Of guided missiles, and oral missives

The "terminal phase" of a guided missile often makes the difference between a strike, and a strike out. Same with a speech, says speechwriter (and Navy veteran) Andrew Barlow.

The thought of making a living penning speeches gets some writers so giddy they’ll accept any terms or conditions to keep the wheels turning. However, you won’t be doing it long if you don’t draw some hard lines, especially those around “the terminal phase.”

Engagement in the “terminal phase” is the key to success

Back in my days as a young naval officer, I learned a little about guided missile combat and a concept known as “the terminal phase.” Technically, that’s the critical sequence in a missile’s path of flight just prior to impact. According to the Johns Hopkins APL Technical Digest,

“During the terminal phase of flight, the guided missile must have a high degree of accuracy and a quick reaction capability. Moreover, near the very end of the terminal phase (often referred to as the endgame), the missile may well be required to maneuver to maximum capability in order to converge on and hit a fast-moving, evasive target.”

For speechwriters, the terminal phase is that critical 24 to 48 hour period prior to a major speech that is typically kickstarted at the moment the speaker actually looks at the text and rehearses it for the first time. While you’d like to think the typical leader spends weeks or months laboring over his or her message and its various nuances, the reality is different. The typical C-level executive runs at such a high speed that they often don’t turn their full attention on it until a day or two before the actual presentation.

While their marketing and communications teams handle the messaging, research and writing in the weeks prior, their request for review meetings are often pushed aside by more pressing demands on the leader’s time. However, once the leader is engaged, the game changes rapidly and the leader’s communication goals can become “a fast-moving, evasive target.” If the speechwriter is not plugged into the very heart of that process, things can go badly awry.

I experienced this just last year when I was hired to write a major speech for a national figure at his organization’s biggest press event of the year. Although I believe I melded well with his team as an outside consultant and offered repeatedly to be at the venue for the 48 hours prior to the speech, his team declined. They liked my final version of the remarks and felt they’d be just fine.

As the leader rehearsed the day before, new ideas and personal anecdotes leapt to his mind, but the writer (yours truly) was not there, laptop open, ready to capture them and weave them into the text. As a result, the executive stayed up the night before, editing the text and likely cursing my name as he longed for sleep.

As I watched the speech streamed live and followed along with the final version I’d sent them, it became increasingly clear that major changes had been made. My heart sank. In my view, I’d missed the mark.

As I reflected on the disconnect, I realized that the leader and his team were not to blame — as the professional speechwriter, I should have known better. So, as a result, I have changed the way I negotiate engagements and build contracts to include a stipulation that I be physically present at the venue one or two days prior to a speech. This allows me to review the remarks with the speaker and monitor the rehearsal. If they won’t consent to the arrangement, I will decline the opportunity.

While the thought of passing up business can make a speechwriter’s stress level rise, we do ourselves, our clients and our profession no favors by leaving the terminal phase to chance.

To put it in perspective, the Navy invests about $1.2 million in every Harpoon anti-ship missile they carry, so they REALLY want them to hit their targets. As a result, they demand effective terminal phase guidance. By the same token, you want your speech to have maximum impact. So, if you’re going to invest in a speechwriter, you owe it to yourself, your organization and your audience to optimize your chances for success by insisting on a quality terminal phase as well. Otherwise, it might be YOUR “ship” that ends up sunk.

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