How speechwriters can humanize execs—and help deliver key messages

Joanne Callahan, speechwriter and corporate communicator with Con Edison in New York, shares tips on finding the story and honing a message to fit your audience.

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For any speech, the hardest part is often knowing where to start.

What is the key message you want to convey? What does this specific audience want to hear, and what is the natural cadence of the speaker you are writing for?

Joanne Callahan, a speechwriter with Con Edison in New York City, shares how she starts her writing process for any set of remarks: a spec sheet. It’s a tip she says she learned attending Ragan’s Speechwriters Conference in Washington D.C. a decade ago, and now she is sharing her own wisdom ahead of her presentation for Ragan’s Speechwriters and Public Affairs Virtual Conference March 4.

Callahan says that her spec sheet—the document that guides her early work on a speech—has a few key questions that must be answered, essentially distilling the “who, what, when, where and why.”

“The first thing is: ‘Who’s the speaker?’” Callahan says, “and then I’ll find out everything I know about that speaker, whether it’s the CEO or the president.” You can also ask around or dig online to get some personal information about your speaker if you don’t have a chance to sit down with the presenter before the event.

Next is the objective of the speech. “It could be just to inform,” says Callahan, or “it could be to persuade the audience of a certain point of view.” She breaks down the structure into big ideas or a main idea and subtopics that help support your overall message. “What’s the call to action?” she asks, “What do we want the audience either to do or to feel, or what do we want the audience to come away with?”

That leads to an important question for any communicator: Who is the audience? Callahan says you must consider if there are any VIPs, individuals or organizations being represented who should be acknowledged. “Does the executive have a personal connection with anyone in the audience or with any organization that’s represented in the audience or at the venue?”

Don’t forget to consider how long the speech should be, which could be dictated by a number of things. Who is speaking before you or after you? Is your audience seated or standing around at cocktail tables? A standing-room audience only won’t appreciate a recitation the length of “Moby Dick.”

Finding the story

All great speeches tell a story and have a narrative—but where does a speechwriter go to find that essential thread that will keep an audience spellbound? This is particularly tricky when, as is the case for Callahan, a speechwriter rarely gets a one-on-one with an executive ahead of writing the speech.

Callahan says she often gets information from people adjacent to the speaker. “For example, for the CEO, I will hear from our senior VP about what we’re looking for—and it’s usually because the senior VP is advising the CEO on our corporate PR objectives.” But, if you follow your specs, you can trace your way to the heart of the story, Callahan says.

In today’s corporate landscape, that means leaning heavily on your organization’s purpose. “The real story always for Con Edison is how we’re helping our customers,” says Callahan. “Our customers, for us, are always the story.”

Overcoming a lack of facetime

Callahan also has a few tricks for when you can’t get a one-on-one with your principal ahead of writing your speech.

“I will watch videos of the person that might be available, recent videos, recent podcast appearances, read recent interviews with that person,” Callahan says. She also relies on previous interactions with them from another setting, including “how they come across and how they express themselves.”

She also gets feedback from colleagues. “I will ask around, ask people who know the person about some personal details,” she says, giving the example of how the new president of Con Edison for New York is a Red Sox fan, which in the city of New York is a bold choice. She says that these personal tidbits are essential for developing the authentic voice of the speaker, even if you think at first that the information might not be relevant, like how many kids they have or where they go on vacation.

“It’s kind of like reporting a story,” she says. “You want to get all the details possible, and you won’t even use half of them, but it’s good for you to know them in order to help you write your story.”

Being inclusive

For speechwriters today, inclusive language must be a priority to avoid alienating increasingly diverse  audiences. For Callahan, it’s the simple exercise of trying to put yourself in your audience’s shoes that can be the most powerful.

“We try to find ways to connect the messages that we’re saying to the different interests of the people in the audience and the organizations represented in the audience,” she says. “Diversity and inclusion is a big part of everything that we do.”

The ability to empathize and see the world from other people’s perspective has been crucial during the COVID-19 crisis, Callahan says.

“It’s been such a difficult time on almost every level, on almost every aspect of being a human being,” she says. “People are under enormous stress and in all kinds of ways, and people are looking to see compassion and humanity and leadership from their companies and their employers.”

She emphasizes compassion as the secret ingredient for communication in 2021. “It helps us to be able to engage with employees if we’re speaking to them in a compassionate, human way.”

Learn more messaging tips and speechcraft secrets from Callahan and many other comms leaders at our upcoming Speechwriters and Public Affairs Virtual Conference March 4.

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