Training Future Civic Leaders

Conference run by GW students brings underprivileged high school students to campus to learn about politics and communications.

July 24, 2010

By Menachem Wecker

“There is no particular secret to writing speeches,” said John McConnell, former speech writer to President George W. Bush and Vice President Dick Cheney. “I try to write a speech that I’d want to listen to.

Mr. McConnell was speaking to about 40 high school students and a dozen volunteers at the 2010 Future Civic Leaders Summer Leadership Conference at GW on July 23.

The students, who come from underprivileged backgrounds and most of whom live in the Washington area, had the opportunity to learn about politics and communications from several other experts, including veteran journalist and author Mark Halperin, senior CNN White House correspondent Ed Henry and Rep. Frank Pallone (D-N.J.), who brought the students on the floor of the House of Representatives.

Though he assured the students that there are no shortcuts to writing effective speeches, Mr. McConnell did provide a few guidelines. Whereas essays often include complex sentences, speeches require simple, short sentences, “or the speaker will be gasping for air,” he said. “You have to read the speech out loud to hear how it sounds.”

Unlike printed materials, speeches cannot have five words in a row that begin with the same vowel. “You can’t give your boss rhymes,” Mr. McConnell said. “Once we had written something we thought was worthy of Winston Churchill, and it sounded like Dr. Seuss.”

Speeches must also have “some kind of message” – often three major points is the most effective structure, Mr. McConnell said, and the speaker must be honest. “Everyone in this room has heard someone speak who was not sincere,” he said. But one of his pet peeves is when presenters declare how passionate they are about an issue. “Don’t try to persuade people by feeling deeply,” he said. “People want to hear an argument.”

Questions from the student attendees ranged from how Mr. McConnell handled situations where he disagreed with his boss about a speech to strategies for writing for different bosses with their own unique voices. Mr. McConnell responded to the first question by recounting an episode where he disagreed with President Bush during a practice run. He was about to speak up, when he realized the circumstances called for humility. “I thought he was twice elected governor and twice elected president,” he said. “And I’m about to open my mouth to tell him?”

Mr. McConnell told the second student that President Bush’s voice was “more of a southerner and a westerner,” while Vice President Cheney’s was “real quiet, a real westerner.” Whereas President Bush liked to tell certain stories and to use certain images in his speeches, Vice President Cheney preferred more straightforward speeches. Still, Mr. McConnell said he did not find it hard to oscillate between the two bosses, because he used the same principles of speech writing in both cases.

He also did not try to mimic President Bush’s Texas expressions, taking advice from a friend who used to write for Jack Kemp, a former quarterback and congressman. When Mr. McConnell’s friend included a sports analogy in one speech, Mr. Kemp responded, “You’re giving me football stories? I’ll give the football stories,” Mr. McConnell said.

After the talk, students divided into groups of about five and worked on their own speeches, under the supervision of volunteers. Mr. McConnell circled around the room and offered feedback.

These kinds of interactions and mentorship are exactly what Future Civic Leaders is all about, says Allen Gannett, who founded the nonprofit and nonpartisan organization.

“I founded Future Civic Leaders out of a belief that all students should receive an adequate civic education regardless of their economic background,” says Mr. Gannett, a junior at GW and a former contestant on Wheel of Fortune.

Mr. Gannett has been hearing very positive feedback from students at the inaugural conference, and speakers have told him that they really enjoy interacting with the attendees.

Mr. Gannett is one of three GW students who are staff members of the organization, and half of the volunteer conference counselors are students at GW.

“I wanted to provide a residential experience for the students and thought GW would be the ideal place, because it is located in the heart of D.C.,” he says. “GW has the facilities we needed to put together a top-notch conference.”

Although there are many philanthropic organizations that serve underprivileged youth, Future Civic Leaders is unique, says junior Drew Spence, vice president for public relations.

“What sets Future Civic Leaders apart is that it has direct connections to the students it serves,” he says.

Most of the non-profit’s staff is students at universities in the Washington area, so the staff members have visited the partner schools and met the students in their classrooms. “We are in a unique position to help our younger peers,” he says.

According to Mr. Spence, only a handful of organizations, including Future Civic Leaders, offers conferences for free. Most cost between $2,000 and $3,000, he says.

“I joined Future Civic Leaders, because it’s really an example of what a non-profit should be,” Mr. Spence says. “Our overhead may be a bit low and we may be young as an organization. But what we seek to do is to ensure that every student can become a leader in his or her community by making sure that everyone understands how our society functions, so that we may work to make it better.

“It’s our passion, not our purse strings that will change the lives of the neediest students in this country,” he says.

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