Corporate speechwriting, back in the day
June 28, 2011
Writing the foreword of a forthcoming book on speechwriting, I described speechwriting two decades ago:
“A big company with a public presence would have a speechwriting department, several middle-aged men whose activities ranged from reading, thinking, lunchtime drinking, hammering away at their old typewriters or their new word processors, and smoking pipes.”
Yes, I knew I was hyperbolizing; the question was, to what extent?
After correctly pointing out that I’ve been “watching too many episodes of ‘Mad Men,'” veteran speechwriter Cynthia Starks set out to tell us what life was really like when she wrote speeches at IBM in the early 1990s.
We did have a speechwriting department that was made up of a number of men and women. No one smoked pipes, drank at lunch, etc. We each had one or more senior executives assigned to us and we wrote speeches for them. I wrote for a senior vice president of education and a senior vice president of manufacturing. When it became too much to support both speakers, the manufacturing VP was lifted from my plate and assigned to another speechwriter. Being part of a group of speechwriters was the best. We supported one another and celebrated one other when speeches went well. There was a lot of interaction, brainstorming, idea-generation, etc. We talked, we commiserated, we laughed. We wrote better because of it, I think.
We spent time researching our topic (using subject-matter experts, Lexus/Nexus and the library); we still researched the audience, the place where the speech was taking place, met with our executive once we had a draft down, revised and edited, much as today. Once, when my speaker was giving a talk in Bangkok, of all places, I researched the history of Bangkok in an encyclopedia and called a travel agent to get a bunch of brochures on Bangkok. I discovered that a former king had created the country’s alphabet and used this in the talk because it was a speech on education.
In that time, when corporations seemed flush with money, I traveled everywhere with my executive—to Hong Kong, Japan, England, Ireland, California (in business class). I also managed a large budget and could make decisions on how to use it—to make videos that supported a speech, for example, or multimedia computer visuals. That was fun and allowed me to be very creative. The company also paid for the speechwriters to go to conferences and seminars on speechwriting, and I was once sent to a week-long Sony video workshop in Savannah.
Anyway, I don’t think the “old days” were that much different from today, except that today companies have smaller budgets and the technology in place to facilitate research as never before. I used to say that what speechwriters brought to the table was a certain way of seeing the world, a curiosity, an ability to understand the big picture, to offer the “bon mot,” the special “turn of phrase.” I still think this is true, but with the advent of Power Point presentations and more use of note cards, more executives substitute their own phrases for ours. Sigh…
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