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What Preachers Can Learn from Speechwriters

3 word crafting techniques we can learn from presidential speechwriters.
What Preachers Can Learn from Speechwriters

In April 1963, President John F. Kennedy participated in a ceremony awarding honorary citizenship to Winston Churchill. Kennedy declared that “in the dark days and darker nights when England stood alone—and most men save Englishmen despaired of England's life—he mobilized the English language and sent it into battle.” Those last words (originally attributed to the journalist Edward R. Murrow) render my dream every time I stand before my congregation with Bible in hand—I pray my Spirit-inspired words do battle with dark forces and lead to spiritual liberation. But how will those words be marshalled, serviced, polished, and “mobilized”? How will these words find their target?

I am grateful for the opportunity Preaching Today is giving me to examine what preachers can learn from writers, whether it be songwriters or sportswriters or other literary artists. Why? Because we preachers make our living with sentences just like they do, and we too aspire to form them in ways that are not only true but also beautiful, memorable, and moving. In this article, we will pull up a school desk and seek to learn from presidential speechwriters.

At the beginning, a couple of caveats. First, my concern here is speechmaking, not partisan politics; regardless of your political persuasion, I invite you to learn from practitioners from both sides of the aisle. Second, I want you to know that this essay has been enormously enriched by Robert Schlesinger’s 2008 book, White House Ghosts: Presidents and Their Speechwriters (Simon & Schuster). The author is himself the son of a speechwriter, the Pulitzer-prize winning historian, Arthur M. Schlesinger, Jr., and I warmly recommend his survey of presidential speechwriting from FDR to George W. Bush.

Being Your Own Speechwriter

“Get that girl,” said Donald Regan. Regan, President Ronald Reagan’s chief of staff, was grieving along with the nation at the explosion of The Challenger and the loss of six crew and one famous passenger, a schoolteacher named Christa McAuliffe. That “girl”? Peggy Noonan, present day columnist for the Wall Street Journal and the architect of some of the best known presidential speeches of the late 20th century. Noonan got to work immediately, weaving into the speech a fragment from a John Gillespie Magee poem she had remembered from seventh grade into Reagan’s closing lines:

The crew of the space shuttle Challenger honored us by the manner in which they lived their lives. We will never forget them, nor the last time we saw them, this morning, as they prepared for their journey and waved goodbye and “slipped the surly bonds of earth” to “touch the face of God.”

Don’t you wish, dear preacher, that you had a person on speed-dial to assist with a sermon, especially when the words have to be just right? Chances are, the only person writing your sermon is the same one delivering it. But in this essay, I want you to imagine working for yourself. That “Other You” is busy trying to run staff meetings, visit hospitals, and finish exegetical work, not to mention serving as a good spouse, parent, and friend. The Other You is doing good to get supper on the table, and to keep the church from falling apart.

That’s where you come in. No, you may not be huddled with colleagues in the Roosevelt room, amid pizza boxes and coffee cups, trying to pull off a memorable State of the Union address. And yes, it is true, the preacher you serve will deliver tens of thousands of sermonic words over the next year. And even presidential speeches have words “that don’t make that much difference,” according to Michael Gerson, a star in George W. Bush’s speechwriting stable. “But there are a few moments,” Gerson continues, “where the words really matter and count … and had we not done a good job … it would have hurt the country.”

Are you ready, aspiring speechwriter?

Coin Phrases

Franklin Roosevelt had the “new deal,” while Harry Truman pitched his “fair deal.” Lyndon Johnson dreamed of the “great society,” while Richard Nixon appealed to the “silent majority.” Speechwriters help their bosses chisel phrases which transcend their speeches and define a platform or even a legacy.

Hendrick Hertzberg, a speechwriter for Jimmy Carter, says that “every reforming President of this century has adopted a brief, evocative phrase summarizing his program and approach.” Such phrases, he went on to say, “must embody the people’s inchoate yearnings and combine them with the President’s own vision of where he wants to take the country.”

Have you ever thought of compressing your pastoral vision into a pregnant phrase? Perhaps some variation of Biblical theme? What would it look like to preach a series with that theme typed each week into the church bulletin?

In my early years at our church, I was conscious of the fact that we seemed to sit on a socioeconomic border. Most of our members and I tended to reflect the affluent community to our north, while we struggled to reach the more diverse community that lived just south of the creek that ran directly behind our church.

One Sunday in 2006 I felt gripped by that event in Numbers 32, when the tribes of Reuben and Gad asked Moses if they could claim that sweet piece of real estate just east of the Jordan River (the Transjordan). They basically said, “Moses, we know that you are planning to lead our nation across the Jordan River and do battle with the Canaanites, but we’re really fond of this land, and we’d rather not have to move our sheep across the Jordan and back.” Moses naturally blew a gasket: “Moses said to the Gadites and Reubenites, ‘Should your fellow Israelites go to war while you sit here?’ (Num. 32:6).

Moses chastened, the leaders of Reuben and Gad and worked out a compromise to fight first before returning to fully settle in the Transjordan.

In this particular sermon, I asked our church to consider whether that creek behind our church was our Jordan River. Were we resting in the fertile highlands, so to speak, while God was calling us in faith to cross our Jordan and meet our neighbors to the south? The Spirit must have inspired that image on that particular day, because God used that phrase “cross our Jordan” to help us hire a missions pastor and mobilize mentoring and other ministries to the south of us (to God be the glory!). And over a decade and a half later, people still speak of “crossing our Jordan.”

Fiddle and Whittle

The best crafters of speeches are known to fiddle with words and phrases, sentences and paragraphs. Gary Wills noted that Abraham Lincoln was “laboriously precise in his choice of words. He would have agreed with Mark Twain that the difference between the right word and the nearly right one is that between lightning and a lightning bug.”

Kennedy, who called legendary speech writer Ted Sorenson his “intellectual blood bank,” asked Sorenson to read the Gettysburg Address for inspiration. Sorenson concluded that part of Lincoln’s genius was that “Lincoln never used a two-or three syllable word where a one syllable word would do, and never used three words where one word would do.” The partnership of Kennedy and Sorenson was beautifully on display in the inaugural address, only this time the speech maker was whittling the words of the speech writer.

In the six page draft Sorenson handed his boss was this sentence:

So let the word go forth to all the world—and suit the action to the word—that this generation of Americans has no intention of becoming soft instead of resolute, smug instead of resourceful, or citizens of a second-rate power.

This original work is strong, yet watch how Kennedy refined it:

Let the word go forth from this time and place, to friend and foe alike, that the torch has been passed to a new generation of Americans—born in this century, tempered by war, disciplined by a hard and bitter peace, proud of our ancient heritage—and unwilling to witness or permit the slow undoing of those human rights to which this nation has always been committed, and to which we are committed today at home and around the world.

Often, in your speechwriter’s persona, you will take a bloated phrase or section of a sermon and pull out thinning shears. Hazy phrases will be snipped out of the draft, as will needless crutch words like “special” and “awesome” and “very,” among many others. At other times, you will find a sentence like Sorenson’s original. Some smoldering flame of an idea needs some lighter fluid poured onto it. Sure, some words need to be trimmed, but other strong but underdeveloped images need buttressing.

And while you generally are called to be your own speechwriter, I recommend you consider borrowing staff members, friends, or family members to help with the relentless job of preaching Sunday after Sunday. For the last dozen or more years, I have benefitted from a mid-week sermon meeting. The person preaching that Sunday brings their rough draft, reads it quickly and a bit awkwardly out loud to a couple of pastoral staff members, and feedback ensues. The listeners work hard at leading with encouraging words to assist the fragile egos of the preacher (usually my ego). The gold, however, arrives in the editorial suggestions. Often I receive feedback like:

-I zoned out during that lengthy exegetical section on theophanies in the Old Testament. You might want to thin that out a bit.

-Your first two points are smooth and parallel, but your third one is awkwardly worded.

-I thought you were about to catch fire after your second point, but you quickly snuffed that out when you transitioned to your third point. I think our people need to hear more from you on that vital subject.

My longsuffering colleagues have served the function of unpaid speechwriters, helping me fiddle with a sermon until, on rare days, the words move beyond ephemeral lightning bugs to flash out like lightning.

Hone Your Voice

David Litt, who worked for Barack Obama, advised aspiring speechwriters to learn how to “transcribe a conversation” using their boss’ “language verbatim as much as possible.” The presidential speechwriters who went before him would surely agree.

Harry Truman’s speechwriters learned to speak “Missouri English” with short and direct sentences, while Lyndon Johnson wanted brevity (one of his speechwriters spoke of “four-letter words … four-word sentences … and four-sentence paragraphs”). One of Eisenhower’s speechwriters noted that his boss possessed “a distrust of eloquence,” and Richard Nixon feared any speech that seemed aimed for “elites” and traded in “egghead arguments over gut appeals that would reach regular folk ….” Ronald Reagan, on the other hand, had “a sense of theater that propels him to tell stories in their most theatrically imposing manner.” George H. W. Bush sent Peggy Noonan a list of words which comprised his “heartbeat”: words like “kindness,” “caring,” and “decency” (interestingly, when Noonan submitted a draft with the sentence—“I wanted a kinder nation”—Bush revised it to say “kinder, gentler”—adjectives which far outlived his presidency). Dick Morris said that Bill Clinton, ministering to a nation after the Oklahoma City bombing, “was able to give voice to what the country was feeling.” George W. Bush once crossed out some purple prose prepared for him, saying to his speechwriters: “What is this stuff? I sound like Spartacus.”

Now, I know what you’re thinking: a speechwriter has to learn how to speak their boss’s dialect because they are two different people. Yes, but hear me out. I actually fear that too many preachers struggle to find their own voice in the pulpit. Why is that?

First, we often begin preaching with the demeanor, catchphrases, and cadences of our mentors buzzing around in our brains. I’ve heard older preachers describe a season in the 1960s where preachers who grew up far from North Carolina seemed to miraculously mimic Billy Graham’s accent! Second, many preachers live with a kind of fear about letting the real person peak from behind the pulpit. We worry that our parishioners expect a certain gravitas, and by golly, that’s what we will give them, even if we have to invent it.

Early in my preaching career, I most often spoke to near peers. I was a budding youth minister addressing kids who were just a few years younger than me, or a grad student speaking to undergraduates, or a young married speaking to young singles. When I became a senior pastor, I stared nervously out at a congregation that mingled kindergartners with veterans of the Battle of the Bulge. A couple of months into my new gig, my wife gently said over lunch one Sunday: “I miss the old you.” Huh? “You used to be funny when you were preaching. I miss that.” On reflection, she was absolutely right. I needed to recover my own voice.

This advice may veer a little closer to therapy than you’d like, but I encourage every preacher to give some thought to their true voice—not an inherited “Saul’s rhetorical armor,” but the true you that Jesus is sanctifying. Let us hear your unmanufactured earnestness, your dry humor, your passionate dreams, and your unguarded heart. Take a moment to reflect on your most dog-eared Bible passages, your spiritual family tree, or the glossary of axioms which have formed your moral core. Let us hear that!

This week, the preacher you work for has a sermon due. She or he will likely need it by Saturday morning at the latest, so that they can go over it enough to get comfortable with it. That leaves you, the speechwiter, with a crucial job to do. Bring them your critical eye, your poetic phrasing, your ruthless editorial pencil, and your sensitivity to their truest self. A congregation is waiting to be lifted by your hidden but priceless skill.

Larry Parsley is the senior pastor of Valley Ranch Baptist Church in Dallas, Texas. He is the author of An Easy Stroll Through a Short Gospel: Meditations on Mark (Mockingbird Ministries, 2018).

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