The most solitary job in corporate America is not the position of CEO. It’s the position of the CEO’s speechwriter. It can be the loneliest job as well.
I spent about two thirds of my career in speechwriting. Forty years ago, no one aspired to be a corporate speechwriter. You would find people who wanted to be presidential or political speechwriters, but most people who ended up in corporate speechwriting did so by accident. In my own case, I was 25 years old and assigned to a huge issue threatening to disrupt the company. The executive in charge of marketing needed a speech on the topic. The regular speechwriters are unavailable, so I was asked to do it. My strength was, in this case, knowing the subject matter. I had written speeches for myself; I had taken a course in American speeches in college. But I hadn’t written for someone else.
The speech went well. After the speech, the executive said, “I thought the audience was going to be jumping up and down on the tables. They told me that no one had explained how an issue in Washington, D.C. affected them and their businesses before, at least in language that made sense.” From that point on, he wanted no one else to write his speeches. I was moved to the corporate speechwriting group.
Later, I was hired by another company to do general PR work, not speeches. But the VP for my division was unexpectedly put on the speaking circuit by the CEO. No one else in our group had experience in speechwriting. My career was becoming known as “speechwriter by accident;” it wasn’t long before I was moved to the corporate speechwriting group. The same circumstances repeated themselves for my next two jobs, until I was put in charge of corporate speechwriting.
Most communications people don’t like speechwriting, and it’s no surprise. Someone else always gets the credit for your work, unless it goes badly; then it’s your fault. You often find yourself dealing with temperamental CEOs and occasionally being yelled at. The hard work of writing a speech never happens in teams. What happens in teams is various vested interests wanting control or wanting to insert a favored program or idea. You don’t win popularity contests by refusing to cite someone’s pet project. It takes a long time, but eventually, if you’re good at what you do, people come to respect and rely on your judgment. Usually.
A speech is unlike any other kind of communication. It’s created on paper or on a screen, to be read or referred to, for people to hear it and understand it. You write for the eye to be read by the voice to be heard by the ear. It’s tricky.
I attended a number of speechwriting seminars and workshops, but nothing helped me like reading and reciting poetry. The best speeches have a quality of poetry about them – the rhythm, the cadence, the pace, the ideas coming at you in orderly but unusual ways. I relied heavily on three modernist poets – T.S. Eliot, Wallace Stevens, and Dylan Thomas. They were my guides and mentors. When I had trouble with writing, I turned to Four Quartets or “Thirteen Ways of Looking at a Blackbird” or “Do Not Go Gentle Into That Good Night.”
I started writing key sections of speeches – the critical emotional parts – by hand, and often in free verse form. The best-known speech I ever wrote was first written almost entirely in free verse form. It helped make the executive famous and turned an industry on its head. Seven years after it was first given, four years after the executive had retired, requests for copies of the speech were still being received by the company. That’s unheard of in most speechwriting circles, including political; it remains unique in corporate circles.
And it was poetry that infused that work.
From Poetry at Work: “Speechwriting is a solitary profession, devoted largely to reading, writing, search, and study. It may be the closest thing we have today to the monastic life outside the monastery, except that at critical stages, the whole world seems to step in. Speechwriting requires ongoing interaction with executives, content experts, librarians, academics, PR people, attorneys, outside consultants, and even other speechwriters. To do it well, the speechwriter must manage all of those people and not let them get in the way of what the executive has to say.”
This article was prepared for the Literary Life Book of the Month discussion group on Facebook.
Top photograph by Alem Omerovic via Unsplash. Used with permission.