An official website of the United States government

The State of Speech Writing in the Oval Office
January 7, 2016

Jon Favreau had a hand in crafting nearly every major speech the president delivered for six years, having served as President Obama’s director of speech writing from the presidential campaign in 2007 through early 2013.

Every great speech tells a story, and just like a story, each has a beginning, a middle and an end. As I write I think most about the logic of a speech and how an argument will unfold, much like a great story.

Jon Favreau with President Obama the day before the 2012 State of the Union address (White House)
Jon Favreau with President Obama the day before the 2012 State of the Union address (White House)

The whole process for writing a State of the Union address starts a few months before. The president gathers all his advisers and members of his Cabinet and talks about the issues and the topics he’ll discuss in the speech.

Typically, we writers need to cover a really diverse list of issue areas, both domestic and foreign, and to try to fit everything in a 50–60 minute speech. We learn brevity, and we learn how to keep the speech moving as quickly as possible.

When I worked for the White House, I would sit with the president before I started writing and get an idea from him about how he wanted to structure the speech and what the theme of the speech would be. Then the other speechwriters and I would go off and we would work on a draft.

From there it was a process of sending drafts back and forth between the group of speechwriters and the president. Sometimes he wrote longhand on a yellow legal pad the various sections of the speech that he wanted to include, and then we would go back and forth on line edits right up until the day of the speech.

The trickiest thing each year was figuring out how to say “The state of the union is strong.” That line has become a tradition in the State of the Union speech, and our goal was to weave it in each year so that it didn’t seem too clichéd.

A couple of times we wrote it as the very last line of the speech, sometimes we put it at the beginning, but we tried to have some variety in how we used that phrase. I’ll be listening to hear how they do it this year.