Speech like Obama

Tips from his speechwriter Cody Keenan

by Pacelle van Goethem, 4-1-2019

Cody Keenan has served as a speechwriter for President Barack Obama for over twelve years, rising from a campaign intern in Chicago to Director of Speechwriting at the White House. Keenan has helped President Obama craft speeches on every topic for every audience – from tiny backyards in Iowa to the biggest stadiums in the country; from sermons on the National Mall to the State of the Union Address. Over eight years in the White House, their collaborations were described as the ‘I Have a Dream’ speech for the 21st Century,” and considered even by prominent Republicans “speeches that every child should read in school”. In 2017, Obama asked Keenan to continue their partnership.

Today he serves as Obama’s collaborator on his upcoming book and as his post-presidential speechwriter. Friday 1st 2019 Cody was in Holland. I had the honor of interviewing him as my guest and speaker at the Invisible Persuasion (Onzichtbaar Overtuigen) seminar of Denkproducties. He spoke about words that matter. Here is a summary of his lessons.

Spend time together

Cody’s first lesson is to not mimic the one you are writing for, rather to spend time with them. Writing for President Barack Obama, the process started with what both the president and the team of speechwriters referred to as ‘the download, addressing all data and angles of the topic and always beginning with one question: what do we want to tell.

Use persuasive words

His advise in order to use persuasive words and language, is to:

  • Keep it personal
  • Keep it real (instead of trying too hard)
  • keep it concise (as people after to 15 minutes tend to start thinking about food or sex)
  • Keep it simple

Practice, practice, practice

Cody also suggests to practice, practice, practice. You don’t get to be great overnight. Practice will make you better. During his candidacy in 2007, Barack Obama asked David Axelrod to train him. Mr. Obama still practices his speeches.

Use 3 keys

Keenan’s keys to a great speech:

Authenticity: Don’t gloss it up; be real. Always ask yourself, is what I’m saying true (to you). Barack Obama did not shy away from difficult matters. In his own words ‘I should not be president if I am too afraid to say what I feel’.

Empathy: Empathy makes your words more powerful. If empathy is the ability to look at the world through the eyes of others, you can prove your empathy by using the words they would use. As an example Keenan mentions the presidents’ speech after the shooting in Tucson, January 2011. In this speech the president urged Americans to a new era of civility and to live up to the standards of our children’s expectations. As he said: ‘I believe we can be better. We may not be able to stop all evil in the world, but I know that how we treat on another is entirely up to us.’ He showed his empathy by using the words of Christina Taylor Green, a nine year old girl and one of the six people killed. She was also one of 50 children born on September 11th, 2001 to be pictured in a book called “Faces of Hope”. On either side of her photo in the book were simple wishes for a child’s life. Obama mentioned a few: ‘ I hope you help those in need, I hope you know all the words of the National Anthem and sing it with your hand over your heart. I hope you jump in rain puddles.’ Then concluded: ‘If there are rain puddles in heaven, Christina is jumping in them today.’

Storytelling: Storytelling is what makes a speech great. As Cody says, that Obama told him even that ‘Speechwriting is storytelling’. Cody tells us to use stories to make your message powerful. Cody tells us that in the 2015 speech at Selma, that is exactly what they did. This is how the speech started: It is a rare honor in this life to follow one of your heroes. And John Lewis is one of my heroes. Now, I have to imagine that when a younger John Lewis woke up that morning fifty years ago and made his way to Brown Chapel, heroics were not on his mind. A day like this was not on his mind. Young folks with bedrolls and backpacks were milling about. Veterans of the movement trained newcomers in the tactics of non-violence; the right way to protect yourself when attacked. A doctor described what tear gas does to the body, while marchers scribbled down instructions for contacting their loved ones. The air was thick with doubt, anticipation, and fear…Then, his knapsack stocked with an apple, a toothbrush, a book on government – all you need for a night behind bars – John Lewis led them out of the church on a mission to change America.

Always push back

Then Cody also has an extra tip for us on persuasion. When preparing for the Selma-speech both the president and Cody came to realize that the word WE was key. So that word shouldd highlighted. Cody suggested the following lines: We the People. We shall overcome. Yes we can. Then the President was reluctant to use ‘Yes we can’. He felt it might be too much referring to his campaign. Cody convinced him otherwise, that ‘Yes we can’ is a phrase for everyone, that people relate to it because it is positive, powerful and universal. The president used it and it sounded like this:

‘Because Selma shows us that America is not the project of any one person. Because the single most powerful word in our democracy is the word “We.” We The People. We Shall Overcome. Yes We Can. It is owned by no one. It belongs to everyone.’

So, in Cody’s words, the boss doens’t always know best. ALWAYS PUSH BACK.

Never stop dreaming

Cody’s last lesson is for us all to strive for a better world.

To not think of a period where your party doesn’t have the presidency as a lost one. And to not stop dreaming: ‘Cynicism is an choice. Hope is a better choice’.

On behalf of Hans at Denkproducties,

Thank you Cody

Pacelle

My son Rem, me and Cody Keenan, 1 February 2019, Invisible Persuasion seminar by Denkproducties. Photo: Paul Reehorst
President Barack Obama with David Axelrod. Photo Pete Souza / The White House
Cody Keenan, Speech @ The Oval Office, 2 June 2017. Source: YouTube, still

President Barack Obama, 7 March 2015 at the Edmund Pettus Bridge, Selma. Source: Selection by Cody Keenan

President Barack Obama and Cody Keenan at the Oval Office. Photo: The White House