The speechwriter’s parable

Doug Samuelson

Author’s note:
This was written before the Democratic Convention, so no comparable howler from the other side. Stay tuned.
The group of OR/MS analysts were dawdling over a nice lunch, trying to ignore the political punditry blaring over a TV in the bar area of the restaurant. Brett asked, “Say, Ben, you were a speechwriter, right?” (Brett remembered the conversation from last issue’s ORacle column.) “What do you think of the samples on display this year?”

“A cringe a minute, both parties,” Ben grimaced, as the group joined in a rather hollow laugh.

“Any favorites?” Jim prompted.

“Yeah,” Ben nodded, “Melania Trump. Bad speeches are bad enough, but lifting a couple of key phrases from the opponents, without anyone on your team realizing it, is the kind of spectacular foul-up that reflects badly on the whole campaign organization, not just the speaker or the speechwriter. Just as there are certain kinds of mistakes in our line of work that are embarrassing way beyond the analyst and his or her boss.”

“How so?” Jim asked.

“The first thing a good speechwriter does,” Ben explained, “is sit with the speaker, in person, for several hours, having them try delivering lines from speeches they’ve heard or read, talking about the speaker’s own main ideas, to get a feel for their cadence, tone and vocal range. Remember how I told you that the speaker has to focus on what the audience will remember, not what the speaker wants to say? Well, the speechwriter has to focus on how the words will sound coming out of that speaker, with accompanying body language. Just try to imagine Nixon saying, “Ask not what your country can do for you, ask what you can do for your country,” and you see the challenge. Your words have to fit the speaker’s style, and you can only get this by extensive in-person observation.

“But,” Ben continued, “it seems the Trump campaign, in the process of spending maybe a billion dollars, didn’t arrange for the speechwriter to be in the same room with Melania Trump for maybe half a day to prepare that speech! They tried to do the prep over the phone and by email or social media. Melania mentioned a few lines she’d especially liked, the speechwriter wrote them down, and nobody checked whether what got into the speech had come from someone else’s speech – Michelle Obama’s, in this case. That’s also why Melania seemed a bit awkward. English isn’t her first language, so a good speechwriter would keep the sentences short and simple. If she trips over certain pronunciations, try a different wording. A good speechwriter turns into a good speech coach, even for experienced speakers. But this campaign missed it!”

“I take it you’re not a Trump fan,” Jim needled.

“I’m not a fan of lack of professionalism in either party,” Ben shrugged. “At least Hillary Clinton knows how to work with her team and stay on message. She learned that the hard way, eight years ago, when she thought she knew more than she did about how to present herself and wound up getting out-organized and out-orated by Obama. Notice how Trump keeps either going off message, generating lots of stories about offensive things he said, or just sounds flat and uninspiring? He’s used to impromptu speaking and has never taken the trouble to learn how to work with a prepared text. Again, for all the money they’re spending, they’re sure not spending enough of it on some of the key things.

“Just to provide a little balance,” Ben went on, “I’ll give you an example from the other side. Remember John Kerry, in 2004? That guy couldn’t say anything in a sentence when two paragraphs would do, and then he’d give you the two paragraphs closest to what he thought the question was, even if they weren’t that close. A defining moment in that campaign was in the second debate, the one with audience questions, when a woman asked Bush whether he had made any mistakes in his first term. Bush couldn’t think of any, other than, ‘A few appointments I’ve made, and I won’t embarrass them by naming them.’ And that’s where Kerry should have exclaimed, ‘See? This inability to recognize mistakes and learn from them is exactly what I’ve been telling you about this guy!’ But that wasn’t in Kerry’s scripted responses, so he missed it.”

“You said we make mistakes like this in our line of work,” Jerry piped up. “Examples?”

“All the time,” Ben said. “How many times have you seen some cocky theorist deliver a ‘solution’ that doesn’t fit the problem the customer or sponsor described? Or some equally cocky practitioner delivering a ‘solution’ that’s basically reinventing a well-known technique, in part and with mistakes, without checking whether the problem has been solved before and what the pitfalls are? How many people keep checking whether new information they’ve uncovered should change the problem definition? Or delivering several intermediate prototypes and making sure they’re on the right track?”

“Yeah,” Brett agreed. “Most of us think we know how to practice our profession well, but most people think they’re better than average drivers, too!”

“And in my experience,” Ben concluded, “in just about any area of human accomplishment, the really good ones are always questioning how good they really are, being modest about how much they know, and seeking to keep learning wherever and however they can. Too many OR/MS analysts don’t do that – and end up sounding like some of these blowhard politicians.”

Doug Samuelson ( is president and chief scientist of InfoLogix, Inc., in Annandale, Va.