What would it be like to hone speechwriting skills working with a partner who is arguably one of the greatest orator presidents in American history?
On Tuesday (April 21), Jon Favreau answered that question during a public talk at Duke University, “Words Matter: Storytelling with President Obama in the Age of Sound Bites.”
In 2005, Favreau began working for then U.S. Sen. Barack Obama, and in 2007 he became Obama's director of speechwriting. Favreau continued in that position until leaving the White House in 2013, at age 32. He then co-founded Fenway Strategies, a messaging and media consulting firm.
During his talk at Duke, Favreau identified five major lessons he learned during his time working closely with the president. The first was that the story is more important than the words: avoid chasing catchy slogans in favor of focusing on the overall argument.
The second was the importance of humor: take your job seriously, but not yourself. Third was to talk like “a normal human being”: leave out shorthand and jargon to be accessible.
Fourth was the need for honesty and authenticity: be personal and be courageous. The last lesson was to maintain idealism: cynicism and hope are both choices, so choose hope, he said.
Favreau also shared meaningful experiences through personal anecdotes, such as a phone conversation with Ann Nixon Cooper, a 106 year-old civil rights veteran. The purpose of the call was to discuss her inclusion in the 2008 election speech. The connection was so meaningful that Favreau said he hid under his desk as polling results were coming in just to have a few more minutes with her on the line.
Audience members were invited to ask Favreau questions directly. He addressed the challenges of learning another person’s voice and the importance of real collaboration between writers and speakers.
On dealing with negative criticism, such as vitriolic tweets during speeches, he advised to always learn more and improve yourself, but when you make a decision, let the chips fall where they may.
Favreau's visit to Duke was hosted by the Kenan Institute for Ethics and the Humanities Writ Large Network on Democracy and Law: Ancient and Modern. The visit included informal discussions and a writing workshop with undergraduates earlier in the day. His talk was co-sponsored by the Sanford School of Public Policy and the DeWitt Wallace Center for Media and Democracy.
For more information on his visit, read the Storify collection of social media responses.