Cody Keenan – Words to lead a Nation: Obama’s speech writer on the keys to a powerful speech 

This episode dives into the word Nation. What does it take to write a speech so captivating – so compelling – that it has the ability to stop a Nation in its tracks? Make the planet literally sit up and pay attention – or define an entire moment in history for generations to come. Would it be fair to say that the writing of that speech would take a level of mastery that’s worth knowing?

I’ve worked with speakers and presenters for twenty years. And this bit, the crafting of the story itself – what’s too much – what’s not enough – what’s too simple – what’s too complex – what does justice to the ideas – and what will just get lost amongst the noise. That’s always the most underestimated part. Presentations skills you can learn – an instinct for the unparalleled power of words – that’s a level of mastery that takes years or decades to develop.

Unless… of course… you learn from the best.

My guest today is exactly that. Someone I have admired for years as THE master of the craft. Keenan 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”. More recently he also worked on Obama’s Democratic National Convention speech, which is still being described by many pundits as a ‘historically unprecedented’.

So what does that take? Where do you start? What words do you use when there are no words? Or – in moments when every single word counts so much – that each will be dissected a million times by the media. What you’re about to hear is basically a masterclass in compelling communication.

In this conversation, we dive into…

  • One of the most powerful questions I have ever heard when it comes to owning your space in a room – or an arena… ‘Why are you the only one who can tell this story?’
  • The importance of starting and ending a speech on purpose – how to grab the audience’s attention from the first word and send them home with a fire to move forward.
  • Transitions and signposting – basically how to move seamlessly from one point to the next without losing your audience.
  • Why the best speeches are like jazz – a piece of advice that came from President Obama himself – where the pauses and low notes are what allow the high notes to shine.
  • Why you shouldn’t put anything in a speech that you wouldn’t say to a friend in a bar – try thinking about public policy this way and you’ll get what a mind flip that requires.
  • And surprisingly, and reassuringly, that even for the man who writes to a nation, on some of the most pressing issues of our time… self-doubt and imposter syndrome are par for the course. The question is, can you put them to work for you – rather than letting them run the show.

As a heads up – Cody does make a few references to mass shooting events – in the context of moments where it’s hard to find the words. I’ll leave you to decide how best to take care of yourself and your loved ones in those moments.

What I do want you to reflect on here is that – as always – genius leaves footprints. Think of the last speech you witnessed that left you glued to your chair. That left you utterly committed to taking some action. Can you map out its basic structure? What caught your attention straight out of the gate? What were the core 3-5 points? How did they finished in a way that made sure you took action? Pay attention, all the clues are there.

Oh and finally – if you write anything on a post it note and stick it to your desk today – let it be this: “What’s the story I want to tell – and why am I the only person who can tell it?”

In the meantime, settle back and enjoy my conversation with the incredible mind that is Cody Keenan….

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