Cody Keenan, President Obama’s former chief speechwriter, says navigating corporate communications teams can be more challenging than working in the White House.
In his eight years writing for the White House, Cody Keenan worked on 3,577 speeches—an average of more than one per day—including multiple State of the Union addresses for President Obama. Keenan’s writing ability, coupled with his beard, earned him a nickname from the President: “Hemingway.”
Today Keenan is a Partner at Fenway Strategies, a speechwriting and communications firm which has a rule about taking on new clients: They only pen speeches for leaders with whom they can speak directly.
“I've seen a lot of speechwriter-speaker relationships where they're layered in the middle by a chief of staff or a communications director or comms team and every draft gets filtered,” says Keenan. “It’s a bad cycle because the speechwriter feels like they've never gotten a chance to actually put down what the speaker wants, and the speaker feels like they're not heard. If you're going to hire a speechwriter to help you get your story or message out there, spend time with that person. The best speechwriting relationships are collaborative, and the best speeches come from a collaborative effort.”
Keenan, who teaches a course on speechwriting at his alma mater, Northwestern University, recently spoke with Brunswick’s Emily Wang, a recent Northwestern alumnus. He explained why President Obama was the “chief speechwriter” in the White House, and what goes into drafting and delivering a great speech: “It should tell a good story,” he said. “That applies to Presidents, priests giving a sermon, CEOs, academics—it doesn't matter where your speech is, it should have a beginning, a middle, and an end.”
How did you get into speechwriting? Is it a career you envisioned while in college?
It was not something I ever even dreamed of doing. I think I've only met one speechwriter who always knew he wanted to be a speechwriter. The rest of the Obama team just fell into it.
After I left Northwestern, I went and worked in the Senate for four years for Ted Kennedy, starting as an unpaid mailroom intern. I answered phones. I was an assistant. Then I had my own little policy legislative portfolio because he was the ranking member at the time on the Health, Education, Labor, and Pension Committee. That’s when I got to start writing for the first time. He didn't have a speechwriter, so someone called me up and said, "Hey, the Senator's got two minutes tomorrow at 10:00 a.m. You need to write some remarks."
The first time I watched Senator Kennedy on C-SPAN read something I'd written, all the hairs stood up on the back of my neck.
There were a few short pieces I wrote that my boss liked, so whenever the Senator had to give a larger speech, they asked me if I could take a cut at the entire thing. In retrospect, knowing what I know now, they're not good speeches because I didn't know what I was doing.