7 Executive Communications Lessons for World-Class Speechwriters

SevenHundred Seven years ago this month, I added this Professionally Speaking blog to my Executive Communications website. Now, on New Year’s Day 2013, which happens to be my father’s 92nd Birthday — Happy Birthday Dad! — I’ve reached the milestone of 700 blog postings. This seems like a suitable moment to reflect some of the key lessons I’ve learned from my experience in providing executive communications support to my clients in Silicon Valley and around the world. You know you’ve hired a world-class speechwriter and communications consultant when they embrace these seven qualities.

1: CEOs need a confident confidant

Sitting in meetings at major Silicon Valley companies such as Sun Microsystems, Hewlett-Packard and Cisco, I’m often the only person in the room without a few thousand people reporting to them or a multi-billion dollar target to meet. This can be an incredibly useful role that a CEO will come to value. As the speechwriter, I’m the one person in the room the CEO can turn to without an agenda of my own to advance. A CEO once told me “Ian, it’s lonely at the top. I’ve seen every scam that managers can pull to cover their rear ends. I need someone like you who can tell it like it is.”

Key Lesson: Speechwriters with the confidence to speak up become the confidant and trusted adviser of a senior executive.

2: Be an impartial observer

I was once brought in to edit an Annual Report for a European client with four separate divisions. My role was to resolve the different viewpoints of each group. The VP of Communications needed an outside consultant with the independence required to be able to write a cohesive document. Executive communications professionals are in a unique position to be an impartial observer in large organizations with multiple departments and competing interests.

Key Lesson: Take the initiative and tell the truth, no matter what certain executives want to hear. But don’t take sides within a company. We need to keep lines of communication open to all parties.

3: Take complexity out

Companies are filled with subject matter experts (SMEs) in engineering, finance, marketing, and sales. A speechwriter is a jack-of-all-trades, master of none. But that’s our hidden value to a company. It’s my job to know a little bit about everything the company does, and who to talk to when I need details. But lack of detail is rarely an issue. Time and again, I’ve asked SMEs for the background information needed for five to 10 minutes of a speech only to be given enough data for a two-day seminar. My job is to absorb enormous volumes of data and take the complexity out–to find a way to communicate the message without putting the audience to sleep.

Key Lesson: Learn to simplify. Only include what is necessary to convey what is essential. As Einstein said “Everything should be made as simple as possible, but not simpler.”

4: Tell compelling stories

As others have noted, people may not remember what you did or said, but they will always remember how you made them feel. Audiences forget facts, but they remember stories. Once you get past the jargon, the corporate world is an endless source of fascinating stories. I’ve found the best source of great stories for speeches come from informal chats when you are sitting down over coffee or, as I did one memorable afternoon, sharing a beer and pizza with the CEO in Boston’s North End. We talked about our time there as students. He shared a story about the lessons he’d learned outside the Harvard classroom that I used in a future speech.

Key Lesson: Always listen for stories executives tell about their childhood, family life, hobbies, early career and more. Dig for specifics. As speech coach Patricia Fripp says: “Specificity builds credibility.”

5: Embrace multimedia

The one-hour keynote is an endangered species. Conference organizers know audiences have short attention spans. Given travel budget restrictions, many organizations are turning to virtual meetings. Executives now need to feel comfortable on camera as well as on the podium.

My three years as a communications consultant at Cisco introduced me to the exciting possibilities of TelePresence meetings. I also enjoyed access to fully-equipped TV studios to produce All Hands meetings. But it was just as exciting working with the limitations of a simple Flip camera to capture video that I edited with Windows Movie Maker. These days it’s not enough to write clever speeches, you need to keep current with the latest in multimedia technology.

Key Lesson: Digital media expands the boundaries of executive communications. Suggest it as an alternative to travel; use it to time-shift; create content that includes outdoor shots, audience testimonials and impromptu out-takes; record staff interviews; livestream events; experiment with transmedia storytelling.

6: Open up the backchannel

The audience is no longer silent. They might look like they are sitting quietly, but a raging debate on what Cliff Atkinson called The Backchannel can occur within and beyond the confines of the presentation venue.

I’m amazed at the resistance some speakers have to this. My experience curating Twitter hashtags for specific events shows that there’s a rapidly emerging opportunity to magnify the impact of a speech and increase the reach beyond the walls of the auditorium.

Key Lesson: Learn about and embrace the backchannel. Make sure your executive has a Twitter account and use it for shameless self-promotion and to stimulate a lively debate before, during and after each presentation they make.

7: Learn to ask the right questions

As a communications professional, it’s not your role to out-gun the SMEs, VPs and assorted executives in the C-Suite when it comes to content. Our role is to ask what headline the CEO wants the speech to produce, to find out the audience’s hot buttons, and to uncover the unique point of view the speaker brings to the issue.

If there’s one lesson I’ve taken away from the work I’ve done for clients, it’s to always be ready to ask “Why is that?” when they suggest points they want to make in a speech. When they give an answer, have the courage to ask the same question again. It’s often only after they answer for the third time that the core of the speech is revealed.

Key Lesson: Don’t hurry to get to a final draft. Be professional and respect deadlines, but keep asking questions until you reach an answer that will make the audience sit up and take notice.

What executive communications lessons have YOU learned? Share them by leaving a comment below.

11 Comments so far
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Very well done Ian, congrats on the 700! I have always found that you “play like you practice so one time out loud is worth 10 times in your head” Happy New Year!

My major lesson is to be sure to first sell the problem (or opportunity or situation). Too often, too soon presenters jump to solutions and actions. The audience is typically not at the same level of understanding of the problem.

Thanks George, Happy New Year to you too!

700 is impressive, Ian. Congratulations! I agree with your key lessons especially “learning to simplify” and “telling stories.” Those are challenging for tech execs and they need the support of people like you. Happy New Year and happy birthday to your dad!

Thanks Angela. Your speech coaching work is also invaluable for anyone wanting to communicate with passion and purpose. Best wishes.

Congratulations on reaching 700 blog posts.

Thank you, Ian. As a speechwriter, I enjoyed reading these communication tips and will look for ways to apply them.

Excellent post, thank you. In my experience, getting the Exec to decide the essence of what they want to convey can be hard – especially if they are new to having a speechwriter or coach. Busy, capable, highly effective people just freeze up at the briefing meeting. So your technique of asking ‘why is that?’ is one important way of helping ‘locate’ the story they want to tell. More here.

Claire: Great clarification on what it means to have an executive tell a “story”. Getting them to do so can often be like pulling teeth. As you note, busy & capable people freeze up. Loved the pointer to the five basic stories in Western Culture your blog posting mentions. This list is expanded to seven in Christopher Booker’s extensive review of The Seven Basic Plots.

As a corporate ghostwriter myself, I found your article right on the button, especially when you say – “Always listen for stories executives tell about their childhood, family life, hobbies, early career and more.” The key to writing a page-turning business book is to turn the technical into the personal whenever relevant and appropriate.

Thanks Jonathan, I totally agree. Personal stories are the real gems of business communications.

What an excellent post! Thank you! I am a firm believer that everyone has a story, and storytelling is probably the most compelling well to get one’s point across. I rely on anecdotes to personalize whatever type of speech I’m writing.

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