Executive communicators: earning your pay

To be a great speechwriter, you must be a strategic thinker as well as a wordsmith.

While talking with a fellow speechwriter who had just taken over executive communication duties at a Fortune 50 company, she asked me whether I had any advice for her.

Cheeky responses flooded my brain:

  • Join Masochists Anonymous. Nothing says “I’m addicted to psychological pain” like being a speechwriter.
  • Keep your resume polished. After all, your existence is often at the mercy of one person.
  • Make sure you’re friendly with the executive recruiters. Anyone need the phone number for Korn/Ferry (http://www.kornferry.com)?
  • See if your local liquor store offers volume discounts.

On reflection—which is to say after a good glass of Shiraz—I decided that the best advice I could truly give was that, “Tactics got you the job, but strategy will keep you employed.”

Like most of us, you probably got the job of speechwriter because you’re a good speech tactician. You enjoy trying to match language with an audience’s needs. You’re good at figuring out the right cadences that will stir the soul of the most cynical member of the audience. You relish the fine art of building solid arguments that put your speaker in the realm of the unassailable. You’re a master of dropping in rhetorical devices that keep an audience awake without making your speaker sound like a pompous baboon.

Good speechwriters are valuable tacticians and are worth every dime the company spends on residual psychological counseling.

But—and this is important—the successful executive communicator must be more than a tactician. If you really want to add value, you have to think strategically. That means you have to take a more holistic view of the executive communications function and match its goals with that of the organization.

You have to do the hard work of developing your speaker from someone who’s good at delivering a speech to someone who’s regarded as a thought leader. You must promote yourself and your function from being considered a mere wordsmith to being seen as a valuable business partner.

This is easier said than done, of course, and it’s made even more difficult because many companies do not understand the value you provide and how a speechwriter truly can help an executive become regarded as an industry expert. Heck, many communicators don’t get it. They don’t understand the difference between a PR goal and a “thought leader” position. They’re often stuck in a rolling conundrum of trying to promote the company’s image without doing the hard work of establishing credibility and reputation. They’re locked into a reactive mode and mistakenly believe that the plethora of speaking invitations they receive is just as good as a proactive podium selection program.

So, yes, being a good speech tactician is important. It’s the prerequisite to sitting in the chair and earns you the right to call yourself a speechwriter. But to stay in that spot, you must deliver more than strong, well-written words. You must be strategic, too.

Fletcher Dean is director, executive speechwriting, for Dow Chemical Co.

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