Speechwriter ethics

Third Chakra: EthicsHal raises questions about speechwriter ethics. Do we care who we write speeches for? Would economic necessity force a speechwriter to write content that goes against our own beliefs? These are interesting issues to consider.

  • Are there any examples of speechwriters who have resigned rather than go against their principles?
  • What prevents a speechwriter who does not believe in an issue writing compelling content? Is this any more difficult than, say, a member of The Oxford Union debating one side of the issue or another? The same rhetorical skills can be applied in support of either side of a proposition.
  • Are all speechwriting assignments created equal? Are ethical issues more common in political speeches? Does corporate speechwriting by a technocrat dodge ethical concerns? Is there such a thing as a value-free speech?
  • What of the Upton Sinclair quote It is difficult to get a man to understand something when his salary depends upon his not understanding it. Do speechwriters unconsciously cultivate an understanding of issues from the perspective of those who pay their fee and ignore the inconvenient truth?
  • I’d argue that weight of evidence points to the speechwriter as hired gun, a mercenary wordsmith creating bullet points for The Man. The best lack all conviction, the worst are full of passionate intensity. After all, the mark of a good speechwriter is to be able to write in the clients voice. That’s open season on ethical integrity right there. Each a Mighty Voice is an archive of great speeches. Speechwriters are the anonymous, unsung wordsmiths who speak softly and carry a big pen. The power of the speechwriting craft is to persuade. That presents an ethical dilemma if the client demands persuasive arguments you find objectionable.

    I don’t believe there’s such a thing as a value-free speech. Each speech has an implicit or explicit call to action, a strategic storyline that aims to persuade the audience (the techniques of which are explained in Mark Walton’s excellent book Generating Buy-In). Ethical concerns are just as real when creating content for a company’s new product announcement as they are for impassioned politicians debating life and death issues.

    Many powerful speeches are delivered from a position of iron-clad belief. Churchill and Lincoln both delivered memorable, heartfelt speeches. There was no ethical dilemma for these speakers, neither did they rely on speechwriters to craft their content.

    In my own case, I choose the sandbox I wish to play in. I’ve turned down interviews at oil companies and auto manufacturers, while aware that products of the companies I do write speeches for are used in the these industries. They’re also used by those researching Global Warming and alternative forms of energy. I’ve chosen not to be in a position of having to write a speech in support of developing the Artic National Wildlife Refuge or listing the top ten reasons why SUV’s are good for the environment. I’m also aware that I’m not being paid to include my personal beliefs in speeches I write. I write what the executive needs to say for each audience. In my own time I speak (and blog) persuasively about issues I believe in. I’m fortunate that my day job has never required I go against these beliefs.

    In summary: The craft of speechwriting has unique ethical dilemmas. All the more need for those who practice it to be well grounded and remember Polonius’s advice:

    Give every man thy ear, but few thy voice;
    Take each man’s censure, but reserve thy judgment.
    This above all: to thine ownself be true,
    And it must follow, as the night the day,
    Thou canst not then be false to any man.

    Shakespeare, Hamlet, I iii

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    Thanks for pointing me to Hal’s post, Ian. I like your take on it. (Just remember how Polonious ended up. :->)

    FWIW, here’s the comment I left on Hal’s blog:

    Like you, Hal, I need to respect the people I write for and agree with the overall goals they are striving to achieve. I’ll have differences with them on some particular issues or approaches, but provided we share similar visions, we can work together.

    (Which can seem a little presumptuous; after all, nobody elected me — as the voters in Carleton-Gloucester in 1988 and Renfrew North in 1985 made very, very clear. But I wouldn’t be doing this work if I didn’t think that I was making a difference, and helping to advance my clients’ agendas. So if there’s amoral imperative in taking responsibility for the consequences of my actions, that means working for people, organizations and causes I support.)

    Since so much of my work is political, the issue rarely arises for me; most politicians want to hire people who are aligned with their core values. And I’ve been lucky enough to find enough work that economic necessity hasn’t come up. (Knock on wood!)

    But maybe a more seductive currency than money is access to the powerful and the prominent. Whenever I’ve heard the little red-suited, pointy-eared guy on my shoulder whispering in my ear, that’s been the source of the temptation. That’s probably because it feeds so neatly into the desire to have an impact: “this guy’s powerful, I’m writing his words, so I must be making some kind of difference, right?”

    That rationalization nearly always melts away under a little harsh scrutiny, though. I’ve walked away from a few potentially very sweet gigs knowing I just couldn’t maintain any integrity if I took them on.

    And it’s not all a question of lofty principle; there’s also craft. The simple fact is that I can’t write well when, at some fundamental level, I don’t believe in what I’m saying. I can take on a grandmother’s voice, a police officer’s perspective, a musician’s persona… but I can’t tell a story that I know is wrong, and tell it well.

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