Former CIA Speechwriter Urges Clear, Pithy Speeches and Avoiding Jokes in Virtual Settings

[Editor's Note: We're always curious about atypical paths leading to PR. That's why Prosek Partners' Jonathan "Johnny" Chavkin caught our attention. Prosek's pitch about its new SVP hooked us: "Prosek Partners hires CIA speechwriter..."

Yet Chavkin's extensive experience at the agency (pun intended) is just one thing that intrigued us about Prosek's new  executive speechwriter and content creator. A creature of Washington, D.C., he's also worked at the State Department, has a Ph.D. in history from Cambridge and received a B.A. from Princeton.

In addition, he's written speeches for Hollywood moguls and helped communication strategy for the Emmys.

We thought Chavkin's tip about building relationships with gatekeepers of those you're writing speeches for was fascinating. And while "brevity is the soul of wit," Chavkin, who advocates for brief speeches, urges avoiding humor when a speech is delivered remotely.

His remarks were lightly edited.]

PRNEWS: Johnny, what tips do you have for writing a good speech?

Johnny Chavkin, SVP, Prosek Partners

Johnny Chavkin: First and foremost, really know the occasion you’re writing for.  Knowing who the audience is, the appropriate length of time to speak, so on and so forth will help ensure that the speech you’re writing is tailored not only for the speaker but the situation.

Second, go to sleep and look at the draft in the morning. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve written something that I thought was brilliant, only to wake up the next morning just absolutely horrified by the words on the page.

PRNEWS: We know the feeling.

Chavkin: Yes. And it's particularly important to take a look the next day if you can’t get another set of eyes on your draft. The perspective of a new day is crucial.

Third, inputs matter. The structure of a speech matters. The phrasing matters. But if there’s no real substance, the speech is going to fall flat.

PRNEWS: You’ve written speeches for the head of the CIA and the chairman/CEO of the Television Academy. What tips did you learn from those positions that our readers can benefit from?

Chavkin: The most important tip is process-related and that’s how crucial the gatekeepers and senior staff are.

With any principal, getting direct input for a speech or talking points isn’t always going to be possible or the best use of time. And a devoted strategy session for remarks isn’t always going to be productive. I've found informality often lends itself to better, more interesting stories.

As a result, having good relationships with those who are around the leaders you’re writing for is crucial to getting both useful substance and color.

PRNEWS: What things do you see people doing wrong in writing speeches on a regular basis?

Chavkin: I’ve seen folks try to go too big—to reach for lofty rhetoric when it’s just not right for the setting. The baseball analogy I like to use is that you don’t need to swing for the fences with every speech; sometimes it’s best to just slap a single to the opposite field.

The other mistake is speaking for too long. As we know, attention spans are short and getting shorter. Speeches that are too long detract from the message. In fact, they often end up memorable for the wrong reasons.

PRNEWS: Agreed. Lincoln's Gettysburg Address isn't even 300 words. 

Now, let's move to writing. Share some tips, please, that can help a thought-leadership essay break through the noise and get published.

Chavkin: It’s tough because it’s a crowded media environment, but I think it’s important to have something to say and a memorable way of saying it.

The piece shouldn’t be needlessly provocative. But including a specific story or example—one that grabs people’s attention and is tied to the larger point you’re making—can help break through the noise. And a good catchphrase or headline that goes with it is key.

The other thing that helps—and I apologize if I’m sounding like a broken record—is making sure that the essay is authentic to the leader responsible for it. If the piece isn’t personalized or written in that way, it won’t gain traction.

PRNEWS: We assume you wrote speeches that were delivered remotely during the pandemic. Did you write them differently? If so, how?

Chavkin: I didn’t necessarily write them differently—you still want to be as clear and pithy as possible.

But when a speech is being delivered remotely, the best piece of advice I can give is to generally avoid including jokes. Humor is tough to pull off for a skilled speaker in an in-person setting. In the virtual world, humor doesn’t always land.

And even when it does, everyone else is probably muted, so you’re likely going to miss the audience feedback or cues that help with pacing and the momentum of giving a speech.

PRNEWS: We don’t find many history PhD’s from Cambridge in PR and communication. Does history help you as a speechwriter and communicator?

Chavkin: I could go on and on! The short answer is yes, but for a host of reasons.

I think knowing history helps as a speechwriter and communicator because good, interesting stories are timeless. As you’re looking for something that an audience will find memorable, having a reservoir of stories and speeches to draw from—or at least to guide you in the right direction—is really useful. Likewise, it helps to keep things varied instead of relying on more tired cliches.

Having gone through the PhD process also helps. Conducting dissertation research can be long, arduous and complex. For me, at least, it meant a great deal of time at various archives around the world, digging through boxes and files with no guarantee that there would be anything worthwhile.

It required and built endurance, patience and good organizational skills, which I think have helped me throughout my career.

Otherwise, you’re drowning in paper, missing the patterns and anecdotes that are key to making a valuable contribution to your field.

But this type of research can also be awfully solitary. So, while I’m glad I did it, I’m also happy to be doing something where I’m engaging more directly with others. Speechwriting, at its best, relies on collaboration and partnership. It can be tough but, at the end of the day, I really enjoy it.