Helping Good Communicators Become Great: Dare to Work for a Leader Who Dares to Work for You

October 13, 2016

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Not long ago, I got a call that I could hardly believe.

It was from the leader of a fairly well-known institution. He called me directly to discuss how he could be better at making speeches.

“You’re not happy with how you’re coming off?” I asked, figuring he was falling on his face in important situations and needed some rudimentary rhetorical help and a delivery doctor.

“No,” he said. “I don’t mean to sound arrogant, but I think I’m pretty good.”

He went on to explain that he earned an English degree before getting his MBA and thinks he’s a pretty good writer of his own speeches. And a good deliverer, too — as his speaking presence has been praised specifically by peers whom he considers fine public speakers.

“I’m good,” he told me. “But I want to get better, just because I realize how important this stuff is.”

He went on to list examples of all the constituencies he’s in front of in a given week, month and year, and how much difference he could make by telling them the right things in the right way.

I honestly don’t remember the rest of what he said, as I was struggling so hard to fight back tears of disbelieving joy at speaking directly with a leader who actually sees communication as a leadership tool worthy of spending real time on.

More than oral ornamentation

I tell students at the Professional Speechwriters Association’s (PSA) annual Speechwriting School that there are two kinds of clients in the world. There are leaders who think they got to their lofty position in organizational life by keeping their mouth shut and not saying the wrong thing. And there are leaders who think they talked their way into every job they ever got — and communicated their way to every goal they ever achieved.

I tell these open-faced, would-be speechwriters, “You want to work for the second type.”

Working for the second type is harder on speechwriters, and their pizza guys. This is from a July New York Times story on President Obama’s habit of rewriting speeches at night:

One night last June, Cody Keenan, the president’s chief speechwriter, had just returned home from work at 9 p.m. and ordered pizza when he heard from the president: ‘Can you come back tonight?’

Mr. Keenan met the president in the usher’s office on the first floor of the residence, where the two worked until nearly 11 p.m. on the president’s eulogy for nine African-Americans fatally shot during Bible study at the Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church in Charleston, S.C.

Three months earlier, Mr. Keenan had to return to the White House when the president summoned him — at midnight — to go over changes to a speech Mr. Obama was to deliver in Selma, Ala., on the 50th anniversary of ‘Bloody Sunday,’ when protesters were brutally beaten by the police on the Edmund Pettus Bridge.

“There’s something about the night,” Mr. Keenan said, reflecting on his boss’s use of the time. ‘It’s smaller. It lets you think.’”

If that sounds like a brutal way of life to you — well, I’ve been around speechwriters for 25 years, and late-night calls ain’t their chief complaint, not by a longshot.

Overwork doesn’t compete with any of the following situations, which I put in italics because they’re not quotes, but rather paraphrases from hundreds of speechwriters:

  • The boss won’t give me time to discuss the speech before I start writing.
  • To get the personal stories from the boss, I have to interview her admin.
  • The boss won’t tell personal stories anyway, because he thinks they’re too…personal.
  • The boss won’t rehearse the speech and reads the script for the first time in the car on the way to the event.
  • The boss is charming and affable in small groups, but when he gets up in front of an audience he turns wooden.The boss relies entirely on the chief of staff to vet her speeches, and the chief of staff is so risk-averse, we’re not allowed to say anything.

These are not just the loudest complaints of speechwriters; they’re the leading problems of most speechwriters. They are soul-sucking problems, because they leave the speechwriter wondering whether he or she is creating anything but oral ornamentation.

Speechwriters worth their salt, meanwhile, want to do far more than that — and should specifically seek out the rare clients who will let them.

From good to great

Back to the leader who made me cry. How committed was he? He paid for and actually attended all seven sessions of the PSA’s Speechwriting School Online, asked penetrating questions during the Q-and-As, and then called me up seeking a speechwriter who could transform his writing from good to great and a speaking coach who could polish his already polished act.

I asked him, didn’t he have anyone on his staff who could help? He cleared his throat uncomfortably — he was a nice guy, and he didn’t want to call his staffers bush league — and then he basically called his staffers bush league. And bush-league staffers deserve a bush-league leader.

Big-league staffers owe it to themselves, at least once in their career, to find a big-league boss — the kind of boss that General Electric speechwriter Bill Lane had, for two decades, in Jack Welch.

Welch was “hilarious, terrifying, inspiring, crazy,” Lane recalls. Welch not only put Lane through incredible paces in exchange for the seven-figure salary he paid him (yes, you read that right), Lane claims they went through 70 drafts of an annual report chairman’s letter — but he forced every manager in the organization to critique one another’s presentations.

“If you find a mistake, however small…point it out,” Welch told them. “Unimaginable impact. If you do so, you have served notice to this presenter, and by ripple effect across your whole organization, that you mean business as far as this meeting goes, and that the days of ‘wing it’ and ‘blow and go’ are over.”

CEOs universally respected by other CEOs are all great communicators — Welch, Iacocca, Jobs, and even Google CEO Eric Schmidt, who through coaching and perseverance transformed himself from a mumbling nerd into a global thought leader.

So why don’t more CEOs make the time?

At bottom, it’s because they doubt they will succeed. It’s always easier to say they’re too busy than to try to improve and fail.

But if we’re questioning their courage, we should test our own. Serious speechwriters —and all serious PR pros — will not waste their careers nudging reluctant bosses to tiptoe toward more compelling communication.

They’ll look to serve leaders who are worthy of canceling a late-night pizza delivery. They’ll find clients who already “realize how important this stuff is.” And they’ll challenge themselves to be good enough to help good communicators become great.

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 world’s best speeches.

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