I stopped pitying speechwriters when I realized they were liars

In the foreword to 10 Steps to Writing a Vital Speech, Fletcher Dean’s nutricious and delicious new book—the official launch is in January, but advance copies are available at our website—I remember what it was like when I first meet speechwriters 20 years ago.

Speechwriters were usually the most erudite people in the communication department—and often in the whole company. I remember one who had a photographic memory, able to quote long passages of literature from memory; another launched a freelance speechwriting practice with the prize money from winning on Jeopardy! To these pre-Internet characters, quotation books were a crutch for lesser-read souls. They were also the most entertaining people in the communications business. I also hung around people who specialized in PR and employee communications, and none of them were as witty as the speechwriters. A cocktail party at a Speechwriter’s Conference had the feeling of an evening at the Algonquin Roundtable.

The only interruption in speechwriters’ quirky delightfulness, actually, was they were saying preposterous things. Like, “I don’t need a byline.” And a separate and even more pitiable claim: “I have no authorial pride.” Which meant that they didn’t care about what they thought, they didn’t even care about the words they wrote. As long as the speech pleased the boss, their professional obligation was complete. And their personal satisfaction? That was irrelevant, so they claimed, even to them.

And so I, a young and ambitious writer whose byline was the happiest sight in the world and whose own ideas were just beginning to form into what I was sure would become a great, impenetrable yet inviting fortress of intellect and culture, felt sorry for the speechwriter.

It took a while—and a number of my own years writing lots of non-bylined stuff for trade newsletters and not for The New Yorker—for me to realize that speechwriters were lying.

As my first boss used to say at the end of an dangerous memo … let’s discuss. —DM

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