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If I Ran the Circus

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In this space a couple of weeks ago, an outsider might have thought speechwriters were complaining about the unreasonable—or unreasonably numerous—demands that organizations place on them.

As a speechwriter these days, “you write, you relationship, you gap-fill, you verify,” I quoted a speechwriter as saying. “Thinking, reading, expanding, learning is done on your own time.” 

An outsider might ask, why should a speechwriter get paid to think, read, expand and learn on the job, when nobody else in the organization does?

And a speechwriter should have an answer.

How about: Because nobody else in the organization does. And somebody should. And that somebody might as well be the person who helps the leaders of the organization articulate and communicate the mind and heart of the place.

Ridiculous, in this day and age? Yes. And yet, when you hear the job description I describe, I think you might agree with me.

It’s tempting to anchor an ideal speechwriter’s job description to some moment in the past, when speechwriters smoked pipes, sat at typewriters and conjured big ideas to be delivered by captains of industry. Alas, it was never thus, as reading the collected musings of a top corporate speechwriter 30 years ago readily proves.

Life was slower and quieter in those days. Recently I was drinking with a veteran speechwriter who went back in the business to the 1980s. “Back then, you could do your job until 11 a.m.,” he recalled, “and then close your door and freelance the rest of the day.”

No, I’m not recommending a return to those sleepy days.

Quite the opposite:

The modern speechwriter who I envision is all over the place.

She knows people in every corner of the organization—people who drive ideas, people who exemplify the culture, people who know where the bodies are buried. He makes it his business to know every interesting R&D project, new-product initiative and organizational imperative in every location around the world. She reads everything written about the industry and personally knows every influencer in the industry. He is the unofficial corporate historian, always ready with a vivid quote from a founder or footage from the archives, adroitly placing the organization and the industry in the context of the sweep of current events.

This modern speechwriter who I envision is more than a speechwriter to the CEO. But not because she is haggling with the printer, wrangling with the social media agency or whipping up PowerPoint presentations at midnight for the thoughtless but demanding HR VP. No, it’s because he is helping not just members of the C-suite express themselves in speeches, but rather, every leader in the organization express themselves in every imaginable way. (And that includes the leaders who drive the trucks. Some leadership communication people are already doing this. Witness for one example TED@UPS, which animates employees at every level to express the company’s culture.)

And this person is the person you want writing speeches for the CEO. The person who is the eyes and ears of the CEO, who is doing what the CEO would do if he or she had the time to do it. Leadership communication by walking around.

Now I realize, to hire a person to do all that—or even half of that—well, you’d have to hire exactly the right person. Because it’s a much more intellectually and spiritually demanding job than the typical speechwriting role. It demands much more of the practitioner’s mind, it asks much more of the practitioner’s judgment. Not to mention the organization’s trust.

The role I’ve described above, I did not make out of whole cloth. I made it over 25 years of listening to professional speechwriters talk in hotel bars about the highest purposes of their work—the moments when they know they’re delivering real and unique value to their companies, their universities, their philanthropies and their government agencies.

I am not arguing for an immaculate speechwriting position, wholly nencumbered by real-world concerns—nor would most speechwriters I know wish for such a job. If speechwriters wanted cushy, uncomplicated jobs, they would have gone into a different line of work altogether.

And truth be told, most organizations probably don’t deserve to have an effervescent intellectual utterly devoted to the discovery, expression and constant reexamination of the organization’s soul, such as it is. Most organizations, and their leaders, aren't interesting enough.

But if I was running the communication operation at an organization that could truly benefit from richer, clearer, more thoughtful leadership communication, I’d be fighting like hell to free up somebody in my department (or to hire somebody new)—to describe the big picture, turn everyone's head toward the long view and win every heart to the deepest mission: the enduring meaning of the organization’s work, and the humanity that animates it. 

You see, I’m hardly urging communication execs to give their speechwriters easier jobs.

Just better jobs. And the chance to do much more, for the organizations they serve. —DM