Speechwriter: It’s you I like
March 14, 2018
In which PSA chief David Murray realizes speechwriters aren't just agreeable customers—they're the only conceivable customers.
It's almost exactly two years since I bought Vital Speeches of the Day and the Professional Speechwriters Association from the publisher that owned them. What a mistake!
As I described it at that time, I felt like a bird swallowing a bowling ball. And two years later, life at Pro Rhetoric, LLC is much more comprehensively absorbing, shall we say, than was life at Murray's Freelance Writing. Luckily, COO Benjamine Knight and the smart and cheerful and honest and sane people that she and I have found to work with us make this two-year-old operation feel like a start-up only in the best ways. Here's how you run a good business, as far as I can tell: Pay people who are so good that you can take them for granted—and then make damned sure you never take them for granted.
But you know who I have taken for granted, not just for these two years but for the 25 I've been acquainted with them? Professional speechwriters, who I covered for many years as a trade journalist, then convened for more years as a conference organizer, and who I now make it my mission to nurture as best I can in every way I can, as executive director of the Professional Speechwriters Association.
I've always liked speechwriters, and found their work interesting. But I think it has only recently occurred to me that speechwriters might just be the only conceivable cohort of customers for a guy like me, who doesn't suffer fools gladly, who doesn't believe the customer is always right, and who hopes he never to has to trade his intellectual integrity for his income.
How do I love speechwriters? On the same happy day that we open registration for the 5th Annual PSA World Conference (Oct. 22-24 at Georgetown), let me count the crazy combination of ways:
• Speechwriters are improvisers and strugglers. The only people I truly can't deal with professionally (or personally) are those who make me feel like some kind of unfortunate mutt—because they came straight off the Mayflower, or because their life played out exactly as planned. No speechwriter ever made me feel that way—because no speechwriter ever felt that way. "Everything is perfect!" said no speechwriter, ever—or not for long, anyway.
• Speechwriters know humiliation. Children are meaner to each other than adults because adults have known shame. It wasn't until just recently that I understood why I have this preternatural calm as I step up to the microphone to kick off a speechwriting event: It's because I know from experience that speechwriters are the most knowledgeable and sympathetic (and helpful) people in the world when it comes to public speaking snafus. A speechwriter would no more laugh or even smirk at a speaker's technical struggles than she would point and laugh at your sagging zipper.
• Speechwriters are intellectuals. So that if a speechwriter repeats some cant about the importance of group exercises at our conferences, I am not afraid to write a bracing retort in which I conclude that "I will be goddamned if I'm going to tyrannize my speakers into making sure every conference session has a 'hands-on' component." The speechwriter may not agree with me, but if I have argued well, we will proceed together, with respect.
• Speechwriters are intellectuals (II). And if I write a damning critique of a speech or another piece of leadership communication, my customers—because they are intellectuals—do not mincingly insist that I leaven my negativity with something "constructive." I sense that there's a lot of stupid stuff that speechwriters don't say that almost all other customers say. Thanks for not saying it.
• Speechwriters are well read and rarely pedantic. Not only do they not say "gotcha" when they catch me in the inevitable contradictions I've made while writing and speaking on communication over a quarter century, they actually know that it was Emerson who said, “a foolish consistency is the hobgoblin of little minds."
• Speechwriters are not bossy. Speechwriters hate bossy people, who are constantly telling them how to write their speeches. Thus, they are not particularly inclined to tell me how to run my business. And they are ever so polite when they do make a suggestion. "I know you're terribly busy, and I'm sure you've already thought of this, or maybe it's already in the works, in which case please don't give it another thought …." I'd say such politeness is unnecessary—except I absolutely appreciate it, because I've led other gangs of people who did not understand how it feels to get suggestions from every direction at once. Thanks, speechwriters.
• Speechwriters have a sense of humor. They must, because absurdity is built into their job, which a sardonic speechwriter once succinctly described as, "Write down my ideas as if I had them." Speechwriters arrive at professional conferences eager to learn, yes—looking for useful connections, yes—but more than almost any other kind of professional I know of, they arrive ready to explodewith laughter. I can't tell you how much fun that is. And if you're a speechwriter, I don't have to.
• Speechwriters are grateful. At the conclusion of every PSA World Conference, it takes more than an hour for me to get to the tavern. How could that possibly be? Because there is a line of speechwriters wanting to simply and sincerely thank me for convening them at the conference, and in the Professional Speechwriters Association. Most modern customers settle for services that swindle them politely—and most companies settle for cynical customers. To be thanked in this way—it never fails to touch me. (And you know who's waiting in that tavern, don't you? More speechwriters!)
Well, my friends, I'm grateful too. —DM