“If you’re going to be a leader, at whatever level, you have to get out in front of your troops and speak—and do it well.” Lieutenant Colonel Edward Ledford was speaking about the US Army when he made this observation, but his observation is true of civilian organizations as well.
During his 24 years of military service (including tours in Honduras, Afghanistan, the Persian Gulf, South Korea, and Bosnia), Ledford developed a unique perspective on how leaders use language to direct, inform, and motivate their teams. This is thanks to his work as a US Army speechwriter and as an English composition instructor at the United States Military Academy at West Point.
“You don’t go into the US Army to teach English or write speeches—those aren’t jobs everybody wants,” Ledford wryly noted during a conversation with Vital Speeches. “I have an ability to imitate other people’s style of speaking and writing. My leaders would figure this out. So, even as a young officer in the Army, I was asked to handle tasks like assisting my battalion commanders with correspondence or policy letters. I’d be asked to write, for instance, remarks for change of command ceremonies.”
This put Ledford, a trained helicopter pilot, on a trajectory that would see him writing speeches for General Eric Shinseki, the 34th Chief of Staff of the US Army, and General David M. Rodriguez, former Commander of the International Security Assistance Force in Afghanistan.
One key piece of advice Ledford shared boils down to three words – know the terrain. That begins with the invitations to speak sent by external organizations to your principal.
“You need to have a system in place to evaluate those invitations. That system should include the speechwriters. Ideally, your process should involve researching the groups issuing the invitations, talking to someone who is familiar with those organizations, and then making an informed recommendation to the principal.
“You want to avoid those situations where the principal looks up from a speech 10 minutes before delivery and asks some detailed question about the audience or about a data point and the speechwriter says, ‘I don’t know.’ I want to know everything about the engagement – about every word in the speech and why it’s there.”
“Once you’ve accepted an invitation, you need to go to the organizers with in-depth questions. Why did you invite the principal? What’s the purpose of the event? What’s the layout of the venue? Who is attending? What does the audience want to learn? What are they expecting to hear? Even when your principal has spoken to a particular audience before, and you have some familiarity with that group, I still like to go through questions like these,” Ledford said.
This knowledge of the audience makes a speechwriter more useful to the principal during the drafting and editing process. “As speechwriters, we are helping speakers say what they want to say, not what we want to say. All of our efforts are intended to help set someone else up for success,” Ledford said.
“That means we have a responsibility to point out where, based on the information we’ve gathered, a speaker may want to reconsider making a particular point to a particular audience. The principal may come back and say ‘I’m going to make this point, and this is what it means. This is why I need to say it.’ And you may indeed say, ‘I get it,’ afterwards. But you’ve had a dialogue and completed your due diligence.”
Another aspect of knowing the terrain is, in Ledford’s view, recognizing the risk borne by the principal “in picking up and delivering a set of remarks prepared by someone else.”
“You may know the person who helped write the speech, and you may trust that individual – but you want to be sure you can trust the content. So, in my view, speechwriters need to take fairly complete ownership of the remarks and immerse ourselves in details and research, whatever the occasion of the speech. To me, that means some long conversations with subject matter experts.”
“It’s the iceberg principle. If you’re going to recommend an assertion in a speech, you need to understand the whole issue, the implicit two-thirds and subtle details and nuances behind the assertion, the background and technical aspects. Simply cutting and pasting some recommended talking points into a draft is a dangerous road.”
“It’s a great honor to sit down with leaders like Generals Shinseki and Rodriguez and learn about their principles, their leadership, and their values directly from them – an incredible education. People who reach this point in their careers already have clear, convincing, powerful voices, or else they wouldn’t be in these positions,” Ledford said.
“At the same time, as speechwriters, we have opportunities to help them create new turns of phrase that may become part of their canon as speakers. When that happens, it’s very fulfilling – it’s like a speechwriter’s Holy Grail. That’s the end goal of brainstorming, researching, and drafting,” Ledford concluded, “crafting a phrase that becomes indispensable to the point.”