Ghostwriting for a CEO: A survival guide

There are caveats aplenty when you take on such a high-level assignment, but this veteran’s advice will help you home in on that ideal core message and send it soaring.

It’s hard enough writing in your own voice. What’s the secret to writing for the CEO (or other senior leader) of a client company? (And don’t think it won’t happen to you someday.)

At the outset, let me say this: Do not imagine that you will get to speak to that CEO at length, spend plenty of time capturing his or her voice perfectly or make the speech topic come so alive that the CEO basks in loud applause.

I wrote a commencement speech for a Fortune 350 client’s CEO and I never got to talk to him. He never gave me any clear idea of what he want ed to tell graduates of a respected university. I was on my own and, well, had to tap creative license. In some form or fashion, this is typical for ghostwriting.

Direct interaction with the CEO is extremely rare, no matter what you’re writing—speeches, bylines, or op-eds. Now that I’ve burst your bubble, let me offer some rules of thumb. They’ve proven darn helpful in penning successfully placed CEO op-eds and speeches; some have snared “Best Speech of the Year” awards.

Know the speaker’s audience. Research who will attend that keynote address or panel discussion—it pays off. Once I was told the audience for a major CEO address in Lisbon would be top executives of major European countries. I later found out the audience really would be college business students. The speech, written to that younger audience, went over well.

Determine the clear messages to deliver. I get sign-off from senior communications staff, or in rare instances the CEO herself, on three to five key messages the exec wants incorporated into the op-ed, byline, or speech. It might be like pulling teeth, but it’s essential. You save time. The CEO can’t just tell you to start over; she and her staff have cleared the messages to convey. Be insistent if you must, because it’s that important.

Determine the tone and takeaways the CEO wants conveyed. Does the executive want to make waves (and headlines), deliver a call to action, or just give a straightforward response to the subject at hand? I prefer writing material that’s provocative and will grab an audience’s attention. Deliver that message in the way you usually speak.

Find riveting examples that capture the audience’s attention. At The Wall Street Journal, where I spent 31 years, reporters often took days scouring for the very best example to use for a story. I’ll never forget a Marketplace Explainer column detailing the rise in peanut butter sales. The reporter spent a week finding a 29-year-old guy who ate peanut butter in everything (including a peanut-butter cake at his wedding). I do a lot of research to find stats and backup examples, and I often reach out to those who know the topic or the CEO.

Get personal. Use stories—about the speaker or about the audience being addressed. For two commencement speeches, I researched the graduating classes and dotted the speeches with references to specific graduates: students who had interned at the CEO’s company; graduating seniors or prominent alums who worked for the company; students on scholarships paid for by the company. The graduates perk up. As for that CEO who gave me nothing to use, I found out interesting things about his life (he had never graduated from college, and the reasons were fascinating) that I incorporated into the theme and based key messages on. It proved a winner.

Don’t forget a light approach, either in a byline or speech and sometimes even in an op-ed. Use humor. That doesn’t necessarily mean telling jokes. Often, a bit of self-deprecating humor does the trick.

End with a strong conclusion. Perhaps simply tell them what you told them. And don’t get uptight or take criticism personally. Simply deliver another draft or approach. Always dig deeper to determine what the exec truly wants to get across. Sometimes, that’s all you need to get the CEO to open up and really give you what you need.

Tim Schellhardt supports the editorial needs of Edelman’s Corporate Affairs clients. Previously he was senior vice president and director of editorial services at Ketchum, and an award-winning reporter and bureau manager at The Wall Street Journal. A version of this article originally appeared on the Edelman Southwest Blog.

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