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What Makes a Great Political Speech?

By Maggie Barrett

Photo of President Obama.

The pressure is on President Obama to deliver a first State of the Union Address that resonates with the American people.

The pressure is on President Obama to ensure his first State of the Union address resonates with Americans as well as people around the world. How he addresses concerns about  rising unemployment, healthcare reform,  and national security will set the tone for the coming year.

Robert Lehrman, a professor at American University’s School of Communication, knows the value of a well written, well delivered speech. He has more than 30 years of experience writing speeches for politicians, CEOs, celebrities, and other notable public figures and national organizations.

Author of the new book, The Political Speechwriter’s Companion: A Guide for Writers and Speakers, (CQ Press, 2009) Lehrman created American University’s popular course in speechwriting in 2005, making him one of the few college educators to present a graduate-level course in the subject.

As a result of the book, Lehrman has already appeared on TV and in print, commenting on the President’s approach to speeches. “Obama's not perfect, but he's the best president speaker from the stand point of doing everything I teach,” says Lehrman, “He doesn't use story enough, and he's sometimes careless about the fallacies people fall into in politics, but some of his speeches have been stunningly imaginative.”

Book Based on AU Course

Based on a course that has already produced AU alums dotting the Hill and other areas of political life, Lehrman’s book features ways to handle what he calls the LAWS of politics: 

  • Language the audience will understand and remember 
  • Anecdotes that make listeners laugh and cry
  • Wit that pokes fun at opponents but also shows their own lighter side
  • Support in the way of statistics, examples, and testimony

With how-to guidance in each chapter—including annotated speeches—Lehrman shows how to apply the LAWS at every step, even providing an entire chapter on delivery. He also opens up his Rolodex to readers, interviewing speechwriting luminaries who offer up their best advice in a “Behind the Scenes” feature. “As Delivered” boxes point to Web links for watching notable speeches, while a handy “Speechwriter’s Checklist” concludes every chapter.

Nonpartisan Approach

The new book has already received extraordinary praise from Democrats and Republicans, academics, and journalists for its innovative and nonpartisan approach.

Those praising the book include former Senator (R-Maine) and former Secretary of Defense William Cohen, former Senator (D-Tennessee) and Ambassador to China James R. Sasser, speechwriters and consultants for Bill Clinton, Gore, John Kerry, Ronald Reagan, and both George H.W. and George W. Bush, and journalists Juan Williams, Rich Cohen, and Manuel Roig-Franzia.

An award-winning novelist as well as speechwriter, Lehrman has spent more than three decades writing for political figures, corporate and nonprofit CEOs, and a variety of celebrities, including Bradley Whitford, Susan Sarandon, and even Courtney Love. He was most recently speechwriter to the chairman and CEO of Pfizer, Inc. During the 2004 Presidential campaign, he was the chief speechwriter for the Democratic National Committee. He is a graduate of the University of Iowa Writers’ Workshop where he studied with Kurt Vonnegut and Richard Yates.

“I probably owe this career to Vonnegut, who got me a graduate assistantship teaching speech back then,” says Lehrman, whose other books include three award-winning works for young adults and a highly praised novel for adults. “I began writing the new book the first year I taught speechwriting because there was nothing remotely like it. It’s evolved quite a bit.”