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Profiles in Versatility

Physics Major Facilitates Success in Speechwriting (and the Funny Business) 

By Alaina G. Levine
Michael Long
Michael Long

There is professional lore that claims a person changes careers on average seven times in their lives. Michael Long may demonstrate an element of truth to this. By age 31, he had already held positions in physics, comedy, mathematical modeling, and freelance writing, and by no means had he reached his peak yet. Only months after his 32nd birthday, the physics aficionado entered the ring of political speechwriting after being hired by then Tennessee Senator Fred Thompson.

“Senator Thompson was a rising star in politics and I was thrilled to start in politics with such an exciting opportunity,” Long recalls.

Today, Long is a well-known writer of speeches (and other pieces), a line of work he equates to being “a professional explainer”.

“I look at a complicated subject and make it understandable and interesting to a lay audience,” he states. Long especially thrives with matters of technology, healthcare, and domestic policy.

Nowadays, he does mostly freelance speeches, although he also serves as a director of the White House Writers Group, a communications firm specializing in business and public policy, through which he has authored and ghost-authored numerous speeches, op-eds and white papers for some of the country’s most well-known politicos, including President George W. Bush.

To the amateur, the speechwriting process seems similar to building an early-stage technology enterprise. It is characterized by extensive research and development (in this case of words and ideas) that must eventually lead to a product (the speech) a customer will buy. This is where physics expertise comes in handy. Long uses his scientific background as a springboard to organize his thoughts and analyze what words to choose.

However, ultimately his success at both writing and attracting and keeping clients is dependent on a “dirty secret” of the field: “most clients want to sound like themselves, only better,” Long reveals. So when a client requests that Long writes a speech in the client’s “own voice”, “if it is articulate and well-written, whatever you give someone they think it’s in their voice,” he says.

Long received his BS in physics from Murray State University, and remembers that he was initially drawn to the subject because “I wasn’t concerned about impressing anybody,” he says. Physics “seemed new to me. I didn’t know any physicists; it was like someone from the moon. But it’s a wonderful way to think.”

He enrolled in the graduate program at Vanderbilt University because “the idea of finding order in disorder appealed to me,” he says. “Physics teaches you to approach things looking for patterns and processes.” However, like many physics students, Long came to the realization that “I was not going to be the king the mountain,” he admits. “In my professional life, whatever I did I wanted to be the very best at it, and when I got into grad school, physics did not come as naturally to me as other things. I saw so many people that were hard-wired to explore new knowledge…I didn’t think I had their skills.”

Long recognized “If I want to make a difference, this isn’t going to be where it’s going to happen.”

To make such a difference, Long took what many would consider a long-shot: he left graduate school to pursue a full-time career as a comedian. And for a while he did pretty well, including an invitation to be the house emcee at a prestigious comedy club in Nashville.

Unfortunately, jobs in comedy, much like physics, are difficult to come by and often do not pay well (although on the bright side, comedians don’t have to deal with the promotion and tenure process). So he tapped into his technical background to pay the bills and got a job at a software company where he did mathematical and systems modeling and software design for the telecommunications industry. He stuck with comedy, however, regarding it at the time as an avocation.

But the life of a comedian involves constant writing, and Long developed a fondness and talent for putting his words to paper. He embarked on a career writing articles and op-eds. He quickly found success and was published in local and national publications.

Undeniably a devotee to career diversity, Long leveraged his writing projects into yet another line of business in political speechwriting. He had always had a penchant for politics, and in 1994, began researching the subject. He read political articles and noticed that many of the authors were speechwriters. “They had backgrounds like mine,” he says. “None of these writers were journalists.”  

Long realized that even though he had not taken an English class since high school, his varied, scientifically-based skills would help him to be not only a great writer, but a great speechwriter as well. After all, unlike other majors, “I had studied physics,” something that is “freaking useful,” he laughs. He now advises students that “if you study physics you will learn something not many people know: you will learn how to think, and you will be the most thoughtful, critical writer to ever pick up a pen.”

He commenced on his new career by cold-writing a letter to Senator Thompson. Long explained to the politician that “I am not a speechwriter but I want to be one and I want to be yours.” He sent him clips of his work and soon was hired as the sole speechwriter for Thompson.

In addition to providing skills such as general problem-solving, physics has done something especially valuable for Long. “It’s an impressive credential and it acts as a talisman: when you are going to talk about something technical, people tend to defer to you,” he says. “There’s a mystique and myth around it, and people are impressed by it, so they give you a little more latitude to offer an opinion on pretty much anything.”

Although speechwriting is his current passion and main source of income, Long has amassed a very long list of other, very unusual accomplishments. He has written a syndicated newspaper column, and the liner notes for the DVD of Jerry Seinfeld’s movie “Comedian”. He is a guest host on the nationwide Radio America network, has taught classes in stand-up comedy, and was a Comic Relief competition winner. He is also a consultant for the American Film Renaissance, a non-profit film organization, and has served as a consultant for material for Saturday Night Live and in The Onion, an internationally-known satirical newspaper and website.

Long has an impressive list of contacts in the comedy field. He counts comedian (and former Nixon speechwriter) Ben Stein as a friend, who observes that Long is “a poet …I don’t see anyone out there under the age of 50 writing better short pieces than he is right now.”

Now in his early 40s, Long is looking to add yet more diversity to his career trajectories. In November 2007, he took a mere 30 days to write his second novel. And last month he began teaching public relations writing at the graduate school at Georgetown University. He sees physics as an asset and in harmony with his professional goals and strategies.

“What I do is what a physicist does, only carried to another realm: stripping the superfluous material to its core and describing it as what it is,” Long says. “[Physics] is what makes me an unusual writer and a writer who can make a living at writing. I look for the elements of the problem, throw away the other stuff and pass the piece along all shiny and polished up so people can understand it.”

© 2007, Alaina G. Levine.

Alaina G. Levine can be contacted through her website www.alainalevine.com.

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Editor: Alan Chodos
Contributing Editor: Jennifer Ouellette
Staff Writer: Ernie Tretkoff