Once, it seemed, speechwriters were quite discreet. They merely "assisted" the speaker. Lately, however, these literary mercenaries verge on celebrity. "Peggy Noonan presents Ronald Reagan." "Today, George W. Bush will be reciting the works of Mike Gerson." In the corporate world, there has been more discretion, with speechwriters remaining mostly invisible. But not anymore. Below, business speechwriter and tattletale Eugene Finerman tells the story of how the suits get to sound so smooth.
As a corporate speechwriter I am expected to be a dramatist, clairvoyant, alchemist and scapegoat. Please note that I am not a ventriloquist. On the contrary, the dummy tells me what to say.
In the best of circumstances, the writer might actually like the speaker and agree with his or her opinions. However, such compatibility is rare and irrelevant. The speechwriter is a mercenary, serving the needs and whims of the executive ego. For some speakers, we are little more than stenographers. There are a few corporate
who know exactly what they want to say. They will dictate a precise and detailed outline of their speech, and we just punctuate it.
Unfortunately, most of our speakers make us guess what they mean. The writer customarily interviews the speaker for his or her perspective on and anecdotes about a topic. Too often, the speaker offers a rambling discourse of notions and impressions. Our challenge is to sift this stream of consciousness for any tangible ideas. A momentary musing might become the basis of a speech.
For example, when interviewed on the topic of corporate ethics, one client wondered if there were a difference between ethics and morals. His train of thought did not go past that sentence, but I seized on it. I wrote a speech that recounted the historic and scientific conflict between personal morality and society's code of ethics. My client was pleased that he had been so profound.
Yet even the best clairvoyant cannot read a blank mind. Our clients often accept speaking engagements without any thought to the topic. One of my speakers, a
official, simply wanted an excuse to be in Boca Raton in February. When confronted with the requested topic, he had neither expertise nor even a clear opinion. The only way for him to be coherent was to avoid the subject. He ended up delivering 15 minutes of economic platitudes.
Speakers' ideas and grammar often are the least of our problems. We also have to indulge their vanity. Coping with the executive ego requires the skills of an alchemist. In catering to this vanity, we endow the speaker with traits and talents that nature didn't see fit to supply. We add charm and personality on demand. I can offer a few anecdotes as evidence.
Among my clients, there was a
patrician, a god among the
100. This corporate tycoon imagined that he had the common touch; in fact, he was the type who would try discussing
with his lawn service. I had to make sure that his speeches were "folksy," replete with implausible anecdotes about "washing the car." At the other extreme, I have dealt with a nouveau riche rascal, one of the buccaneer kings of the Chicago futures markets. Having attained the leadership of an exchange, the raspy brawler now wanted to sound like
. Ya know: "classy."
Bartlett's Familiar Quotations
and I lent him a flattering gravitas.
Of course, every speaker wants to be funny. As a modern speechwriter, I am amazed that
gave the Sermon on the Mount without starting off with a few golf jokes. Most speakers insist on a humorous introduction. They want to ingratiate themselves with the audience and expect that the jokes will win over the crowd. Humor can be engaging and persuasive, but a string of corny jokes is not a foolproof means of seduction.
I still wince at the memory of a banker who wanted his speech to begin with a
joke. Even if the joke were funny, it would be a baffling introduction to a financial seminar. I objected but had to comply. If he was determined to make a fool of himself, my responsibility was to ghostwrite the suicide note.
Once, however, the absurdity overwhelmed me. I had a client of inordinate dullness: yes, the Federal Reserve official. Yet, on one occasion, he was remarkably excited about a speech that he had just heard. A prominent businessman had enchanted the audience with a romantic evocation of his boyhood in North Carolina. My client wanted a speech "just like that."
Unfortunately, the reality was insurmountable. My aspiring rustic was a boychik from Bayonne, N.J. I suppose that there might be a spiritual affinity between hunting in the Blue Ridge Mountains and stealing hubcaps in Bayonne. Of course, my client could not even offer any hints of a colorful adolescence. I could not fabricate his romantic reverie, and we ended up with his usual 15 minutes of platitudes.
The speechwriter is never at a loss for masochism. We are routinely asked to do the ridiculous and then blamed for it. Yet, our profession has its compensations. We are among the most prestigious name-droppers. (I remember being ignored by a client because he had telephone calls from
.) Such high-level contacts make us the Brahmins of public relations. If we don't quite escape the stigma of our fellow flacks, at least we are the best-connected lepers in the colony.
Eugene Finerman is a satirist and speechwriter, although he often cannot distinguish between the two. (He does know which pays better.) Finerman is a frequent contributor to TheStreet.com; please tell us
what you think of his skewed insights.