Cody Keenan – Obama’s speech writer and ten days in the battle for America 

Now, here’s today’s question. If you had to pick the most pivotal 10 days of your career, what would they be? 

Ten days that, either looking back or in the moment, felt like everything had been leading you to this point. Perhaps it was the lead up to a landmark decision, a moment in the spotlight to either make an impact or publicly fall short, or a crisis you could have never have foreseen.

These are the moments that usually decide who we become as leaders, communicators, and influencers.

A few years ago, I had the genuine pleasure of interviewing someone whose work and career I have admired for a very long time. That person is Cody Keenan, chief speechwriter for President Barack Obama. We talked about the structure of a powerful speech, and what it really takes to forget the critics and show up as a fearless communicator. If you haven’t already, you can listen to it here. It’s one of my all-time favorite episodes.

At the end of that conversation, Cody mentioned he was writing a book about his experiences in the White House. I asked him to let me know when you’re ready to talk about it. Two years and one pandemic later, here we are.

His new book, ‘Grace: Ten Days in The Battle for America,’ arrived on my doorstep and instantly became a NYT best-seller. Grace covers 10 pivotal days during June of 2015, when President Obama and Cody had to compose a series of speeches, to meet a succession of stunning developments in American history. These included a white supremacist shooting, an astonishing act of forgiveness, a national reckoning with race and the confederate flag, the fate of marriage equality, and a vital decision on the Affordable Care Act.

How do you find the words to describe a time where there are no words? In this episode we dive into his 10 day journey in doing exactly that.

Today’s Guest 

Cody is a professional speechwriter who, as Director of Speech Writing for President Obama – has written or edited more than 2,000 speeches for his boss. Including the historical March 2015 speech, when Obama spoke in Selma, Alabama marking 50 years since “Bloody Sunday”. Most recently he has become a New York Times Bestselling author for his book ‘Grace: Ten Days in The Battle for America’.

Twitter, Instagram and LinkedIn: @codykeenan

You’ll Learn

  • Cody’s hopes and fears for the next generation of communicators.
  • Obama’s reluctance to deliver the eulogy at the Memorial of the Charleston shooting victims, including why he originally felt like he had no more words left to say, and the unforgettable moment that eventually changed his mind.
  • Why the silences between the words in any speech matter as much – if not more – than the words themselves.
  • How to move past those moments where you are frozen, staring at a blank page and feeling like an imposter.
  • And finally, the difference between taking a half swing and a full swing as a communicator.

One of my favorite moments from this conversation is the difference between making the impact we’re capable of making – versus holding back out of fear of the critics. If that resonates for you, make sure you take notes.

A loving warning, this conversation discusses both the act and details of mass shootings on American soil. As you’ll hear, this conversation also heartbreakingly took place just days after the Colorado Springs shooting on November 19th, 2022, a fact that was very much on everybody’s heart during this recording. Please do whatever you need to do to take care of yourself and any ears that may be listening.

References and links mentioned

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