The Speechwriter’s Life: Harrison B. Kinney

At IBM in the '60s, '70s and '80s, executives cared deeply about "making that great speech and hearing afterwards that it was a great success."

The year is 1960, and the place is New York City’s Lobster Restaurant on West 45th Street. Two freelance writers are talking shop over a meal. One mentions to the other that he has had luck selling the occasional speech to executives at IBM. This fact is of great interest to the other writer at the table. With a third daughter on the way, he needs to make additional money to support his growing family. He takes a chance, applies to IBM, gets an interview – and is hired as a speechwriter.

So began an association between IBM and Harrison Kinney that lasted for almost three decades, until he left the company in 1986 to focus once again on freelance writing projects.

In a recent conversation with Vital Speeches, Kinney recalled some highlights of his time at IBM. “I think what got me in was that I had earlier volunteered to write a speech for Jack Kennedy, when he was serving as a Senator. The subject was the Algerian revolution.” While the Senator did not in the end use Kinney’s draft, “I mentioned the fact I had written for Kennedy in my IBM job application,” Kinney said.

Once hired, Kinney’s main initial strength as an IBM speechwriter was a “conversational writing style” honed through reporting and editing experience at The New Yorker and McCall’s.  Important influences on Kinney’s style include humorists P.G. Wodehouse and James Thurber. (Kinney has written two books on Thurber – a compilation of his correspondence and a biography.)

At IBM, getting the information you needed to produce a draft speech was straightforward – “all you had to do was explain that you were working on a speech for a boss, and everyone was very cooperative,” Kinney said. “I certainly had to know my business – I did a lot of research and talked with many people.”

Finalizing speeches for the top leaders, on the other hand, could be an onerous process. “These executives were demanding. For them, everything was about making that great speech and hearing afterwards that it was a great success. They would never quite be satisfied, and would be making changes right up to the final hour,” Kinney said.

Kinney shared an example from T. Vincent Learson’s reign as IBM Chairman and CEO. Learson was set to deliver a speech to an audience in California. “Learson was a tough guy to write for. We had agreed on a draft, and I had it typed up. He assured me that it was the right speech for the occasion and that I did not have to go to California [to make further edits].”

Kinney continued: “It was a Sunday afternoon. We lived in Croton-on-Hudson, and Learson was at the Westchester County Airport, waiting for a reserved company plane to fly him to California. I thought I would drive my family to see the airport and deliver the speech to him.”

“But after arriving at the airport, Learson ended up having a lot of changes to the speech, and so he demanded that I get on the plane to work on them. So I flew to California, leaving my family back in Westchester. We worked on the speech all the way over on the flight, and then in the hotel, too, for half the night,” Kinney said.

“I called home that night and one of my children picked up. I asked to speak to my wife, and the answer came back that she did not want to come to the phone – which I could understand. My family had no idea why I would leave them all there at the airport.”


Not long after Kinney joined IBM, he became familiar with gatherings of something called the “One Hundred Percent Club.” As Kinney explained, these meetings brought together “IBM salespeople stationed around the world who had met their sales quota [i.e., 100 percent]. Their sales success was used as an example to the rest of the sales force.”

“The executives I wrote for wanted to make encouraging and memorable speeches to these prized sales people, and regarded the occasion as very important.  The executive speakers’ remarks were reprinted in the company’s publication. With experience, I soon discovered that they liked to lead off with a joke or two, and they put great credence on how the audience received the jokes. I started a joke file, and I kept it under lock and key because it was in demand – various vice-presidents would send their assistants to me, asking for jokes,” Kinney recalled.

“I usually went with the executives to these sales meetings, and I sat at the back to see how the speeches went over. They always wanted to know how their speeches were received, and I wanted to be able to honestly say how the speeches worked out. So we saw them through to the end. It was a big a relief for me when the speeches were over,” Kinney said.

Kinney shared an example of the humor that succeeded at the One Hundred Percent Club meetings, with the punch line drawn from the old cowboy song Home on the Range:

A herd of buffalo is stampeding across the prairie, when the lead buffalo suddenly comes to a stop. There’s a great pile-up of buffalo. One gets up and comes to the front of the herd and asks the lead buffalo, ‘why did you stop?’ The lead buffalo says: “Because I thought I heard a discouraging word.”

The speaker “used this joke to go on to say that with this group of sales winners, there was no danger of such a pile up” at IBM, Kinney explained.

Note: For other examples of speeches delivered at meetings of IBM’s One Hundred Percent Club, readers are invited to consult Peter Greulich’s book The World’s Greatest Salesman or visit Greulich’s blog.  A paper by retired IBM’er John Sailors provides some additional context on meetings of the club. IBM itself maintains a lively online history section that may also be of interest. 

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