Finding the words

It's the day after freshman move-in and President Nan Keohane needs to address 1,600 students anxiously waiting to have their decision to attend the University reaffirmed. Who does the president turn to for help? Paul Baerman, special assistant to the president, has served as Keohane's speech writer for the past three and a half years.

What does being the speech writer for the president of one of the most prestigious universities in the country entail? Baerman - whose background is in English language, literature and research - explained that while he may be Keohane's "speech writer," he by no means entirely drafts or completes her work. Instead, the two work together in a mutual process to produce her words for later delivery.

"It's a very interactive process," he said, sitting in his office surrounded by an open dictionary, shelves of reference books, a white board full of notes and a John Berryman quote on the wall. "There are times when she'll write the first draft and I'll edit and revise and then there are times when I'll write the first draft and she'll edit and revise it."

Baerman- who has been at the University off and on for the past 11 years in various capacities-attended the University of Rochester, received a master's degree in English from the University of Virginia and an MBA from the Fuqua School of Business. He explained that his and Keohane's backgrounds are very different, but that somehow they mesh perfectly when writing.

"One of the things I bring to the job is a sense of prose rhythm and diction," Baerman said. "She is systematic and organized and I am not... It works very well because I think a lot about the finer details." He added that no one can beat the president at the structure of an argument.

"The hardest part as a speech writer is to always recognize that your job is to facilitate the message and the goals of the person giving the speech, not your own," said David Jarmul, associate vice president for news and communication and a former speech writer at the National Academy of Sciences. "The best speech writer is someone who can help bring out the best in the person. I think Paul does that beautifully."

Baerman described his and the president's working relationship as a "happy accident" and said they owe part of its success to their mutual love for history.

Also describing himself as a lover of language, Baerman said he could not be happier with his job and his boss because no one blinks an eye when he spends an entire day on the job doing historical research. "It's not hard to spend the whole day finding the right quote for an occasion," Baerman said.

For Baerman, finding the right words for the president means understanding what the speech should make the audience members do or think about after hearing Keohane's words.

"He obviously has a great grasp of language and puts words together beautifully, but he also understands Nan Keohane," Jarmul said. "He gets what she's trying to do in a given setting and a given audience."

Baerman was careful to develop a feel for the president's natural voice, not by studying past speeches, but by observing her more subtle mannerisms, such as how she carries herself in a meeting.

But Baerman remains careful to give due credit to the president. "What comes out in the end is always hers... She's quite a good writer," he said. "She just doesn't have the time for it."

A approach may be the key to Baerman's success on the job. "In a role like this one, you don't have a high profile and you don't want a high profile," he said. "In my private life, I'm really quite a performer... to whatever extent I'm good here, that's probably why."

Baerman, whose wife Kathy is a resident physician at the University of North Carolina, is an active oboe player and member of his church. He also served as The Chronicle columnist "Gormless" from 1995-1998, a position that he said helped him regain some confidence in his ability to write after serving the University in a more business capacity for several years.

Baerman's writing tasks number about 160 per year, including speeches, letters, reports and opinion editorial pieces. He noted every little speech is fun because they are all so different and reach such different people.

"There's always someone in the room whom this may be the most important day of their week or month or lives, and that's the person I write for," he said.


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