What I Learned When a Client Put Me on the Spot

Being a speechwriter is fundamentally about being prepared for anything and everything that could be thrown your way. In a time of increasing specialization in the workplace, speechwriters remain a generalist breed – required to respond in a nimble fashion to requests touching on everything from high-level strategy to the most base level of logistics. (Can the AV monitor support these files? What stage of the stage is the podium on?)

Speechwriters are increasingly called upon to be equal parts graphic designer, content strategist, logistics coordinator, and hand holder. This unusual mix of the mundane and the strategic can be dizzying, but also one of the most interesting aspects of the job by my lights.

Still, you can never be entirely confident of what might be thrown your way. I was reminded of this truth on a recent client engagement.

If all those hats weren’t enough - sometimes you’re called upon to be a performer yourself.

I was contracted to work with the CEO of a large utility agency on a high stakes keynote. Her talk would need to help firmly position herself as a leader in fostering innovation in her industry and share insights from major wins on her watch – without coming across as self-congratulatory or boring the audience with a recitation of technical hurdles her team overcame. We would need to share vivid stories that helped to clearly articulate the stakes of her challenges – and we would need to come in under a tight 15 minute mark.

No small task!

Over a matter of works, I teased out the most important key message from my client. I was fortunate to be afforded full access to experts from throughout her organization who could provide me with invaluable insights on their work – and who were gracious enough to take the time to fact check my draft. (For one thing, I learned that I should be referring to the world of water as a “sector” – not an “industry”.)

In a very important sense, this client was a speechwriter’s dream; she didn’t simply pay lip service to the idea of preparation, but actually carved out time on her hectic schedule to practice her remarks. Even with all of the important responsibilities on her plate, she recognized the value of investing time in maximizing this speaking opportunity. I suspect that some speakers shy away from finding the time for practice because they see it as an exercise separate from their core duties as a leader.

As you might guess, I disagree. One of the foremost responsibilities of any leader is to serve as an effective advocate and voice for their organization. But it isn’t enough to accept speaking requests if one isn’t willing to also do the tough work of ensuring they are prepared for the big moment in the spotlight. An executive may be running a multi-billion dollar operation, but that doesn’t mean they can delegate the hard, crucial work of inspiring their workforce and persuading the world of the importance of their mission. As more than one speechwriter has advised a client, if the President of the United States can set aside time for speech prep and rehearsal anyone can. (That is to say, being 2019, most Presidents.)

My client also recognized that the optimal time for rehearsal isn’t hours before the speech during a sound check, but weeks in advance – when course corrections can still be made if something is found to be amiss.

I was grateful to be included in the rehearsal and showed up at her offices, ready for the always strange sensation of seeing what were once at least partially my words filtered through the voice of another person. If I’ve done my job right, I won’t hear my voice at all – I’ll only hear the voice of my client.

But this rehearsal was to prove a bit of an exception.

I arrived to find her staff ready for their boss, video camera on hand to record her session. Right on time, she entered the room with the typical dominant but accessible presence I had grown accustomed to over the course of our prior meetings. I greeted her and asked if she had any last thoughts from reading through my draft before we launched into practice.

“Yeah, I read it,” she said. “But I need to hear it aloud first.”

A staffer had hinted that she may have this reaction, but I didn’t take him seriously. That was my mistake.

The room turned to me. They were accustomed to this request as part of her process; some of us (myself included) internalize a piece of material most effectively by reading it over and over again. Others need to hear it aloud.

And so I found myself in front of the room reading my speech aloud for an audience.

It’s Speechwriting 101 – writing for the ear is very different than writing for the eye. Lots of lyrical prose can quickly devolve into a garbled mess if read aloud, especially if the occasion is something fairly quotidian like the 10th anniversary of the local Rotary Club. (“Quotidian” doesn’t exactly roll off the tongue either.) A solid rule of thumb for writing a speech is to read it aloud to see how it plays, how the rhythm flows – and if it sounds like something an actual human being would say to someone at, say, a bar. If you read it aloud and it sounds more like a McKinsey white paper, it’s time to go back to the drawing board.

To be deadly honest, any speechwriter toiling under deadline can sometimes cut corners and neglect the work of actually reading their work aloud. This impromptu rehearsal was a good reminder for me of how urgent it is to never shirk this step – and a humbling reminder of the trust that speakers place in their speechwriters. We are rarely the ones left to succeed or fail on stage, one of the most vulnerable positions a person can find themselves in most industrialized countries now that we have evolved from the hunter-gatherer era.

This rather unorthodox request may actually be one of the most effective ways of holding speechwriters accountable. I no longer had the option of hitting “send” and washing my hands of the material – I was now left to move the audience with my own material.

We found some bumpy patches. (And some unintentionally comic ones: “As the first woman to lead this organization…”)

I was also reminded of how often the rules we operate by on the keyboard can play out differently on stage. I generally operate under the rule of thumb that most speakers average around 130 words a minute; while not a perfect science, this typically helps me keep my general presentation length on track. (A 15 minute speech, for example, should clock in at around 1950 words.)

I had indeed followed my playbook by the letter, but I could tell in the moment that the speech was dragging. I instinctively found myself skipping over asides that had seemed crucial during the writing process and utterly superfluous during the actual event. (In retrospect, I didn’t need to delve as deeply into the genealogy of all those horses and their dental records during this particular speech on innovation.)

It wasn’t the most comfortable experience delivering an impromptu speech to my client and her advisors – but growth and creativity is rarely comfortable.