If leadership is a conversation, speechwriters are the spark

These days, leadership communication isn’t command-and-control, but rather an ongoing conversation between execs and employees. So sez a Harvard Business Review article reviewed at vsotd.com by freelance speechwriter Cynthia Starks.

Almost 20 years ago, I was the founding editor of a magazine called the Journal of Employee Communication Management. It thrived for a few years and went bust after a decade, largely because all we ever did was run different versions of that Harvard Business Review article about how leadership communication is becoming less of a lecture and more of a conversation.

So while I don’t disagree with the HBR piece, I can’t say I’m bowled over by its insights. Neither am I convinced by Starks’ argument that speechwriters have an important role to play in encouraging management to be more “intimate” with employees, by creating opportunities for interactivity, by helping employees themselves generate communication “content” of their own. Though all those are worthy goals and could certainly fit under a broad umbrella of modern executive communications, I think it’s important that speechwriters continue to be speechwriters—the people who help leaders form the ideas and then the words that give form and purpose and inspiration to all their conversations:

Finally, the fourth way that speechwriters can steer their executives along the path of leadership by conversation is what the authors call “Intentionality, or pursuing an agenda.” This means we help our executives give order and meaning to the conversations they are having—with employees, with industry peers, with all of their constituent audiences. And that order and meaning boils down to this: “a shared agenda that aligns with the company’s strategic objectives.”

This differs from the first three points in this way, suggest the authors: “While intimacy, interactivity and inclusion all serve to open up the flow of information and ideas within a company, intentionality brings a measure of closure to the process. It enables leaders and employees to derive strategically relevant action from the push and pull of discussion and debate. As the authors state, “In this new model, leaders speak extensively and explicitly with employees about the vision and logic that underlie executive decision making. As a result, people at every level gain a big-picture view of where the company stands within its competitive environment. In short, they become conversant in matters of organizational strategy.”

But that—gathering and articulating leadership’s vision and the logic of its strategy—well, that’s what speechwriters have been doing all along. And it’s why—no matter how dictatorial or conversational leadership is—the speechwriter will always have an essential role.

Let’s not waste speechwriters’ talents or take up their time by forcing them to facilitate encounter groups. —DM

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