A New Year’s Note—to the Insiders

Speechwriters and exec comms folks work on the same side of the institutional wall: the inside. Never less appreciated. Never more important.

A new year’s letter to members of the Professional Speechwriters Association. Figured everyone in the professional rhetoric business could use this, this year. DM


Dear PSA Member,

Perhaps because this was the year that our organization founded the Higher Education Leadership Communication Council, I’ve been feeling especially protective of speechwriters and others who do their very damnedest to help our institutions’ leaders lead, in terribly difficult times.

Whichever forces are most violently whipsawing your leader in our roiling society—and whatever your own personal views—you, mostly, are on the same side of one important issue: You are on the inside (or at least serving clients who are).

For many years, trying to be a moral actor in and among the morally nebulous worlds of rhetoric and journalism, I have leaned hard on a prayer, written by my first boss, the late Larry Ragan, in an obscure, long-defunct Catholic newsletter, way back in the 1960s sometime.

See if it doesn’t seem useful to you today, despite its somewhat dated diction and cultural references:

There are the insiders and the outsiders. Two kinds of people. Two ways of looking at life. Two ways of making things happen.

The outsiders raise hell. they demonstrate; they organize marches. They issue reports that excoriate the establishment, challenge the status quo, appeal to all who thirst for justice.

The insiders? Often dull. The insiders speak a different language: they know the tax tables, the zoning variations, the assessment equalizers, the square-foot cost to educate the kids. You’ll find them on the school board, city government, on the village board. Ordinarily not word people, they have mastered the art of the platitude.

Outsiders are often wild. At first, they don’t seem to make sense. The first black kids who sat at a lunch counter and refused to move were outsiders. The first marchers to Selma were outsiders. Surely it was an outsider who first proposed the shocking idea that the generic “he” is a sexist word. Dorothy Kay, who in the 1950s stopped Manhattan traffic to protest atom bomb tests, was an outsider.

Please God, let us always have outsiders and give me the grace, in my better moments, to know how to be one. But I’m torn because I want to be an insider too. The insiders resist the first answer that comes to them: they have heard it before. They are offended when they see the world’s complexities reduced to slogans shouted into a microphone or preached at a town hall meeting. They are saddened when they hear someone argue that God is on his or her side, and they wonder why God doesn’t speak so clearly to them.

Sometimes you’ve got to feel sorry for the insiders. When they win, few know of their victory. When they go wrong, their mistakes are branded as evil. Often they share the goals of the outsider but continue to say, “Things aren’t that simple.”

The world is filled with people who like to feel they are right. Insiders are not always certain they are right. They are unhappy when they must resist the simplicities of popular sloganeering. So when we tip our hats to outsiders, as so often we must, let’s not do so with such vigor that we fail to give two cheers to the insider.

This year, on behalf of everyone at the PSA, I offer two cheers to the insider, who has perhaps never been less appreciated—and thus, who has never been more heroic.

Please know you are deeply admired by the people who are honored to convene your professional association.

We hope you’re ready, once again, to make things happen.

David Murray, Executive Director

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