Last Friday the Professional Speechwriters Association and the Executive Communication Council held our first full-on virtual conference. In my keynote remarks, I suggested that this isn’t the most crucial time in the history of leadership communication.
Rather, it’s the first.
Exec comms, I continued, has for most organizations for all these years been a form of window dressing. Leaders were invited to high-profile events in order to say the expected things on the usual subjects: global trade, sustainability, technology. And say the expected things, they did. And if they said those things with a little extra verve, that was called “thought leadership.”
There was absolutely nothing wrong with that, in those times: Social stability through pleasing-yet-predictable language is one rarely celebrated function of rhetoric. And creating speeches like that—especially when the speeches helped the leader of an institution express some humanity—that was an honorable pursuit.
That’s over now—and for the foreseeable future.
The change began not with George Floyd or with coronavirus. It began with the Trump election and the national realization that Americans do not share a president in common. “Not my president,” so many Americans declared before Trump even took the oath of office. Suddenly corporate CEOs (and university presidents) were being asked to weigh in on subjects—LGBTQ rights, gun control, immigration—that had never been on their radar before. At the Founders Meeting of the Executive Communication Roundtable in February, folks noted that employees had begged their CEOs to say something about the death of Kobe Bryant.
People will take their leadership where they can find it, and if the president of the nation doesn’t have broad enough credibility and accountability to all Americans, then people turn to the president of the university they attend, or the CEO of the company they work for.
And then coronavirus instantly made the society emotionally and intellectually dependent on CEOs—now, not just for rhetorical comfort, but for broader economic expertise and even health guidance.
And then George Floyd made CEOs moral arbiters, and their statements nothing short of a test of how sincerely society really believed Black Lives Matter.
Remember Ferguson, six years ago? Did anyone care what the CEO of Verizon thought about that, or what he was going to do about it?
Executive communication isn’t window-dressing anymore. This is leadership communication for keeps—communication to save companies, communication to save a society.
As I said Friday morning, your job is completely different now (just as your CEO’s is). Many of the skills you’ve built over the years in order to diplomatically create interesting but polite executive communications—you master the speaker’s “voice,” you never make the same suggestion twice, you don’t push too hard and you certainly don’t insert your ideas into corporate speeches—these skills will hurt you more than help you right now.
I told the story of the speechwriter who was sweating blood over a George Floyd statement for the cautious leader of an American institution. What would this person say in this situation? the speechwriter asked. Until the speechwriter crumpled up the paper and wrote what the speechwriter would say in this situation, and sent that strong statement to the leader, who signed off on it with a couple of minor changes—recognizing, of course, that it was the thing that needed to be said.
Speechwriters have to do more than dig deep—they have to listen, they have to learn, they have to read, they have to think, and they have to grow: Not just to support the leaders they serve, but to begin to behave as leaders, themselves.
I know some exec comms pros who are doing that, and I and the Professional Speechwriters Association and the Executive Communication Council aim to help.
What is really happening here, and how might we begin?
An exec comms pro told me last week that in his virtual meetings, “I’ve seen more tears in the last two weeks than I’ve seen in the rest of my corporate career.” I’ve heard exec comms people choke up during these weeks too. What to do about it is blurry through those tears, especially when you define “it” as something as large as American racial redemption and economic reconciliation.
In fact, I find myself squinting to see this nation’s first step down that misty path.
But I can concentrate on my first steps, in the world I inhabit—the wee but potentially mighty world of executive communication—and suggestions are already presenting themselves:
• We’ll get our own house in order. To help diversify the lily-white speechwriting field, the PSA has worked with D.C.’s historically black Howard University to start a speechwriting course there, we offer Speechwriting School scholarships to Howard students, and last year we supported the first Black Speechwriters Symposium. Every year of our existence has made us more conscious about our position as a symbolic representation of this profession, and we’ve been talking for the last couple years about adding more gender, race and age diversity to the Advisory Council of the Professional Speechwriters Association. As Elvis Presley might suggest, “A little less conversation, a little more action.” And we know exactly who we want to add—to be discussed on our next Council call, this Thursday. More soon.
• We’ll watch how eloquent statements continue to match concrete corporate reform plans. General Motors’ CEO Mary Barra has promised to make the GM “the most inclusive company in the world” and declared, “It’s my responsibility as CEO of this company to make sure [diversity and inclusion] doesn’t fall off the agenda.” Through our daily newsletter, we’ll keep up, and keep our members up, on Barra and other CEOs—and nonprofit heads and university presidents—what they say, and what they do.
• We’ll advise speechwriters on how to serve their current (and largely white) principals better. For instance, I think every speechwriter should sit down with every principal to hear his or her personal race journey. Every sentient American has a whole story beginning when he or she became aware of race as an issue, and an evolution of thinking on the issue from childhood to adulthood, in relation to personal experiences and national events—with everyone’s story culminating in this very moment. Your leader’s story might not be worth sharing with the workforce, but a speechwriter ought to know it and be able to draw from it, so the boss can participate in the “difficult conversations” they frequently talk about beyond, “I’m just a privileged white person so what do I know?” And by asking the exec to articulate her or his race story, you’ll might offer a chance at self-discovery. As one of Studs Terkel’s interviewees once said to his delight, “I never knew I felt that way before.”
• We seek out and hear out the ideas of others. Last week a Professional Speechwriters Association member offered to convene a Zoom call to talk about how speechwriters can use their peculiar form of power to lend their voice to the Black Lives Matter cause, through the leaders they serve. Dunzo. Another speechwriter has approached me for help in forming an association of black speechwriters, perhaps affiliated in some way with the PSA. Yes, when can we talk? And next week I’m talking to someone who is looking for speechwriters to help artists deliver “national addresses” for these times. How can we help?
• We brainstorm ideas of our own. Here’s one: Smart CEOs are talking to their African American executives and employees about their experiences inside and outside the company. In many cases they are shocked and edified by what they are hearing; I’m hearing this directly. Why not do some proactive shocking and edifying of the whole business world, through a black speakers bureau—called “Black Leaders Matter: Speaking from Experience,” maybe—to get willing African American business leaders tell their stories and suggest reforms on the biggest conference stages, which must be willing and eager to invite them. I sure as hell know some speechwriters who could help those folks hone their message to where it’s at least as compelling as this plaintive testimony, from Arthur Page president and longtime corporate comms exec Charlene Wheeless.
Obviously the Professional Speechwriters Association and the Executive Communication Council can’t do all of the above by ourselves. And for many of these ideas, I’m personally the last person who ought to be running them. “White Guy Founds Black Speakers Bureau”? I don’t think so. That’s why I’m sharing all this with you, and that’s why I will continue to share ideas, in case you can take the lead, or in case you know someone else who can. And that’s why I want you to share ideas with me, either using the comments section below, or writing to me directly at email@example.com
Yes, America’s destination is unseeable at the moment. This profession’s, too.
When you’re driving through a thick fog, you’re afraid to keep going because you don’t know what’s out there—but you damned well better be just as afraid to stop, for fear of being run over from behind. And it should have dawned on you by now, there’s no going back.
A couple weeks ago I confessed here—and separately, in a text, to my friend and colleague Sharon McIntosh, that when it comes to really changing the race equation in America—after having thrashed around on this issue around so many midnight drinking tables in Chicago elsewhere with teachers and writers of every political stripe—”I have faith issues.”
“No you don’t,” she texted back. “You believe in love.”
Yes, I do. How about you?