Meet the Mayor’s Lead Speechwriter

Wilford DurbinWilford Durbin, chief of staff for Mayor Marc McGovern. Photo by Sasha Pedro.

Chief of Staff Wilford Durbin

What’s the speechwriting process like?

Every speech is a collaborative process, and that begins first and foremost with sitting down with the mayor and asking what points he wants to make, what tone he wants to set, which constituencies he wants to address. I interview him much like we’re doing now, and then I internalize that and sit down and then write up a narrative outline. I pass it by him, and that forms the structure of a lot of the speech.

Then I sit down to write and start to fill it out and flesh it out. And you know, our office, everyone has different responsibilities—we have a director of constituent services, an education liaison. When I come up to the subject matter that we have experts on, I ask them to draft talking points that they want me to incorporate in, and that comes together as a draft. I’m also, of course, reading and always listening to the prominent speechwriters or politicians in the region and nationally to try to figure out the tone, the character of their comments. 

Then that goes back to the mayor, back to the staff for revisions. There are several revision processes for the longer speeches, and eventually I send my final draft, the mayor makes his own final comments, handwritten usually, that go into the speeches, and then it’s delivered.

It’s a fun process. He’ll take my stuff and completely rewrite it sometimes, which is fine, it’s all part of the thought process. Even if the words aren’t exactly the same, I think the ideas carry. All of our staff, we work together to make sure that the ideas carry the intentions of the mayor.

I want to say, though, the mayor does give a lot of his own speeches, either extemporaneously or he writes his own comments. But we can have as much as three events in a day, so of course he needs some help.

I do want to make sure that I get to include one of my main thought partners through a lot of this, our Education Liaison Elizabeth Liss. She is always the first filter that I pass a lot of my thoughts and text through, because I think sometimes the way I write can be a little bookish. She is a very strong humanizing force, and it is invaluable.

How much time goes into writing one speech?

The State of the City Address, that was maybe three or four weeks in the making. So longer ones can take weeks, on and off again, shorter ones can be an afternoon. And it has to be polished, and it has to go through that same process.

What do you have to take into account given that you’re writing for someone else?

It is very difficult, because the way that we write and speak, it’s very innate; you’re speaking with your own voice. In some ways, I think that does still show through with speeches that I write for the mayor, and if another staff member does. But as part of that interview process that I have first-off, I even write down colloquialisms that the mayor might use during our conversations, just to try to capture his natural voice. When I first started, I listened to some of his speeches before I came on, he has blog posts that I read, just to try to get a feel for the important themes that he usually hit and his character. He’s the expert on how he wants to present himself, and I try to either enhance or focus that.

Are there any core qualities that you want every speech that you write to have?

I want it to be educational, I think that’s a major responsibility that I take upon myself. I think that somebody, if they’re listening to one of the speeches that the mayor gives, they have to come away knowing something that they didn’t know before. It’s not just about how it makes you feel, it has to be educational. I think imagery is so important—I’m constantly trying to come up with new metaphors and scrapping them, because again, I think it should be memorable. If we’re taking someone’s time, then we have to be respectful of that.

We are always very attuned to the diversity of our city, and the need to be inclusive. The mayor frequently likes to remind people that he is in a privileged position that few other people get to realize, and that with that comes the responsibility to sometimes step back from the conversation—so that comes into our speeches sometimes—and let others fill that void.

The last thing, and this has been the hardest for me, is the mayor is a very compassionate person, and I try to be more direct. So finding ways to put that compassion into his speech and the care that he has demonstrated as a social worker for most of his life and as a father, that always has to be there.

What was it like the first time that you heard him give one of your speeches?

The mayor was giving a remembrance of biotech pioneer Henri Termeer. We were in the middle of this giant, cavernous space in Kendall Square. Several floors were all there to remember Mr. Termeer and his legacy in Cambridge. There’s multiple floors above me, everyone’s standing around the edges, looking down, and you can hear the words reverberate around the building. It was a very humbling and very exciting moment for me, to hear those words that the mayor wanted to share that I wrote actually reverberate around the room.

So, you called it a “fun process.” What part of it do you like the most?

Well there is, like I said, a little bit of teasing and going back and forth. But I love the research and pulling together these different metaphors and finding a new way to express something that people might already know. I think it’s so fun.

So, for example, we’re having a zoning discussion, and we’re talking about the need to update it to be more inclusive, to be representative of restorative justice and a need to find more equity in the way that people live in our city, in the physical houses. Our zoning code is [from] 1961. As part of my research process, I found that Martin Luther King actually came to Massachusetts and gave a speech before the joint sessions of the Massachusetts legislature and called for our zoning to be updated, the way that we do housing policies, he said it’s time that we reexamine this. Our zoning code, at that point, was already three years old. And so I expressed it that way: As opposed to saying 55 years old, [we said] when Martin Luther King said it didn’t serve the needs of everyone, our zoning code was already three years old.

Editor’s note: This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity and conciseness.