Appreciate and Collaborate with Your Speechwriter

[Editor’s Note: While few of you are likely to have access to a speechwriter, this is not only excellent advice for those who do, but also very helpful for those who’ll be writing your own speeches. It’s also a nice guideline to success with any kind of collaborative project.
—Shel Horowitz, Editor, Down to Business]

I have a lot of sympathy for speechwriters because they have a nearly impossible job. If the boss gives a good speech, then the boss receives (and takes) all of the credit. If the boss bombs during the speech, well, then it must have been the speechwriter’s fault, or so the blame game goes.

I can vividly remember slaving away for days on a foreign policy speech for a member of congress when I was a staffer on Capitol Hill in the early 90s. When the Congresswomen finally started to read it in front of me at 1:00 am in the morning she got through one page and then cried, “This…Is…Terrible…” and with that she tore the paper in two. This is the life of the speechwriter.

The sad reality is that very few CEOs, politicians or institutional leaders know how to work properly with their speechwriters. There must be a partnership between the speaker and the speechwriter. Cheap TV movies always show a big shot grabbing a speech text from a writer while walking up to the lectern—and the speech still turns out great. Well if you think people can do that in real life, then you still believe in the tooth fairy.

Giving a speech—any speech—is a profoundly personal thing. The best speeches always contain personal stories and anecdotes that flesh out the key points. It’s hard for another person to create interesting personal stories for another person. It’s especially hard if not impossible if this person, the speech writer, is located in a basement office two buildings away and has little or no personal contact with the speaker.

The best speakers such as Ronald Reagan and Bill Clinton forged strong collaborative relationships with their speechwriters. They would have meetings with them, offer suggestions, and be involved in numerous re-writes and edits. The worst speakers bypass all of those steps in order to “save time.”

The problem for speechwriters is that they aren’t mind readers. Sadly, many of their bosses become extremely disappointed by this ostensible deficiency. Speechwriters are quite often sent off to “write a speech” on a subject without any direction from the speaker. Usually, the draft results in total disappointment from the boss.

Speechwriters face additional hurdles. A good speech is written for the ear, not the eye. That means you use lots of short sentences, incomplete sentences, and repetition of words. The problem is that these things look horrible to the eye when read. But the speechwriter must give his or her product to the speaker and quite often a host of other bosses and bosses of bosses for approval. Each one of the bosses fancies himself an expert wordsmith who now must prove his worth by editing the speech to make it “read” well, and hence, messing it up.

Here is my list of the top ten procedures that will help speakers have a more productive relationship with their speechwriters:

1. Have an initial meeting with the speechwriter about the 3-5 big ideas you want to convey in the speech, preferably at least a month before the speech.

2. Have a brainstorming meeting on examples, stories and personal conversations the speaker has had that are relevant to the key ideas in the speech.

3. Establish deadlines for the speaker and the speechwriter so that each party knows the speech will go through a succession of drafts with each party providing edits to help the other. Don’t try to get a finished speech in the first draft.

4. Once the final written speech is completed, the speaker should do a videotaped rehearsal of the speech with the speechwriter in the room as part of the rehearsal team. Together, the speaker, the speechwriter and others on the team can figure out what works and doesn’t work so that the speech can be edited and improved yet again.

5. Do one more rehearsal with the final speech. (Again the speechwriter should be present)

6. When the speaker gives the speech, the speechwriter should be present whenever possible. If the speechwriter can’t be present he or she should be provided with a videotape of the speech to study.

7. A post-speech analysis meeting should take place with the speaker and the speechwriter. What worked? What didn’t? How can we improve things for the next speech?

8. The more time the speechwriter hangs out with the speaker, the more the speechwriter can capture the natural voice of the speaker and incorporate real stories from the speakers life. A speaker doesn’t have to be best friends with a speechwriter. But for optimum results, there should be times when the speechwriter is literally at the same table as the speaker—and that includes dinnertime and cocktail time. This way your speechwriter can capture some insight you delivered in a spontaneous moment and put it in a bottle for later use.

9. If you treat your speechwriter like he or she is the cleaning lady who is delivering a commodity service like emptying your trash cans, then that is what you will get: a commodity speech. And it won’t make you look good or enhance your career.

10. If you treat your speechwriter like one of your most trusted advisors, with high respect, and share your thought and feelings with this person on a regular basis you can create a collaborative partnership that will create great speaking performances that will propel you upward throughout your career.

T.J. Walker is the proprietor of and a staff
writer for Jim Wilson’s excellent Virtual Promote Gazette,
one of the better e-mail newsletters for web publicists–and where
this article first appeared.