When the poetry of politics misses the point

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A few years back, it was no secret among my friends that Jon Favreau was my hero.

If you’re wondering who he is, or why he was once worth the crown, let me explain. No, Jon Favreau didn’t have a superhero cape to serve justice to the city’s underworld, nor did he have the bat to belt the bottom of the ninth walk-off homerun in the ballpark, and no – he didn’t have the key to open my local pizzeria to let me grab the last available meat-lover’s slice after closing on a Saturday night. All Jon Favreau had was a pen.

You may know him as President Obama’s Director of Speechwriting; for me, he was a shining example of everything a communications role model could be.  A Massachusetts native and just a few years out of college, Favreau quickly became a reputable force in political campaign writing. At perhaps his most inspirational, Favreau was the man behind Obama’s remarks after he won the Democratic presidential primary in South Carolina – or, for those of us who would remember, the best Yes We Can-inspired speech of the campaign.

Regardless of your political leanings, Jon Favreau has a gift for gab. His speeches, scribed on behalf of the Obama Administration, have left party constituents feeling inspired, optimistic, loyal, and perhaps most importantly, vested with the capacity to create change.

But hero-worship for the writer aside, a recent article by Peter Canellos for The Boston Globe got me thinking about what it means to be a truly effective speech writer, and the lessons to be learned from those in the center ring.

Politics, for myriad reasons that far surpass acceptable length for a blog post, has gotten a pretty bad rap when it come to rhetoric, writing and mass messages. Still, between the speaker at the podium and the man (writer) behind the curtain, I find many political orations are prime fodder for entertaining analysis of effective communication.

Take Canellos’ view of the current political climate: that while speeches which thump on inspiring ideals might feel the most compelling, their goals are lost if they can’t communicate the moving pieces of the puzzle or the speaker’s overall goal. For a politician, that goal is action, or at least defending their choices in the course of it. And while Canellos particularly targets the politician in his Boston Globe piece, I’m looking more closely at the speech writer – and I’m starting to catch the flaws.

According to Canellos, lofty, melodious speech may at first glance meet sufficient criteria to be considered great – but as he aptly points out, if a disconnect grows between that music and communication on the actionable policies needed to support the speech’s goals, how effective, if at all, can it be?

I know I’ve merely scraped the surface of what could be more than a full course load of academic discourse or at least an hour long debate over a coffee-house latte, but I just wanted to touch on what I see as an important consideration for any communications professional or message handler. As Canellos points out, and as demonstrated by Tuesday’s State of the Union address, charisma, style and delivery  might get you in the door – but without artfully crafted, clear messages to connect the inspirational with the actionable, you and your intended audience will just be left standing there, wondering which road the next few years will take you down.

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