Lend me your ears

You’ll often hear that you should write the way people talk. That’s never more important than when what you write is going to be read aloud. The eye can easily handle an ungainly phrase on a sheet of paper, but those same words can get mangled by a person saying them from a podium.

I’m no speechwriter. Fortunately, Barton Swaim and Jeff Nussbaum are very good at it. Each has written something appropriate for this presidential election year: a generic stump speech that could be used by any candidate in their respective political parties. Each is full of what its party stalwarts want to hear. Better yet, the website FiveThirtyEight has set them up with a nifty annotation device.

As you reach certain highlighted words and phrases, a note from the author appears off to the side, explaining the tricks of his trade. For instance, one of the speeches starts out, “Every election is a choice. And this year, the choice could not be more clear.” A note pops up explaining that the correct grammatical phrase would be, “could not be clearer.” But when said aloud, you really have to work to make “clearer” sound like the two-syllable word it is. If people don’t hear that second syllable, it sounds like you just said the choice isn’t clear at all.

“Speeches are for the ear, not for the page,” Nussbaum says in his note.

Or, as I keep saying, clarity should overrule grammar.

There are a few other ways in which a speech has to be written differently than a printed article. Someone reading a page or a computer screen can pause, go back and re-read. Someone hearing a live speech has only one shot to absorb it all. That’s why repetition becomes more important in a speech. We may need to hear something a few times before it will stick in our memories.

Rhythms and patterns become more important as well. In some ways, giving a speech is like singing a song. If you are the songwriter, you want catchy phrases that flow well.

As you read through these two stump speeches, you’ll get to learn the names for some of these rhetorical devices, such as “epistrophe” (several sentences in a row that share the same last word) and “chiasmus” (an inverted kind of sentence such as “Ask not what your country can do for you,” made famous by President Kennedy).

So, in their original order of appearance, here are the Republican and Democratic stump speeches. I’d suggest starting with whichever party you dislike the most. Then after you get riled up, read the one from the party you like. It will calm you down and you’ll end up thinking, “That’s telling ’em.”




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