The Public Relations Strategist

Your Speechwriter: An Operator’s Manual

April 14, 2015

[ikon images/corbis]
[ikon images/corbis]

As far as PR positions go, the speechwriter probably has one of the most interesting (and borderline absurd) jobs. One describes his marching orders from the CEO as: “Write down my thoughts as if I had them.”

Until recently, this group didn’t have a formal forum to share what they do. But with the advent of the Professional Speechwriters Association (PSA) this past winter, we can now look into the realities of this position, thanks to the recently released results of its first-ever membership survey. The survey yielded insights about modern speechwriters that their managers and colleagues might find useful, as they try to coax sustainable excellence from this peculiar, but potentially powerful PR position.

The first thing to know about speechwriters is that many of them prefer to be referred to as something else. In fact, an argument broke out among the delegates at the first World Conference of the PSA about this point:

“The term ‘speechwriter’ is limiting,” someone said, questioning the wisdom of the name of the new association. One suggestion was to call it the “Leadership Communication Association,” in order to acknowledge the broader role that so many speechwriters have: building thought leadership platforms, crafting executive messages for many media and coaching executives through various communication opportunities.

But other speechwriters rose to the defense of the old term. One person said it’s useful because “it fences me off” from others in the organization who would water the job down with other duties. A self-proclaimed “speechwriter” is a kind of brand that “excites people,” as opposed to broader, but blander descriptors such as “executive communicator.”

Don’t hide your speechwriter

The PSA survey revealed that speechwriters are older, more likely to be male, better educated and better paid than their colleagues in public relations. The typical speechwriter is a 51-year-old man with a master’s degree. More than half of the speechwriters surveyed make more than $100,000 annually, with 23 percent pulling in more than $150,000 (and half of those making more than $200,000).

Speechwriters are also more likely than their well-coiffed PR colleagues to be unkempt, unruly, unconventional — or all of the above. But do not punish them for this. Every organization should have one person who is deeply — and perhaps even a little single-mindedly — devoted to helping the leader articulate the organization’s point of view as compellingly as possible.

Most leaders know this and will tolerate — and sometimes embrace — a little eccentricity in a person who helps them sound, look and feel better in front of important audiences.

Help out your speechwriter

Even with the best client-speechwriter chemistry — JFK called his speechwriter Ted Sorensen “my intellectual blood bank” — the speechwriter struggles to get sufficient access to achieve a real mind-meld with the boss.

Now add the litany of common troubles that PSA members listed in the survey: solitude, short deadlines, slow workflows, lawyers and indifference.

Speechwriters resent clients who “don’t care about content” — and bureaucrats who care too much: “I have to contend with constant micromanaging by people who see risk lurking in every corner and are afraid of letting the CEO take any kind of position,” one survey participant said. “They also have no feel for what constitutes good writing, yet exert a huge influence over the process.”

A PR manager should not be one of those risk-averse bureaucrats. And when the lawyers or the HR staff or the compliance people start sucking the life from a piece of leadership communication, fight valiantly on your speechwriter’s behalf.

Even if you don’t win, your speechwriter will appreciate having an ally instead of one more institutional enemy.

Know what makes your speechwriter happy

Asked what they like most about their work, speechwriters said “shaping public debates,” “finding and telling stories,” “intellectual and creative challenge and reward,” “the variety of topics and amazing people that I get to work with” and “the silent hours when I, through writing, try to understand and share something important.”

Speechwriters are like snowflakes; some succeed precisely because they’re CEO whisperers. But many of the ones worth keeping around are the oddest and  most difficult to please. They have razor intellects, a restless curiosity and healthy — if not slightly obese — egos.

But remember, lots of speechwriters are older. So they know by now that life in leadership communication will not lay itself neatly before them. So if they can see that they are achieving something significant with their work, if they can be intellectually stimulated, if they feel that someone, somewhere in the organization believes that the corporate strategy can be advanced by articulate rhetoric and communication, they will stick around and keep giving their best, despite it all.

Thirty years ago, a corporate speechwriter wrote, “No one is recording these speeches. There are no books of them that readers save and treasure. Our files will be tossed on the scrap heap when we leave or retire. But we have been sitting at a typewriter making land, a sea, a sky, burning words. That’s enough. It is more than most have.”

In the end, it’s all your speechwriter requires. That, and a salary somewhere in the low six figures.

But in exchange for helping your organization’s top leadership communicate compellingly, is that too much to ask?


Visit vsotd.com/speech-writers-association to learn more about the Professional Speechwriters Association and to download a free copy of the new white paper “What Is a Speechwriter?”

David Murray
David Murray is executive director of the Professional Speechwriters Association. He is also editor of Vital Speeches of the Day, a monthly magazine that collects the best speeches in the world.

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