Speechwriters: Foxes or Hedgehogs?

“A fox knows many things, but a hedgehog one important thing”
— Archilochus

I recently had a situation where a potential client in the technology industry preferred to hire a speechwriter with deep domain knowledge rather than go with someone with general writing skills. This is, in some ways, choosing the “hedgehog” who is a focused subject matter expert over the “fox” who draws on a wide variety of experiences.

In my past experience a writer can often rely on the speaker and their staff to provide the expertise (while helping with the research by interviewing relevant SMEs). In my work with over a dozen senior leaders in Silicon Valley I translated their jargon into compelling stories and concepts the audience could grasp. That, and keeping a weather eye out for the countless assumptions that experts inevitably make (from concepts to acronyms).

Indeed, Robert Lehrman author of The Political Speechwriters Companion, advises the use of the Flesch-Kincaid reading level assessment, given that the average American audience has a 7th-Grade reading level and anything more complex risks losing some part of the audience (which might explain why we have the current US President not his main challenger in the White House). Even an audience of PhD’s at the end of a long day might not be able to follow complexity delivered at a rapid clip from the podium with the same ease as they would if the ideas were on the page (where we can re-read difficult passages).

What do speechwriters say?

I polled speechwriters on LinkedIn to ask which they think is preferable: writing experience or domain knowledge? Should a client measure the level of subject expertise or the degree of writing skill? Can they have both? What are the advantages and disadvantages of each set of skills in crafting a speech? In their opinion, which is preferable?

The topic generated considerable debate with a range of opinion and anecdotes from some very experienced writers. Here’s what they had to say:

Deep domain knowledge is good for audience/reception analysis and staying safe yet bad for truly innovative communication due to group think.

Rune Kier Nielsen, Strategic Communicator, Award Winning Speechwriter and Dedicated Storyteller.

I think it’s a mistake to prioritize domain expertise above storytelling excellence. A great speechwriter can deliver an amazing story about any topic. A domain expertise litmus test says more about the client than it does about the complexity of the material that will be communicated.

Mary Smaragdis, Senior Director at LiveSafe. Past: Senior Director, Corporate Storytelling, Yahoo!

I have never had a client or prospective client want deep knowledge about content and I have had hundreds of clients. It would be incredibly stupid of them. I have had a few clients who were stupid but not that stupid.

In politics people used to hire people to write speeches, telling them they could “learn on the job.” I don’t want some MD learning by operating on my knees. And the people I have worked for and with have always been more interested in how well I write speeches than by how much I knew about the subject — even complicated subjects.

Robert Lehrman, Speechwriter. Author The Political Speechwriters Companion.

To me, it all depends on the audience. If it’s a general audience with little knowledge of the domain, it seems to me the potential client would be better served by a speechwriter with only general knowledge. But if it’s an audience full of experts, having only general knowledge could be a real disaster.

Aaron Hoover, Executive Speechwriter, University of Florida.

Ian, good question. I agree with Aaron Hoover that it depends on the audience. Overall – for the scenario you describe (a long term hire), I’d prefer a really sharp generalist speechwriter who knows how to synthesize complex information, craft a narrative, capture the speaker’s voice and move an audience. You can find out what you don’t know pretty quickly, especially when you’re asking on behalf of the CEO. One exception would be a one-off speech or tight deadline situation, where there is just not enough time to ascend the learning curve.

Pete Weissman, Speechwriting, Strategy, Thought Leadership.

In my decades of speech writing — and other games grown-ups play– I’ll have to vote with GREAT WRITERS over domain knowledge. Masterful writers daily dive into new material–and deliver. It’s the gig. Yet serious writing chops take years to hone. Most of our dear and/or maddening clients will vote for DOMAIN KNOWLEDGE (to Ian’s question). God bless ’em, but what do they know? What do they really know about the art & chutzpah of putting words in people’s mouths? Terrific writers can walk in cold, ID the hot spots, gather great quotes and prep their exec. to rally the troops.

Marianne Fleischer, Corp. Communications strategist and senior creative all media. CEO speechwriter, Presentations coach & workshop leader.

In my experience, deep knowledge of the audience is far more important. A writer who is an intelligent layman can often help a technically minded speaker reach — and move — a wider audience.

Howard Tomb, Communications advisor and speech writer to the chairmen, CEOs and other senior executives of leading public companies.

In the main, a “speechwriter with a deep domain knowledge” is a pretty rare fish. Typically he or she is an expert first and a writer incidentally, and not a speechwriter in particular. I think Pete Weissman has it right: the best choice is a sharp and proven generalist speechwriter who is a quick study, which, to me, is the definition of a first-rank speechwriter.

The problem with an expert-who’s-also-a-writer is that a strong writer overall is rarely familiar with the unique requirements of aural presentation. A well-composed essay is not a speech. The essayist need only be clear, but the primary task of the speechwriter is to keep listeners engaged despite their own distraction. This the most important part of speechwriting, and the ability to do it is not a function of one’s knowledge of the topic at hand.

Mike Long, Writer, speechwriter, & educator with
extensive experience in business, government, non-profits, and policy.

The obvious solution is teamwork between the subject matter expert (SME) and the speechwriter. I very much agree with Michael Long that even a SME who is a good writer might lack the expertise of the generalist speechwriter who is expert in connecting the dots for audiences, no matter how complex the material.

Amélie Crosson, Director of Outreach and Strategic Engagement at Office of the Government Representative in the Senate, Ottawa, Canada.

I quite agree with Amelie. The ideal is access to SME’s. By example, I work closely with a solar developer and frequently interview their analysts to make certain that I am correctly understanding and translating material. When I have subject experience – and I do in a half-dozen spaces – I enumerate. When I don’t – I _sell my ignorance_ as Charles Eames** did. That is, I am coming to the project with a passion to grok the material and make it accessible – never dumb – to a particular audience. Experience is key. Sub-specialization is not; but accessing it is important.

** “Sell your expertise and you have a limited repertoire. Sell your ignorance and you have an unlimited repertoire.”
—- Richard Saul Wurman on Charles Eames

Jerry Weinstein, freelance speechwriter. past: Speechwriter to Chairman & Publisher, The New York Times.

There’s something called the Curse of Knowledge. The more you know, the harder it is to explain. But, with all communications, it’s a balance. If you don’t understand the subject properly, you can make rookie errors – embarrassing yourself and the client.

Mike Sergeant, Communications adviser to CEOs and business leaders. Past: Financial Correspondent, BBC News.

There are huge advantages of being a speech writer working across domains. For instance I was working with a financial services regulator last week who was speaking about the importance of company culture in financial services firms. I was able to pull on my experience the day before with a yoghurt manufacturer to give him a metaphor about how different cultures will give different end results and how each culture needs the right environment to flourish.

Benjamin Ball, Investor presentation advisor.

The short answer is “it depends.” Depends on the audience, the expectations of the speaker’s role and so on. If this is a dinner speech in front of 500 people, go with the gifted wordsmith. If the speaking venue is a scientific conference with 500 drug researchers, however, the writer with domain knowledge would be the appropriate choice.

Peter Ramjug, Executive Communications, Boston. Past: Senior Speechwriter, U.S. Department of Transportation.

It helps to have some domain experience, but I wouldn’t expect a speechwriter to have deep technology expertise. If a marketing backgrounder with some key industry links (or internal company info) is given, then the speechwriter can delve into the available content. I worked with an external agency to produce a script and creative content. The writer listened and read the brief with the available content. He also went one step further and did some other research online. So he was able to use his writing expertise with the domain resources to create a compelling story and message. Far too often the subject matter experts are too close to the product/service to develop the stories; that’s why we rely on expert story tellers!

Jeanne Hsu, C-Suite presentations.

Seems to me it depends very highly on what sort of speech or speeches your speaker delivers. If heavy insider industry thought leadership, it helps to have a speechwriter who either knows the industry or cares to learn it really thoroughly really quickly. But if the speech or speeches are (as I’d argue they much more often should be) about human aspects of the industry, then you want a great writer and thinker first.

David Murray, Executive Director at Professional Speechwriters Association.

In my experience, the best combination is a strong writer (an expert communicator and a quick study) and a subject matter expert – if it’s a general audience. If the audience is made up of PhDs, then a writer with deep domain knowledge makes sense – if you can find one.

Don Heymann, Independent speechwriter.

I think there are no easy answers. To me, the best qualification has to do with a speechwriter who can “get into the head and capture the voice” of their client. If they are an SME all the better, but if they aren’t, as a speechwriter, they understand how to do research. The generalist can mine the needed information with some work. As speechwriters, we understand how and where to find that information to prove the point or bolster an argument. I believe a generalist that has a deep understanding of their client and the audience, can take their vast knowledge, dig deeper and come up with a speech that connects in a powerful way.

Bob Sands, Freelance speechwriter.

Ditto on the wisdom shared above, particularly Don Heymann’s. It doesn’t necessarily have to be either/or. I suspect that a few generalists do have deep enough knowledge of a specific subject to craft a speech that resonates with narrow niche audiences, such as highly specialized surgeons or engineers. But even then, it’s wise to limit jargon. If forced to choose, I’d pick a generalist who’s willing to learn enough to get through the gig over an expert who can’t write in plain language.

That being said, when I first started out as a freelancer a few years ago, the head of a writers’ agency told me that he needed subject matter experts, not generalists.

Sheri Lair Saginor, Award-Winning Speechwriter, Speech Delivery Coach.

This same issue comes up with nonfiction book ghostwriters, experience or specialized area. We also need to focus on the needs of our (potential) customers and their audiences.

Maggi P. Kirkbride, Nonfiction Developmental Editing & Ghostwriting

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