How to use your character flaws as speechwriting strengths

The other day I was beating myself up over some bad habits, until I realized that they actually work in my favor as a speechwriter. Do you share any of these?

I am way too sensitive.

As a kid, I used to get my feelings hurt all the time and barely survived my share of teasing and taunting. Even into adulthood, my thin skin has been pierced many times by comments and actions that weren’t even particularly malicious.

How it helps my writing:

Instead of engendering bitterness, this experience blossomed into an empathy for almost every person I encounter. It’s given me a heightened awareness of my audiences and readers. It’s also taught me how to speak carefully to different interests and internalize what their response might be, which helps me solve a lot of problems before they become problems.

I have a hard time forming an opinion about issues.

I can usually see some validity in both sides of a contentious issue. This is why I always hated to debate, because I just didn’t feel I could pick one side. I used to think I simply had no opinion, which of course is ridiculous. I just hadn’t been sufficiently persuaded to espouse one view or another.

How it helps my writing:

While speechwriters are hired to put forth a particular point of view (their speaker’s), it is a great gift to be able to see both sides of every issue. This is a skill that never fails to add balance, contrast and complexity to my writing. And in sketching out the other side, I find that it usually circles back around on itself to add weight to the original intent and perspective of the speech.

I am nosy and always want to know what’s going on with everybody else.

I’m always asking “who, what, why” till I think people want to throw me out the window.

How it helps my writing:

I pay attention to small details and I try to figure out how disparate events and elements can fit together. If I find that a client likes sailing, or I hear that a competitor is launching a new product, or I read an op-ed that really gets me thinking, I’ll jot it down in a little notebook, organized by client or theme. I revisit that book regularly and it’s amazing how many chances I get to work these gems into a conversation or reinforce a point of view or just sound smart. It pays to pay attention.

I get bored easily.

I have spent many years in creative endeavors—the film and television industry, advertising, marketing—because I love the project-based nature of this work. The launch of a new idea, the tangled, twisting trail to the final product, the sweet, brief denouement before kicking off on the next new challenge. But I have not followed a linear career path and sometimes I’ve wondered if that’s a liability.

How it helps my writing:

Being a creative dilettante serves me well as a speechwriter. For example, thanks to my theatrical training I can offer presentation skills coaching to my clients; because I was the Presentation Technology Director at a large agency, I understand the technical elements of presenting as well as the written, vocal and physical ones. All experience can be valuable experience if you take it on with an open mind and make a commitment to incorporate it into the next step on your path.

I’m a worrier and a “what-iffer.”

I frequently focus on what other people might think and puzzle over the possible consequences of my words and actions.

How it helps my writing:

Obviously this kind of thinking can be paralyzing; but it can also be extremely helpful in anticipating audience response and objections. I can identify areas of weakness or vulnerability in a speech and pump them up before they blow up on their own.

So the next time you start to criticize yourself about a bad habit or lousy character trait, step back and see if you can’t make it work to your advantage. After all, you’re a speechwriter, right? Use your powers of persuasion to persuade yourself!

Allison Wood runs Letter Perfect, an executive communications firm.

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