Can’t They Write Their Own Speeches?

Just about everyone thinks their profession is misunderstood at one time or another. The difference with my profession is that a comparatively small slice of the population are actually full-time speechwriters, leaving media portrayals to feed the vacuum.

You’ll learn after enough networking events and holiday parties that a few variations on the same questions will come up again and again when you tell someone you’re a speechwriter.

For one thing, most people think speechwriting is a cool gig. And they’re right! Probably not as glamorous as they imagine though – few speechwriters are huddling in the Oval Office or charting history. More of us are on Capitol Hill or the private sector. We’re more likely pouring through old corporate annual reports in search of interesting stories or interviewing company old-timers to learn more about the people behind those sepia-toned photographs on display in the lobby.   

Along with that wave of interest, there is often some skepticism – less about us, more about our bosses. The same questions stand – are speechwriters really necessary? We hear echoes of this question in the news articles that surface from time to time, shaming some elected official for hiring a speechwriter or – God forbid – giving one a raise. This is usually contrasted with some pressing public need that is going unmet – the clear message contrasting unmet government responsibilities with the “spin” and artifice of speechwriting. (Just this month, from across the pond - "Tory Justice Secretary whose department cut legal aid for domestic violence victims has found thousands for a SECOND speechwriter".) It’s a viewpoint that assumes little value in the work of communicating organizational priorities to the public.

Steeped in programming like House of Cards, most people seem to instinctively grasp that a politician likely works with a speechwriter – less because of demands on their time, as much as the widespread working assumption that many elected officials are puppets, blindly following a script laid out in front of them. But why do executives and non-profit leaders need a speechwriter? It plain rubs some people the wrong way. If you’re attending a TedTalk or a keynote address, isn’t it reasonable to assume that the speaker has actually wrote her words on her own?

I tend to emphasize that speechwriting should not be seen as a solitary exercise as much as a collaboration. The role of the speechwriter isn’t to dictate a message verbatim, but to work closely with a speaker to craft the most effective message possible on behalf of their organization. We don’t expect busy executives to have created the graphics or visual illustrations that accompany their presentations. We don’t expect them to have personally crunched the data featured in their presentations. Yet we seem to cling to the notion of executive as auteur when it comes to the words in their presentations.

The reality is that most executives are torn in a thousand directions. Delegating and communicating a vision for specialists to implement are important skill sets in management. By working with a speechwriter, a speaker isn’t showing their disdain or lack of effort – on the contrary, they’re signaling that they truly prioritize the craft and thought that go into rendering an effective argument.

Our culture values authenticity today - and that’s a good thing. With the B.S. detectors that audiences have developed from years of media saturation and analysis, it’s harder than ever to sell spin, even in the era of fake news. This trend toward greater authenticity can lull some speakers into the assumption that they are their most authentic selves by “winging it” in front of an audience. The truth, however, is that careful planning and forethought are what ultimately allow the best speakers to use their limited time effectively, retain the attention of audiences, and allow their authentic selves to be seen.