University Marketing & Communications

October 13, 2017

My craft, their voice: A Q&A with presidential speechwriter Genevieve Haas

Jane Yang

What does it take to craft a compelling speech? A lot of courage, time and effort, for starters. And if that doesn’t sound challenging enough, imagine what it takes to write a great speech for someone else. To find out, we sat down with Genevieve Haas, director of executive communications for UMAC and official speechwriter for President Ana Mari Cauce.

Prior to joining the UW in 2016, Haas spent 15 years in strategic communications, public relations, research and message development for a range of organizations, including PR firm Waggener Edstrom and indie publisher SAGE Publications.

 

How did you become the speechwriter for President Cauce?

I would say my shared values with Ana Mari made me the right candidate. When I say “shared values,” I’m referring to the priority of the administration of an institution. For example, the value of access and equity is a priority for Ana Mari and is reflected in what she talks about all the time, and I agree with that.

 

What is your favorite part about speechwriting?

I love writing and working with language. Getting into the flow of writing is a visceral pleasure. Being able to combine that passion with what I truly believe is making our state and University a better place is a very fortunate thing. There is joy in writing — and joy in doing work that’s for a higher purpose.

 

What are some of the biggest challenges in crafting a speech for someone else? How do you overcome them?

For one, I sometimes struggle with using too much flowery language. It can distract from the crafting of Ana Mari’s actual, more direct voice. Reminding myself of her speaking style and revising the speech helps with that. Another challenge is thinking about how to keep the messages fresh and interesting — how do we say that this and that are important at different events without repeating ourselves or sounding rote. Usually incorporating storytelling into the speeches helps.

 

How do you identify someone’s voice?

I believe that someone’s voice is an interpretation of their values. So, you first need to understand their values, which is an intrinsic thing. As for the mechanics of their speaking style — such as the cadence, vocabulary, formatting — you’ll have to learn by hearing the speaker’s previous speeches. I have watched and listened to countless speeches by President Cauce in order to adapt to her style.

 

After you find that voice, how do you incorporate it into a speech?

The next step is to know the speaker’s anecdotes that are relevant to the speech you are writing for them. Also, you have to understand the general style of the speaker. For example, I know that Ana Mari is not a very scripted speaker; she is an accomplished and natural speaker, and a very humorous one. So for the most part, I’m not really telling her exactly what to say. But I do give her talking points — the main things she needs to address during her speech — and she just makes sure she hits each of them. Though for speeches longer than 20 minutes, we do sit down and work through the content together.

 

Do you have any final tips for someone who wants to become a speechwriter?

Hmm … don’t try to become a speechwriter? [Laughs.] It’s hard for me to give an answer, because I was just in the right place at the right time with the right skill set. I guess the best advice I have for anyone in their career pursuit is: Keep building your skill set. Get really good at doing the thing you want to do, and it’ll open the door.

 

To learn more about speechwriting, reach out to Genevieve Haas at haasg@uw.edu.