General Session

Friday, August 5, 2016

9:00am – 10:00am

Shana Glickfield (Beekeeper Group) and Steve Silver (Senior Speechwriter for Mayor of Chicago)

Writing stories for a living is no easy task, especially when you are writing for the Mayor of Chicago. Our professional speechwriter will share his process, the tricks he uses to keep his stories fresh, and will offer step-by-step advice to help you improve your own storytelling.

Have feedback on this session? We’d love to hear it! Submit it here.

Learning Objectives

  • What is the process of telling your story?
  • What is the process for motivating and inspiring?
  • How to keep your stories fresh?
  • How do you improve your storytelling?
  • What is the next step after writing the story? / What is the next process with your team?
  • How does the target audience shape the narrative?
  • How do you break the rules of writing?
  • Writing for different mediums.
  • Writing for a different voice.
  • How do you get beyond the talking points to tell an interesting story?

Process for finding your story (Notes in bold are particularly important)

  1. Identify Themes – What is it about the topic that it’s important
  2. Brainstorm Ideas – This process helps open your mind and spurs creativity
  3. Outline
  4. Buy-in from Principals
  5. Write First Draft
  6. Let It Simmer –Difficult to do under tight deadlines, but when you come back to something, it gives you a sense of perspective
  7. Revise/Rewrite
  8. Trusted Focus Groups – Not actual focus groups, but people who are trusted colleagues, friends, whose perspective you value
  9. Revise/Rewrite
  10. Apply Tests – A checklist at the end of the writing process to make sure you haven’t forgotten any key things
  11. Rollout
  12. After Action Analysis – Important especially for the type of storytelling that happens in the advocacy world, as it helps you identify what worked

Tips and Tricks

  • Brainstorming Rule: No idea is too stupid to say aloud – create a safe space, it helps you get to the good ideas out on paper.
  • Question and Analyze Organization: Apply the model that journalists use and embrace an innate desire to ask questions and look at things critically.
  • Speak to Conflict: If you work in any kind of dramatic field, they will tell you that conflict is the engine that moves a plot forward.
  • Keep A Story Bank: We never know when a good idea is going to strike, to keep a bank that you can go back to.
  • Keep A trusted Focus Group – as noted above.
  • Connect back to your larger narrative – Whatever story we’re telling is ultimately a part of your larger story, make sure it connects.

Motivating and Inspiring

  • There is no magic formula to a good speech.
  • Speak to familiar themes whenever you can:
    • Overcoming Obstacles – These are really effective tools.
    • Beating the odds
    • Love and loss
    • Seeking justice
    • Faith, Family, Friendships
    • Teaching or raising children
    • Reconnecting or reuniting
    • Unfinished work
    • Part of a journey
  • Make it passionate and personal.
    • Michelle Obama’s speech at the DNC was a great example of a speech delivered with passion. There’s something contagious about passion, people will feed off of that passion, and your stories will be more inspiring.
  • Give Your Stories a Score. Setting a speech to music can be particularly helpful.
  • Call Audience to Action. Ask the audience to do something, that makes them more personally invested.
  • Call back to your larger narrative.

Now that you’re done…

  • Remember that writing is rewriting.
  • Let it simmer and ask yourself: “what are we missing?” You can gain a lot of perspective after you’ve completed the process.
  • Apply a personal checklist to your writing once you’ve completed it. Example below.
    • Is it compelling?
    • Is it credible?
    • Is it fresh? Something people haven’t seen before?
    • Is it original?
    • Is it consistent?
    • Is it lean?
    • Does it move the ball forward?

Question: What tactics do you have for writing for different voices and different mediums? How do you adapt to different voices?

Answer: You get to know your principal and know their stories. Make sure you know their stories and look back at what they have said before to make it consistent.

Try and break the rules.

Lose the linear, there’s no rule that something has to have a beginning, middle and end. A few other ways you can break the rules:

  • Lose the words entirely
  • Let others tell your story/get different surrogates to tell your story
  • Show failure over success, but lessons learned, tell a story about how you failed

There are no rules, there are just goals –storytelling at its core is a creative process and creative endeavor.

Excellent examples of brand advertising telling a story:


Question: We often hear that the opening line is the most important part of the story. Is that true?Answer: The opening frame is more important than the opening line. You want to hook your audience. 

Question: Why do TED Talks work in today’s short content driven world?

Answer: There is a reason behind the 18 minute length of the TED Talk. The process of writing and delivering a TED Talk is actually pretty rigorous. It cuts them off after 15 minutes, helps them perfect how they are delivered. There are a number of ways that TED talks are put together – including riffing off an outline, or writing out a script and memorizing it. TED provides them with some training beforehand, too.

Question: How do you maintain authenticity when speaking to a wide membership base?

Answer: Maintain that authenticity, and return back to your story bank. That allows you to draw on ideas you’ve already had. Knowing your material and feeling comfortable with it, and the stories behind the stories can help you come across as polished.

Audience Question: Are there signals that you look for that you’ve reached the point of diminishing returns?

Answer: Once you start putting edits back in that you had cut previously, that’s a sign that you’ve edited something to death.

Audience Question: How do you get buy-in from a principle on short notice?

Answer: Ideally, you have more than 5 minutes time. But knowing the way they like to communicate is helpful, and then crafting it around that way.

Audience Question: What speech are you most proud of?

Answer: A financial plan meeting delivered in May of 2015. It did an effective job of elevating the issue to a higher purpose, not just reducing the cities structural debt, all under the guise of restoring jobs. They came up with core message, crafted the speech around that, and were able to do it in 3 days.

Audience Question: Do you have a standard rollout plan?

Answer: Not one that works for every single speech. But developing a rollout plan is an important part of the process. Some approaches don’t lend themselves to every medium, so you need to visualize how something will work across channels.

Audience Question: How do you write a speech when you know the whole speech isn’t going to be making news?

Answer: Writing in the world of soundbites is different, way approached it with the mayor, lucky, very much likes to speak in soundbites. A soundbite can make or break a speech. As I prepare a speech, I create a cover page with 3-4 soundbites and while giving the speech, I hit those parts of the speech stronger. It helps you to think in terms of the soundbite early on.

Audience Question: What do you do if you’ve written something and it sucks?

Answer: Take a step back, and if you’re not happy about it look back to the beginning and think about how it’s progressed. Sometimes taking 20 to 30 minutes to do something else can help you. Go back to your original goal and keep in mind that a speech is just a component of a larger communications plan.

Audience Question: When writing a speech, is there a right way to do citations?

Answer: Speeches are not academic papers, so you want to make sure you aren’t including the citations in the draft that will be read out loud. You can differentiate between the copy released to the press and include those citations there. But including a lot of numbers is just going to put the audience to sleep.

Audience Question: As a speechwriter, who is in your hall of fame?

Answer: Speechwriters have a passion for anonymity, so some of the very best ones are ones that we don’t know. But to a few great ones:

  • Sarah Hurwitz
  • Jon Favreau
  • Ted Sorenson
  • William Safire
  • Michael Gerson
  • Peggy Noonan

Audience Question: Are there tips for how you integrate other creative aspects beyond oral delivery (for someone who isn’t say, the head of a city)?

Answer: Do what you can to move an audience to take action, or when possible incorporate audio and visual components.

Audience Question: In policy there are no new topics, how do you talk about the same old stuff yet make it sound different?

Answer: Capitalizing on current events is one way to do it, also incorporating illustrative personal stories.

Audience Question: Where are some unexpected resources for inspiration?

Answer: TED Talks, Profile pieces, read the obituaries in a newspaper – it shares lives important enough that there life is worth writing about, but you may not have known them.