The assignment before Ezra Zwaeli is daunting: How does one get your arms around the city of Boston, and all its complexities, in 3,200 words?
But that is his task, his most important one of the year. The State of the City address is the mayor’s most heralded annual speech, and this year’s mayoral monologue will happen Tuesday evening. While speaking to The Boston Globe late last week, Zwaeli, who is Mayor Michelle Wu’s director of speechwriting, was enmeshed in the nitty gritty of how to fit Wu’s accomplishments and future vision into 23 minutes of rhetoric. He anticipated the run-up to the speech to be filled with revisions; for last year’s State of the City, changes were being made to the teleprompter until 14 minutes before the mayor hit the stage.
“It’s designed to be a reflection of an astonishing scope of ideas,” said Zwaeli, a 27-year-old Jamaica Plain resident, recently in his ninth-floor City Hall office.
Inevitably, compelling aspects of the Wu administration will have to be left on the cutting room floor, he conceded. So far, there have been at least a dozen, and perhaps up to 20 versions of the speech. Zwaeli has lost count. There is “a beast” of a Google doc that he has been whittling away at. A lot of fingers have been in the pie. For every paragraph that deals with a specific facet of city government, a corresponding Cabinet chief or department head is consulted. Referencing an internet meme, Zwaeli jokingly compared the editing process to a pizza with wildly disparate toppings: chocolate sprinkles, a rotisserie chicken, pepperoni.
While he was at his desk, Wu was downstairs in her fifth-floor office that overlooks Faneuil Hall, making changes in the document.
“There’s just too much to say about all the things we’ve done, all the things we hope to do, all of the people behind all of that to be able to fit into 3,200 words,” said Zwaeli.
The Wu brain trust went through three or four overarching themes for the speech before landing on “the concept of home.”
“What it really means for a place to be home,” said Zwaeli.
The speech is not only an exercise in building credibility with residents, he said, but also an opportunity to highlight things the city does that “matter most” and informing residents that such services or programs are available to them. The second piece, he said, is “here’s what you can expect from us.”
There is a half-hour time window for the address, which will be televised from the MGM Music Hall at Fenway. Three minutes is allotted for a video montage showing Boston under the Wu administration. Additionally, the architects of the document are banking on an anticipated four minutes worth of applause. That leaves 23 minutes. The mayor speaks at about 135 words a minute, which Ezra called fairly typical.
Anyone who covers Wu consistently can attest to the fact that Boston’s mayor, a known policy wonk, has a tendency to speak in lengthy paragraphs that often traverse the policy weeds. Think long sentences with multiple clauses, not truncated, pithy soundbites. Zwaeli said one of his first directives from Wu when he was hired two years ago was that none of her speeches should be credibly described as wonky. For the mayor, a double Harvard graduate, it’s important that every word is accessible and understood, he said.
“The polysyllabic words don’t often make the cut,” he said.
He added, “She’s really good at translating the content into what matters most for people.”
Last week, Zwaeli met with Wu and other city staff to discuss the video montage that will play at the beginning of the State of the City. They were shown a rough cut of what City Hall videographers have produced. It’s a slick advertisement for the Wu administration and Boston. Smiling city employees and residents speak glowingly about various programs; snippets of Wu out and about in the city are featured, along with highlights of her legislative wins.
During that meeting, Wu said she wanted the video to reflect that the city’s 18,000-plus workforce isn’t a faceless organization, that it is working hard to make Boston a better place. There was a discussion about whether the video should highlight things that the speech doesn’t cover, or if repetition of accomplishments is a more effective communication strategy.
“Do you have a sense right now what’s on the chopping block?” she asked at one point.
Later, Zwaeli discussed one of the central challenges of the speech: touching on all the various experiences of Boston residents is impossible, it would make the address an incoherent, chaotic mess.
“There has to be a cohesive message,” he said.
Different speeches call for different things. Jokes for the South Boston St. Patrick’s Day breakfast are a world apart from the eulogy for local civil rights giant Mel King. Zwaeli has had a hand in Wu’s remarks for both during the past year.
“There’s a lot of research that logic actually isn’t so effective at compelling people to change their minds,” he said. “What you have to do is to change hearts to change minds.”
Zwaeli leads a team of three, who all help write Wu’s remarks. It’s a gig he’s had since Jan. 2022. He grew up in New Jersey and New Mexico.
He graduated from the University of North Carolina Chapel Hill, where he studied creative writing and poetry. He is a published poet, having been featured in numerous literary outlets.
Before working for Wu, he worked for a speechwriting firm in Washington, D.C., that served nonprofits, corporations, and public officials.
“The process of writing for someone else, speechwriting, it’s like a visitation, you’re a guest,” he said. “You’re invited for some small period of time to inhabit the mind and voice of somebody else. That is an enormous privilege and also can be exhausting and disorienting.”
But working for Wu, with whom he shares Taiwanese ancestry and politically progressive values, has been a welcome experience. ”When I sit down to write a speech for the mayor, I don’t have to stretch as far to imagine into her world,” he said.
Typically, when he hands in a speech, his job is done. But for the State of the City, he is the one who will man the teleprompter. He admits he gets nervous. It’s a big night for Wu, but a big night for himself. He knocked on wood multiple times when discussing the contingency plan if the teleprompter goes down.
“I don’t want to talk about this,” he said jokingly.