This story originally ran on PR Daily in March, 2015.
If you work in corporate communications, in-house PR or agency-side PR, chances are you’re already something of a speechwriter.
If your normal duties include drafting quotes for CEOs in press releases, PowerPoint talking points for executives, internal company messages to all employees and remarks for keynotes/presentations, then yes, you are most definitely speechwriting.
The problem here is that writing speeches doesn’t mean you’re actually an effective speechwriter. Most of us can acknowledge that “PR-speak” is a real issue across our industry (PR-speak is just another way of saying “empty” writing and jargon). It’s hard enough to break out of it in press releases and email pitches, especially when you’re on a deadline and multiple clients are on your case. PR professionals can too easily autopilot right into over- or under-communicating, resulting in the thousands of terribly written press releases studded with banal cut-and-paste quotes from CEOs. I could die happy if I never had to see another press release quoting a CEO saying, “We’re very excited to announce….”
This same PR-speak problem can bleed into the other work you’re writing and you might never know it. When so many of your colleagues and peers are doing it, too, no one stops to pay notice and it becomes the industry standard, the deep dark secret that no one ever talks about. It’s bad writing from good people who should know better.
Good writing matters in our profession, even if clients or executives don’t think to demand it. To be a good speechwriter, you have to switch perspective and find the voice of an individual instead of a brand or company. You have to mute your personal writing style and ignore your instincts to create copy and language that will truly match with someone else’s.
Should you find yourself called upon to write for multiple executives or clients, you have to create separate voices that reflect their personal communication styles, and ensure they can never be confused or intersect. It’s not easy, and I recognize that only the really great ones ever truly master how to do this. The good news is anyone can do it.
Over my past 10 years as a speechwriter, I’ve written for lots of politicians at all levels of government, aspiring politicians, TED speakers, Corporate CEOs and even motivational speakers (yes, believe it or not, even guys like Tony Robbins need a speechwriter once in a while). Through the years, I’ve had some great mentors teach me the difference between good and bad, and show me how often I was making the same common mistakes. To effectively produce written work for these many unique voices, I invented a writing technique to better organize the different voices I'm required to channel each time.
Before we go there, I recommend to everyone that they familiarize themselves with "Monroe’s Motivated Sequence," an important technique that lays out the building blocks of speechwriting structure. Any speechwriter or communicator has to be aware of Monroe’s five steps in forming a solid speech outline.
Next, the greatest single challenge for speechwriters (other than writer’s block) is something I call Author’s Voice Transference (AVT). This is when your own voice and writing style take over the work, and you lose sight of the client’s (or company’s) voice. A careful critique of your written work should reveal that you tend to use your commas, common phrases and metaphors the same way, no matter whom you’re writing for. Stop doing that. To get past it, the first step is admitting you have a problem with AVT. From there, to move from good to great speechwriting, you’ll need a technique that can help you create and write in a voice that’s unique to each client.
The system I invented for myself is something I call Bennett’s Comic Book Characterization Method (BCBC). I love comic books so it makes things easy for me. All heroes or villains in comics have a secret identity with both superpowers and weaknesses (just like your executive leaders). Each has a true identify and a way of expressing themselves (would your client say “I am about to run out of time” or would they say “The clocks ticking, I’m gonna be late”?). You have to match those characters to the individual you’re writing for in a way that gives them a unique voice that translates to the intended audience.
Think about this when you assign a character to that voice, and make some notes about them you can refer to when you’re writing. I usually take my clients out for lunch and then drinks that evening. I like to hear how they speak in a formal lunch setting and also how they speak casually after a couple of drinks. I make note of their speaking styles, cadence, common expressions and trademark metaphors. When I finally begin to write, at first it feels uncomfortable, and the words don’t flow as quickly as my own normally do. That usually means I’m doing it right.
If understood and applied correctly, my method works. And if you don’t share my enthusiasm for comics, you can draw from your own pool of characters from soap operas, sitcoms, dramas such as “Game of Thrones,” or whatever works for you. Just remember that once you’ve assigned a character to a client, they belong together forever and shouldn’t be used for anyone else.
One client I have written for often over the years is my “Hal Jordan/Green Lantern” character. They share common personality traits at their core, and thinking of him this way allows me to easily write in his voice for just about any topic. He has no idea that I do this with him, and I don’t think he would really care, either. All he trusts is that I have the ability to write in his voice, thus assuring him that in his busy schedule, any work I produce on his behalf will be credible and authentic through the consistency of his voice, both written and spoken.
If you apply the BCBC Method to your approach, you have the framework for any kind of effective and memorable presentation, keynote or stakeholder address. Your internal communications will be better for it, as will anything you produce for external audiences.
To be a good speechwriter, you have to be able to convince the reader or audience that the message comes from that speaker or noted individual – not from you. You have to be able to get lost in how their voice would sound or how they would write something, all the while ignoring your impulses to write the way you always do.
The speechwriter's dilemma is constantly being able to write in different voices while simultaneously being able to ignore your own. Being conscious of this is the hallmark both of great speechwriters and of great communicators who write for their clients.
With that in mind, let’s all stop writing lousy releases and authoring trivial quotes for our clients. You don’t have to be tasked with writing the State of the Union address to deliver quality copy for your clients. Let’s find their voice and write something better. Something memorable that stands out authentically. Yes, AVT can be cured in our lifetime, so long as no one ever suspects it was you writing the words.
RELATED: New LinkedIn group: Get speechwriting tips and discounts, and add your voice to the conversation.
Christopher Bennett is vice president of communications and corporate relations for Guitar Center. Follow him on Twitter @PRTweets.