Access and “Telephone”—the real-life game

Remember the children’s game of “Telephone”? Players pass a whispered phrase down the line until it emerges hopelessly garbled at the end. I came across an early version of this, recounted by an Italian historian who visited Brunei in 1521:

“A chief told us that we should not speak to the King, and that if we wished anything, we should tell it to him, so that he could communicate it to one of higher rank. The latter would communicate it to a brother of the Governor, who was stationed in the smaller hall, and this man would communicate it by means of a speaking tube through a hole in the wall to one who was inside with the King.”

Sadly, this 16th century technique persists in too many organizatioGatekeepers often block access to a clientns today. Almost every CEO has a “chief of staff” with actual access to the executive. The rest of us often have to make do with occasional meetings with this person. Or email, the modern version of Brunei’s speaking tube. The correspondence assistant who gets the email bounces it back to us with whatever information seems pertinent. But even if these people fully understand the request, they have access to only a fraction of what speechwriters need.

The ROI of access

I understand how important it is to protect the CEO’s time. But weigh the opportunity cost of a 30-minute talk with the speechwriter (heck, even a focused 15 minutes will do) against the time lost in repeated iterations of a speech because “that’s not what she wanted to say” or “that’s not how he would say it.”

How can a speechwriter know “how he would say it” if we don’t get to talk to him? And as for “what she wanted to say,” a staffer can give me the big-picture policy. And the reams of PowerPoint slides to back them up. But no one but the speaker can explain how this material resonates for her personally.

I should be clear: I don’t have this problem with my clients. Because once I see that’s how they structure access, I’ll do my best to write the speech they hired me for, but then I resign. I’m not asking to pal around with the CEO; I don’t need a seat on the company plane. But if you can’t spare 15 minutes to help me make you look good, find someone else to play Telephone with.

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