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The Elephant In The Room

As I listen to the eloquent and elegant words of world leaders at commemorative events, or in making grand new policy announcements I am reminded about the twilight world that speechwriters live in. Particularly when I hear the political commentary on how these speeches defined the men or women making them. That’s ok too. But the pundits talk as if the speakers actually wrote the words themselves. As if they sat down and for hours crafted each turn of phrase, each rhythmic pattern of speech, each uplifting metaphor, and every reference to some time of history past.

Of course that is all stuff and nonsense. There is an elephant in the room of media commentary which is seldom discussed. The CNN crowd and others of their ilk know full well that presidents, prime ministers, kings and cabinet members have neither the time, nor usually the inclination, to write the ringing words that will eventually mark their place in history. Nor should they. That’s the speech writer’s job.

All of which brings me to the views of a speech writing colleague of mine about the growing tendency of speech writers to “out” themselves and their clients. He pointed to the alarming decline in loyalty to organizations and leaders. And how speech writers now want to take fulsome credit for the words they put in the mouths of their clients. To coin a cliché, I am shocked and appalled.

I have been a freelance speech writer for over a decade, with about countless speeches under my belt. My clients span the landscape of public and private sector enterprises across Canada. I guess I could be labeled a “back room boy” because I never tell anyone that I write speeches for this CEO or that politician. It’s not because I am ashamed of my trade or my words. It’s just that I believe that my clients have an implicit right to privacy. They should rest assured that I won’t run off at the mouth taking credit for the commentary they offer on the public stage.

My colleague noted another reason for loose-lipped speech writers. They can’t stand the anonymity. It goes against a writer’s nature. Fair enough. But speech writers get well paid for not having the luxury of a by-line. It’s a pretty good trade-off to the penury most would suffer if they tried to ply their trade as poets or playwrights. So we should all take a pill. If we need to feel all puffed up by the power of “our” words, consider this. As speech writers we may not make policy, but we sure shape its articulation. And for that we can take some considerable pride.

His third point was about transparency. About whether it is disingenuous or somehow deceitful to downplay our involvement in the speech writing process. It’s interesting really. If I go to a networking event and say that I am a speechwriter, the response is usually this. They say “oh really!’ This is immediately followed by “And did you write that piece of crap given by so and so?” – and here they put in the name of the politician they hate the most. I reply that even if I did, I wouldn’t tell them. And then I explain a little of the process. Of how writer and speaker sit down together to discuss motive and message. About how speech writing is a collaborative process. And that in the final analysis, no matter who crafts the words and phrases, it is the speaker who, for good or ill, must wear them.

Then there is that old standby that amateurs use to justify the indiscretion of being indiscrete. Everybody else is doing it, they say. Humbug! They risk their reputation at the altar of false adulation.

So let us bask in the surety that our words have engaged countless audiences – and in some small way helped direct the course of public or private policy. Then we can smile the smile of the Cheshire cat, secure in the knowledge that even if we are the invisible elephant in the room, we have made a difference.