Learning off the job

After spending his twenties writing speeches for President Obama, Jon Favreau is discovering what we prefer not to acknowledge directly: Most clients don’t believe in speeches.

Just back from the Ragan Speechwriters and Executive Communicators Conference in Washington, where 180 fulltime, part-time or would-be speechwriters gathered to express indignation to one another and to the leading lights in the field, about how their speakers aren’t pulling their weight.

Oh, that’s not the only reason they came. They attended sessions and led bull sessions of their own, about the need for storytelling in speeches, the desirability of injecting authentic emotion and intellect into speeches and they even called for their leaders to allow themselves to connect with audiences by being vulnerable.

But mostly, it was about their lack of access to the speaker and their speaker’s unwillingness to participate in the speech-creation process. While everybody ought to have the right once a year to cry in their beer about how dumb the bosses are, this year—22 years after attending my first Ragan speechwriting show—I feel compelled to call bullshit.

Not that I disagree for a moment with speechwriters’ lament: that the CEOs, university presidents and nonprofit directors who employ most speechwriters refuse to contribute more than a quarter of the thinking, work and time that would be required to create meaningful and memorable oral interactions with the audiences before they appear.

Speechwriters are dead right: Many leaders, as the warm, witty and earnest former President Obama chief speechwriter Jon Favreau put it here, have no inkling about what they want to say—only an idea of the flattering light in which they want the audience to regard them afterward.

President Obama thinks it is worth his time to agonize over the ideas and the words in the speeches he gives, Favreau said. So if the leader of the free world feels that way, Favreau reasoned to this receptive crowd, then leaders of lesser institutions—the people he’s working for now as he runs his own firm, Fenway Strategies—should certainly deign to collaborate with their speechwriter too.

Here, young Favs betrayed the naivete he honestly earned by spending his whole twenties writing for a politician much more like himself than like any of the Fortune 500 CEOs and other public sector clients who are flocking to him now.

Why do CEOs want to hire Favreau? Is it because they remember those great speeches President Obama delivered after losing in New Hampshire, after winning in Chicago, on his historic trip to Cairo? And because they think that the wunderkind who wrote those persuasive speeches will help them convince their constituencies that yes, they also can?

Speechwriter, please.

These folks want Favreau because Favreau is—as I introduced him in my role as conference emcee—the Jennifer Lawrence of the speechwriting business.

A corporate leader who can abide a Democratic scribe and who wants everyone to know he or she has hired the best—this leader has only one choice in a speechwriter: Jon Favreau, the one and only It Boy.

I say none of this to disparage him. As I said on a conference call from the Mayflower, I think Jon Favreau is as fine a representative of this profession as I’ve ever met. He’s humble, he’s smart, he’s sincerely committed to the ideas his rhetoric has attempted to advance—and despite his young years, he’s probably as skilled a speechwriter as anyone else in the Mayflower Hotel ballroom last week.

It’s just that this isn’t why he’s got more clients than he wants—just as your professional skills and deficiencies have little to do with why your clients leave you to invent their ideas out of whole cloth, refuse to help you put their stamp on them and then read them for the first time in the town car on the way to the event. (Imagine the opposite scenario: Bill Maher telling his writers he doesn’t have time to look at their jokes, he’s sure they’re fine, just plug ’em into the teleprompter and he’ll read them when he walks out on stage …. No, you know he’s all up in their faces all week long, rejecting this joke for being too obvious, rejecting that one for not being obvious enough, accepting this joke but honing it for half a day until his writers are ready to scream.)

It’s not that your leaders don’t believe in you. It’s that they don’t believe in speeches. Unlike politicians and comics, your leaders do not believe that words will help them achieve their goals.

Judging beliefs by actions, we must already know that our leaders believe their time and money is much better spent speaking with their lieutenants, mobilizing their lobbyists and cultivating analysts and donors to raise money to grow their organizations and thus their power.

Speeches? By and large, they see these as symbolic events where they flatter the audience by showing up … where they sound intelligent and look confident … before returning home having taken one for the team and done nothing to undermine their real power: the size, the visibility and the prestige of the organization they lead.

Ideas? Stories? Authenticity? Vulnerability? These are things that speechwriters talk about (and talked about ad infinitum at the Ragan show). Power is the only thing that most leaders know.

So the challenge we face is bigger than we think. It’s not merely to convince our bosses that a speech will be improved by spending 15 minutes with you on the front end, exchanging a few emails with you during the writing and rehearsing the speech once or twice before the audience hears it.

The challenge is to convince your leaders of something much more fundamental: that it is possible to find or to gather a group of human beings either so important or so large that telling them the truth as compellingly as possible can change the course of their organization—and their own career—for the better. (And without unduly risking the opposite result.)

Feverish speechwriter, chances are that whether you’re Joe Blow or Jon Favreau, your client doesn’t believe that right now.

How will you convince her?

I’ll be back with some ideas next week. But I’d like to read yours in the meantime. —DM

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