Political speechwriters take students behind the scenes

By Gianluca D’Elia

Behind every politician is a team of communication experts who prepare the speeches and statements seen and heard in the media. Two speechwriters who work for state officials shared rare insight on the life of a political speechwriter with students on Nov. 27, sharing advice and personal stories from their expansive experiences.

As part of COMM Week, a week devoted to events for communication and journalism students, senior public relations major Olivia Lee invited Bob Bostock, director of strategic communications at the New Jersey Department of Environmental Protection, and Trish Graber, communication director for the State Senate majority to speak at Rider. COMM Week also served as Lee’s senior capstone project.

“One of the things I once learned as a journalism student in college is when my professors told me, ‘If you’re writing a news story as a reporter, why should people care?’” said Graber, a former South Jersey news reporter who began working in Trenton when Stephen Sweeney became the Senate president. “Zero in on the people who are affected by what you’re doing. That translates into speech writing. When I’m working on a statement or organizing press conferences, the one thing I focus on is why people should care.”

She recalled a recent press conference with Governor-elect Phil Murphy on raising the minimum wage, where “we brought in folks that are making the minimum wage right now to tell their stories at the podium,” Graber said. One worker even told a compelling story about not being able to celebrate Thanksgiving because she couldn’t afford the holiday dinner with her salary.

But it’s not enough just to have a gripping story, Bostock added.

“You’ve got to have real evidence,” he said. “You have to find facts and data that bolster the argument too. So the stories are important because they hook people in, but you also have to be able to make a logical argument.”

Bostock also emphasized that his job requires him to understand the personality of the person he’s writing for.

“The only way I can really give somebody a talk they’re comfortable with is if I have the chance to get to know them, and to really get to know their voice,” he said.

The panelists also shared stories of speeches they helped politicians with. A former speechwriter for former Gov. Christine Todd Whitman, Bostock assisted in writing remarks that Whitman gave in Middletown in 2002 right before the one year anniversary of the 9/11 attacks. The town was dedicating a new memorial, the Middletown Memorial Gardens, to the 56 local residents who died in the attack.

“That night, there were 56 cars waiting in the train station parking lot, and no one came back to them,” Bostock said.

As politicians struggled to find words that could capture the private emotions of Middletown residents one year after the attacks, it was Whitman who delivered the most impactful message, Bostock said.

In the speech that Bostock helped her write, Whitman said, “Middletown has shown us in a million different ways, from providing everything from casseroles to counseling, how to come together to support your neighbors,” telling residents they provided an example of American pride and defiance to terrorism.

“It’s all about connecting people and bringing people together,” Graber added, recalling a speech she wrote with a local senator who planned to speak about education reform.

“[The senator] is someone who is such a success story, but she didn’t like to talk about her own personal stories, because it feels so private — but this senator’s father had a fourth grade education, and her mother had an eighth grade education,” she said, holding back tears. “It’s these speeches that are the best. She was the first in her family to go to college, and I told her she needed to share her story. We went back and forth on it, but she did tell that story.”

Leaving advice for students, Bostock said to be an active listener.

“You have to know how people talk and soak it in, and then be able to respond and ask questions. I would say to read a lot, write a lot, let other people give you feedback,” he said, recalling times when he was helping Whitman write her book, and they would have two-hour sessions with their editor to revise an individual chapter.

Graber emphasized the importance of getting field experience as soon as possible.

“Whatever it is you’re interested in, go do it,” said Graber, who used to want to be a fashion reporter. “Go to those fashion shows or the city council meetings, talk to people who do those jobs and ask them to talk to you.”

Lee said she was thankful to have the two experts open up to students.

“As speechwriters, Trish and Bob constantly write these stories to be told, yet when asked the question, ‘How do you want your legacy to be told?’ they were speechless, ironically,” Lee said. “Imagine all your professional life writing about the lives and scenarios of others, and then when asked about your own, you freeze. They each shared these sentimental and moving stories about those in their life who made the most impact on them, inspired them, those who made them proud to do what they do. It almost brought the whole room to tears. I was truly impressed by these people, and I’m so glad to have met them.”

Lee said the panel of political experts was just one of many events COMM Week had to offer. The first event of its kind at Rider, she hopes to establish it as a department tradition.

She described the week as “a five-day communication convention that provided students with professional development inside and outside of the classroom, the opportunity to showcase creative skills and the chance to network with current and past students. It was quite a journey to have taken on alone, but totally worth it as my senior capstone.”

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