How to Write for a Mission
Featuring Vice President Kamala Harris’s speech at Fisk University in Nashville
A couple weeks ago, I was hiding in my home office, writing words, when a phone call came through.
Kate: “There’s been a school shooting over here by Woodmont.”
I didn’t say much. Stock remarks “how terrible” it was. Sympathy for Kate that she was so close. (Yes, school shootings are common enough that we have “stock remarks” to them).
And my day went on. Mostly unchanged.
I am privileged in that way.
The shooter burst into the Christian school and fired nearly 200 bullets in less than 15 minutes. AR-15. And a handgun.
6 people died. 3 students. 3 teachers.
3 students were sent to math class and never came back.
For most of you, this is old news. (Yes, school shootings are common enough that they can become “old news” in weeks.) I’ve never been one to react quickly.
Instead, I watched as friends of mine protested at the Tennessee capitol. I saw three Tennessee representatives leading chants in the middle of the session. Their microphones were cut off. Those three representatives were forcefully removed from the capitol and threatened with expulsion.
2 of them actually were expelled. Members of the same government body here have admitted to child molestation, peed in each other’s chairs, and committed various other atrocities. Those folks were not expelled.
Generally I don’t even talk about politics. (Yes, school shootings are common enough that their aftermath is filed under the word “politics.”) Even using the word “representatives” scares me a bit.
I would love to say that this post is the result of an attack of conscious. That the faces of dead children spurred me on. That my blood began to boil with rage.
Instead, what happened was:
The “Tennessee Three” protests drew the attention of the White House. Our Vice President flew to Fisk University in Nashville. She spoke.
And while the minefield of gun regulation and lawmaking intimidates me, the world of words and speeches is something I can handle.
The highlights of Kamala’s speech went something like this.
“Mayor Cooper, it’s good to see you again. I thank you for your leadership and your courage with which you have led for your tenure, but particularly over these last weeks.”
John Cooper is the mayor of Nashville, Tennessee. Kamala calls him out specifically for his courage and leadership.
This part of the speech is scripted. She’s using these two words specifically to set up a juxtaposition (contrasting two elements) which will come around later.
Kamala makes a few other remarks: She’s sorry about the tornados that ripped through Tennessee. She loves Fisk University. She also went to an HBCU (Historically Black College University). She points out that John Lewis and Diane Nash also went to Fisk.
“I am one of you,” she implies
The tornado and John Lewis parts are also scripted. The HBCU remarks are just good politicking.
“Over the past couple of weeks, we have seen over 7,000 students and young leaders go to the Capitol to talk about what John Lewis and Diane Nash talked about.
The importance of freedom, the importance of liberty, and the importance of respecting the right of all people to live…in a place where they can be free from harm.”
Topically, she’s used Lewis and Nash to transition to the next segment.
The 14th Rule (citing a specific number instead of just saying “many”) shows up with “7,000 students.”
There’s an ascending tricolon (three elements in sequence) at the start of the next segment. And as a reminder of how speakers prioritize “sounding right” over “efficiency of communication,” ask yourself - what’s the difference between freedom and liberty?
(Tricolons - or rules of three in general - show up a lot in speeches. It will appear nearly a dozen times in this 20-minute speech.)
The final words “free from harm,” take us to the main topic at hand.
“I want to start by recognizing the Tennessee Three…because they chose to show courage in the face of an extreme tragedy, which is that 11 days ago, six people — three educators and three babies — were murdered senselessly by gun violence.”
“Tennessee Three” is a visual alliteration (words beginning with the same consonant), unless you are Irish. We’ve got the word courage again, which is becoming a theme here.
Watch this very closely
Don’t fall asleep.
Because word choice changes everything.
Kamala doesn’t just point out that “six people” were murdered. And they aren’t just three adults and three children.
They are three educators and three babies.
Educators: selfless, worthy, molding young minds.
Babies: innocent, pure, defenseless.
Before finally pointing the finger at her antagonist: gun violence.
Kamala points out that the Tennessee Three needed bullhorns to be heard in session. She then dons the voice of those across the aisle to illustrate what they should be thinking.
“‘Maybe I should give this a moment to listen. Give it a chance to be heard. If I feel like I’m so right, shouldn’t I have the courage to debate it?’”
This is why the word “courage” is used so generously in the beginning. She can now point out that others WERE NOT acting with courage.
Without the juxtaposition, this point does not hit nearly as hard.
For another 2 minutes or so, Kamala drags her opponents. They wear lapel pins shaped like guns. They shut off microphones. They violate democracy by shutting down other voices.
We’re more than 10 minutes into this speech. That’s how important it is to set the context before you go on attack.
“(But) let’s address the underlying issue here. It’s about fighting for the safety of our children. Saying that ‘you know, our babies are going to school. It’s been years now where they’re taught to read and write and hide in a closet.”
Notice the return of the word “babies” here, along with a towering ascending tricolon to finish the sentence. Tricolons are at their most powerful when they set up patterns and break them, exactly like this.
The speech marches on a bit longer before ending with something that made my copywriting brain screech to a halt.
“So I’m gonna close with this point. I do believe that every generation has its calling… so in particular to all the young leaders here, this issue is going to require your leadership…
every moment, every movement that has been about progress in our country was led by the young leaders like John Lewis and Diane Nash and you…
I say all that to say: we will not be defeated. We will not be deterred. Will will not throw up our hands when it is time to roll up our sleeves. We will fight. We will lead. We will speak with truth. We will speak about freedom and justice. We will march on!”
(It feels like a crime typing that out when the delivery is much more powerful.)
People… this is a call to action.
This is the same principle as “subscribe to my newsletter!”
Kamala ends here because she knows that leaving the audience emotional, informed, empowered, but not called would leave them inspired but immobile. Enraged, but inactive.
She ends with a call to action because she believes that if people are equipped with a vision, a mission, and a direction, change is possible.
I hope she’s right.
Much love as always <3
-Todd B from Tennessee
Todd, this is so powerful and I love how you elucidate the way speakers who inspire others to action craft their speech. I am inspired to action by you and Kamala!