In my last post I lamented about writing coaches who encourage all writers to pare their work. Not all writing is created for the same purpose, I argued, and speeches need to be more expansive because audiences need time to hear – and interpret – the words spoken.
Now for a different view.
Robert Hardesty was a speechwriter for President Lyndon B. Johnson, whom I consider to be one of most under-appreciated Presidents in history. Hardesty, who passed away earlier this year, recalls in this article that Johnson had his own style and sensibilities when it came to speeches.
“We soon learned that LBJ had strong opinions about how a speech should be written. And brevity was a cardinal rule. For some reason, 'four' seemed to be a magic number.
“‘Four-letter words,’ he would say, ‘four-word sentences, and four-sentence paragraphs. Keep it simple. You’ve got to write it so that the charwoman who cleans the building across the street can understand it.’”
But it went further. Unless the President was delivering a major address, he wanted everything in 400 words or less.
As you might imagine, this was a difficult task. “You don’t just write a speech like that,” Hardesty says. “You chisel it. You carve it. And when you finish, you start cutting—and your most beautiful prose usually goes first.”
No speechwriter would voluntarily restrict themselves to a 400-word limit. “It wasn’t natural,” Hardesty says. “It went against a writer’s training … to be limited to four-letter words, four-word sentences, four-sentence paragraphs, and 400 words – that’s cruel.”
In the end, Hardesty said he and his fellow speechwriter, Will Sparks, came to appreciate the President’s mandate. Capping the comments at 400 words “forced you to organize your thoughts and disciplined you to write sparingly and clearly. If you did it right, you ended up with a little gem.”
But it also took its toll. He relates that one Friday, after a particularly difficult period, he finally had a long and free weekend ahead of him. No writing assignments. When a colleague asked how he was going to spend his time, Hardesty replied, “I’m going to go home and do nothing for 48 hours but think in long, convoluted sentences.”