As NSF speechwriter, Zinnen learned the art of putting words in other people’s mouths

When Tom Zinnen, director of the Biotechnology Center’s BioTrek Outreach Program, found out that his wife had been offered a job in Washington DC, he scrambled to find a way to accompany her without breaking his ties to the UW-Madison. He hoped to return in a year or two.

It was mid-2008 and the economy was tough, but, fortunately, he got an interesting offer: A position as a speechwriter in the National Science Foundation’s Office of Legislative and Public Affairs. Never mind that he’d never written a speech before. The NSF job description said that no experience was necessary—just a desire to develop the talent in what Zinnen came to call being a ‘speechwright.’ So off he went, starting his new position on Nov. 3.

Last Wednesday, Zinnen described his 21-month experience as a NSF speechwriter to a fascinated audience at Wednesday Night @ The Lab, a science-focused lecture series held at the Biotechnology Center on Wednesday nights.

Zinnen explained how he wrote speeches for NSF director Arden Dement and deputy director Cora Marrett, learning what he needed to know on the fly. That included such details as the “protocol of introduction”—the correct order in which to introduce any dignitaries present. He worked with a small speechwriting team of four or five, including an editor. Most of the speeches, which averaged about 10 minutes in length, or 1,250 words, emphasized the NSF’s role as a critical funding agency for basic research.

Zinnen is proud of his work, but, surprisingly, he can’t claim any of it. By custom, the person who delivers the speech is considered the author; the speechwriter merely drafts it.

Regardless of who got the credit, as Zinnen describes the process, it’s clear that he has a knack for this line of work.

“You have to think about how words feel in the mouth, sound in the ear and feel in the heart,” he says.