Secrets of a Speechwriter: A Thought Processor for Thought Leaders

I have been writing speeches for more than 20 years. I have written for C-suite and other industry executives, heads of nonprofits, universities, and trade organizations. But I often say I am not really a speechwriter as much as a thought processor for thought leaders. 

The people I write for are smart professionals who have risen to the top of their fields – science and medicine, technology, engineering, public policy, and academia – through talent and hard work.  They are experts who know their subject; they just need a process and guidance to help them dig deeper and uncover the personal reflections and anecdotes that bring their subject to life.    

Perhaps it’s because I was a TV journalist for nearly two decades; pushing and prodding people for information and weaving a story are part of my professional DNA. I do not believe in going into a closet somewhere, squirreling myself away, and producing a speech. I could. But even if it was a masterful piece of writing, it would not adequately reflect the ideas, personality, and voice of the speaker.

My process is part art and part science. I always start by “interviewing” the speaker, in a relatively unstructured, stream of consciousness session. I ask about their audience, goals, challenges, and what themes and ideas they want to convey. From this, and any research I may need to conduct, I develop three key messages and a structured outline. The speaker then provides input and/or makes edits.   

The speaker’s ongoing involvement is critical. The more face-to-face meetings we have – whether in person or remote – the better. Together, we flesh out the outline into a talk that is written for the ear, not the eye. There is no “rewind” in verbal communication. The audience must be able to process the speaker’s messages with little effort. The speech must “grab” their attention from the beginning, keep them engaged throughout, and leave them thinking at the end. 

No speechwriter is an island. Usually, the speaker also has experts who can help with ideas, information, and data gaps, and their collaboration and review are indeed critical. But speeches written by committees are rarely effective. Speechwriting works best when it’s a partnership between two people -- the writer and the speaker. Like any great partnership, it requires communication and sometimes, compromise.

But ultimately, it is the speaker – not me, not their team – who gets the final say, because they are the ones who must “own” the speech, connect with the audience, and make an impact. They are the stars of this show.

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