Speaking out for the Silent Professsion

Five reasons speechwriters should wear an "S"

When I was the speechwriter at a large federal agency, I felt as if I had a large “S” branded on my forehead. People would see me as speechwriter and only speechwriter, not as a seasoned professional with a host of skills and years of communications experience.

But, a big S on a blue bodysuit might be appropriate for members of the silent profession. We ghosts slip into our windowless workspaces and, like Clark Kent stepping into a glass telephone booth (remember those?), transform ourselves into our alter egos – corporate executives, high-ranking government officials, politicians, and more – and deliver sound bites faster than a speeding bullet, craft metaphors more powerful than a locomotive, and develop messages to help our clients leap tall buildings in a single bound.

Well, that’s how this mild-mannered reporter views the silent profession of ghostwriting.

Like Superman in his never-ending battle for truth, justice, and the American way, there are many positive results that can come from well-written speeches – policy explained, people persuaded, politicians elected, to name just a few.

Even in today’s era of constant and immediate and telegraphic (to use a previous century’s term) communications, oratory remains a powerful means to capture hearts and minds.  Speechwriting as a career path is not going the way of telegraph operators.

And, it’s fun.

(1) You can be creative. Most writing can be creative, but the speech form allows you to really spread your wings.  There’s more to it than anaphora, triads, and rhetorical questions, among the techniques in writing for the ear. It’s choosing and developing a theme. It’s providing a fresh way at looking at an old issue. It’s weaving a taut tapestry of words and images.

(2) You get a seat at the policy table. It’s your work that helps articulate, and can even sometimes shape, the client’s thinking and the organization’s policy.

(3) To borrow from the good Dr. Seuss, “Oh, the places you’ll go.” Ghosting got me to the White House Roosevelt Room, New York City’s Fraunces Tavern for a briefing with financial analysts, and the back seat of a government vehicle for a four-block speech meeting with a cabinet secretary.

(4) … and the people you’ll meet, notably your clients who may be the smartest and most dedicated people you will ever know. That’s been my public-service experience. There are also the experts whose brains you’ll pick for research, like Admiral Cathal Flynn who graciously tutored me as I researched a post-Sept. 11, 2001, FAA speech on the evolution of aviation security and Johns Hopkins’ Susan Baker who helped me for an NTSB speech on “Vanquishing the Dragon of Alcohol-Impaired Driving.”

(5) Best yet, your work can make a difference. At my last stop before retirement I wrote for NTSB Chairman Deborah Hersman. My work helped her advocate for measures to address key safety issues, including distracted and impaired driving, which are responsible for thousands of deaths each year.

Yet, the silent profession comes with its own Kryptonite. There’s pressure to perform. You are only as good as your last speech. You often fly solo. In many organizations, there’s little backup for such a specialized skill set, not to mention specific client and organizational knowledge.

And, you need thick skin.  One client proclaimed, “This is boring” and flung a ten-page draft to the floor. (He gave it word for word two days later.) Special assistants half my age have specified sophomoric language to go in the draft. And, of course, I’ve had the experience common to everyone for whom words are their livelihood:  critiques from amateurs who think they are writers.

There’s also the awkward dance with the client until your relationship is established.  (With some clients, especially those with differing worldviews, it may never be established. Move on.)

A speechwriter’s role is to save the client time, deliver accurate material, and help him/her soar at the podium to get attention for the topic and the organization.  To do this, you must step into her shoes, climb into his brain, and even get under her skin. This personal tiptoeing can be awkward, that is, until a trusting relationship is formed.

It’s all a ballet—of words and ideas, images and issues, personalities and priorities, situations and circumstances. When it all comes together, the speechwriting craft approaches art and we silent professionals are delighted to wear an S on our foreheads or even on blue bodysuits.

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