Tuesday, August 13, 2013

Did you just throw your speechwriter under the bus?

Come on, admit it: Did you just throw your speechwriter under the bus?

I can tell because you dropped a few clues out loud during your remarks, presentation or formal speech. Nice, heavy, round clues, the public-speaking equivalent of a bowling ball on the speechwriter's foot. Most of the time, they sound like this:
  • "They told me I should say..."
  • "It says here that I should..."
  • "Let me just say that I haven't read these remarks ahead of time. But what they want me to say..."
  • "You know, they prepared these remarks for me, but I'm just gonna speak off the cuff..."
Speakers who use this tactic nearly always make the remarks sound off-hand and casual, but they're putting verbal space between themselves and the speechwriter, distancing from the results in case of failure. The phrasing suggests an open bid for sympathy: Surely the audience will immediately appreciate just how awful it is to have words put in your mouth. That's especially true when you say "They told me," even if the "they" is an underpaid, overworked party of one. Sounds more ominous to have a committee wagging its collective finger at you.

It's easy to blame the speechwriter in a world where we keep upholding the Etonian ideal of the effortless amateur, a myth to which we cling in public speaking more than any other area. Make it look easy, but not too smooth; smart, but not overconfident; thoughtful but unrehearsed. Everyone knows an effortless amateur wouldn't use a speechwriter. In fact, throwing the speechwriter under the bus early in your remarks lets you skip immediately to effortless amateur status, in less than a sentence. You've just announced you are going off-the-cuff, casual and without those prepared remarks that might make you look too polished.

Or, that's how the speaker thinks it's going to work. Let this speaker coach share an observation: Those under-the-bus phrases actually make you look like an amateur, and I don't mean the effortless kind. We see your discomfort, your fear of failure, and your willingness to blame someone else for it. Is that the look you were going for? I didn't think so.

Speechwriters would do well under the circumstances to remind themselves that what feels like a foot in your backside might really be a coded cry for help from the speaker. When I work with communications professionals, including speechwriters, to learn how to work more effectively with subject-matter experts, I remind them to put themselves in the shoes of the person they're pushing forward to speak, and to let the speaker retain his authenticity. Take a deep breath and start a conversation--with that speaker, with all the speakers you support, with your management--about establishing new rules around how speechwriters and speakers work together in your company, agency or organization. You can start with The No Asshole Rule: Building a Civilized Workplace and Surviving One That Isn't. The book's invaluable for making the case for a rule change, as it details the actual costs to businesses of bad behavior like this.

What would a rule change look like? In a civilized workplace, you speakers wouldn't throw your speechwriters under the bus. You'd give that speechwriter more of your time in advance of the speaking gig to talk through what you do and don't want to say, how you do and don't wish to be seen, the grace notes you'd love to pull off. You'd share your discomfort in terms of delivery or tone, so solutions can be offered. One area of discomfort might be working with a prepared text gracefully. You'd share some details that would help you connect with the audience. You'd practice out loud with the text and the speechwriter there to listen to what works and what doesn't. You'd accept feedback. You'd allow time for changes to be made and practiced again.

Yes, I know: That's more work. They are paying you to work over there, aren't they? Good speeches take work.

I'd go further still with that rule change, based on the many times I've negotiated this dance between the speaker and the speechwriter. Here's the approach I've found that works best: Make a rule that speakers in your company, government agency or nonprofit won't throw the speechwriters under the bus. Make it a factor in how speeches are evaluated for effectiveness. Then, dear speakers, go get the coaching and extra time you need to prepare so you can make those words from the wordsmith sing, instead of tossing them aside. Put the time in with the speechwriter in advance of that bus trip. You'll do better, and so will she.

If you're a speechwriter, I hope I'll see you in Brussels in September for this international speechwriters conference I'm chairing, or at my workshop Be an Expert on Working with Experts on October 8, useful for speechwriters and others dealing with this type of expert. Speakers, I hope I'll see you at my workshop on The Keys to Confident Public Speaking on October 17--that extra boost of confidence might help you stop blaming the speechwriter and feel better about public speaking. Join us and register today.

(Photo from TWM's Flickr photostream)

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