I was trained as a journalist, which means little, except I spent an enormous amount of money for a degree I never used. A few things however, stuck with me.
First was the importance of accuracy. Get the facts right. Not once, not a few times, every time. Professors failed work if one comma was out of place or one fact was wrong. Didn’t matter if the piece was worthy of a Pulitzer Prize, a fudged figure was like a murderer on the loose. Seek and destroy.
Whatever happened to that pride in accuracy?
Witness the reporting on the tragic events at the Boston Marathon. Shortly after the bombings, I tuned into various TV stations and followed a few Twitter feeds.
Most of what I heard and read turned out to be completely wrong. Not a little wrong, but completely wrong. CNN’s John King, for instance, mistakenly reported a suspect had been arrested. Social media spiraled out of control. Left wing, right wing—same deal.
What struck me was the lack of regret by the news organizations. Mistakes are simply accepted as the consequences of living with instant communication. The best a reader or viewer can hope for is a shrug of the shoulders and a passive “Well Wolf, it turns out that information wasn’t completely true.”
It’s the new normal. Articles are fabricated, photos are manipulated, sources are invented. Great journalists eclipsed by charlatans. It erodes the public trust (which was already shaky) when sane voices are required to help organize an avalanche of information.
What does this have to do with speechwriting?
Speechwriting is a funny profession. People often give us more credit than we deserve. Follow a Twitter tag such as #speechwriting and you’ll quickly discover how many people believe politicians are mere puppets, simply repeating what plotting, insidious speechwriters put in their mouths (if only!).
Those of us who work as speechwriters know this can sometimes be true. Some will write anything for a buck or a promotion.
I believe most speechwriters however, the ones who love and respect the profession, don’t work like this. I believe they’d agree that if we want to protect the integrity of our profession, we must resist the path of fabrication and manipulation. We must get our facts right. We must convince our clients to do the same. Most of all, we have to know when to walk away from a bad situation, regardless of financial incentive.
Easy to say, hard to do. I always hear the same argument: “if the client foots the bill, who the hell cares what I want? It’s not like I’m giving the speech.”
With all due respect, I say bullshit.
According to this logic, I should have no problem writing for a tobacco company that manipulates the number of people its product kills.
I should have no problem writing a speech for a company that knowingly dumps oil into the ocean and invents statistics to protect itself.
I should have no problem simply inventing facts if the real ones don’t fit. “We’ll get ’em next time, Wolf!”
These may seem like simple decisions (at least to me), but what about the following?
Should I write a speech for a government who fudges the budget numbers? You know, those numbers that are “right” but not right.
Should I incorporate that story for a politician who I know was embellished just a little? Or one that simply didn’t happen? What if the speech is for a charity event? To raise the spirits of a public that has been through a tragedy? When does the greater good outweigh the facts?
Tough calls. What’s “right” for one writer may not be for another; not all moral compasses are pointed in the same direction. But in an age where facts are fluid and statistics easily invented, speechwriters must at least make an effort to be vigilant with the facts in order to protect the integrity of our profession.
And yes, I do believe there is great integrity. There is great honor in what we do. Yet, there are also no codes of conduct and we’re largely self-policing (with the help of Twitter, You Tube and social media!).
At the end of the day, it’s often just ourselves and our consciences: we’ll choose what’s right for us. Yet, I think it’s also worth considering and applying what we preach in speechwriting circles: that a speech isn’t about us at all, it’s about the audience.
If audiences are to continue listening to and believing speeches—in other words, if they are to continue ensuring we remain employed—we better give them a product that is, at its very base, trustworthy.
Brent Kerrigan is the Global Speechwriter. He helps international government and business leaders who struggle to deliver high-level speeches that resonate with English-speaking audiences. He lives in Berlin.