise butcher the article and render it almost unreadable.

Why? Because everybody can write! Everybody took writing classes in high school and college! Everybody can do what we do, right?

WRONG!!! And we need to start saying that out loud. We need to start sticking up for what we do. We need to have confidence in our expertise, and our talent. In short, we need to take control of the approval process and make it work for us, rather than against us.

I know, I know. It’s easier said than done. And maybe you’ll fail if you try. But the problem is, too many communicators have given up on even trying. They assume it is what it is, and let whatever mess the approval process churns out be the final version. Even though we know it’s a version that nobody will either a) read; or b) understand.

That has to stop. And it’s up to us to turn things around.

Putting the approval process to work for you

In our “Write & Rewrite” webinars and customized writing seminars that we do on-site at companies, my partner Jim Ylisela (the “Rewrite” half of “Write & Rewrite”) and I always carve out time to talk about the approval process.

And after talking to hundreds—if not thousands—of communicators over the years about the topic, we’ve come up with some practical advice that has worked for people in various organizations.

Now there is no guarantee that any of it will work for you. But it’s worth a shot. Here are two of the best pieces of advice we’ve heard:

1. Do more on the front end, so there’s less work on the back end. The idea here is to avoid the “shock syndrome” that conservative corporate people get when they see something differentor new or, God forbid, creative.

If you’re going to take a different approach to something, let people know in advance. Let’s say, for example, that you have to write an article about a safety program. But rather than focus the story around the program itself, you’re going to focus the story around one person’s experience with the program. How it’s helped that person stay safe, maybe. Or how, by not paying close enough attention to the program, the person was nearly hurt. Or maybe he or she was hurt.

Now, this might upset the lawyers. It might upset HR. It might upset the manager of the person you’re profiling. So go talk to these people in advance. But when you do, remember these two important things:

A.  Build a business case for doing it differently. You’re not being creative just to be creative. You want to build awareness of an important new program, and your expertise in the field of communications tells you this is the best way to do it. The end goal is to help the organization, not just to tell a good story. Hammer that point home.

B.  Remember that you’re not asking for permission. People will say no to a concept before they ever even see the article. You’re the expert in your field. You know the best way to achieve the objective you’re trying to achieve. You are simply alerting the people who need to see the article that you’re doing things a little differently.

Now, they still might freak out when they see the article. But maybe they’ll freak out a little less. And maybe, just maybe, they won’t freak out at all.

2. Define roles and tasks, so everybody knows what they’re supposed to do. For some reason, many communicators fail to do this. And since nobody knows what their role in the process is, they assume they are supposed to hack away at the article with a red pen.

In any given piece of content, three things need to be “approved:” 1. Facts. 2. Tone. And 3. Style.

Checking facts is the role of the subject-matter experts—you know, the architects and engineers and marketers and salespeople and doctors. But that is their only role, and they need to understand that. They’re not there to mess with tone, style, quotes, headlines, leads, or any of the other story elements that fall into your area of expertise.

Checking tone is where managers and leaders come in. They can help you determine if the overall tone of the piece is suitable to the corporate culture and the audience you’re trying to reach. But you have a say in this, too! If, in an effort to adopt a certain “corporate” tone, leaders keep stripping all the voice and personality out of your content, then you need to step up and fight that.

Finally, checking the style is up to you. The grabby headline; the compelling lead; the quotes that sound human; the conversational style of the writing. These are our blueprints. These are ourtools.

Getting these elements right is your contribution to the process . . . and it’s an important one. And one you need to fight for.

By doing a little more work on the front end of the process, and by clearly establishing roles (and making sure people stay in those roles), you can take back control of the approval process.

It won’t be easy. It might not happen right away. You may step on some toes and get your own toes stepped on . . . but the alternative is to let things go the way they’ve been going.

And that’s no alternative at all.

Sign up for Write & Rewrite’s latest webinar: “Storytelling: Bringing your organization’s stories to life,” on March 15th.

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