Cutting remarks — when clients edit (sigh)

When clients edit, the result is often not prettyStrange things can happen to speeches when clients edit them.

I’ve been writing speeches for over 25 years; you’d think I’d be used to this by now. And largely I am. I don’t let myself get too attached to any piece of work. I’m very clear that it’s my clients’ work, not mine. So when they ask me to shorten, I cut with a razor blade, delicately: It’s amazing how much you can tighten up writing by taking out a word here, a sentence there.

But when clients edit a speech themselves, they whack through it like Indiana Jones in the jungle. Was Indiana Jones ever in a jungle? Well, if he were he wouldn’t care what foliage he ruined; he’d just be trying to clear a path. And I have to confess, if I were escaping Nazis I would probably not be worried about aesthetics either. But as far as I know, no one’s ever shortened a speech to escape Nazis.

When clients edit what they don’t understand

I recently wrote a speech for a new client. Heard back from the staff person: the client loved it, the people who’d booked the client loved it, the audience loved it. Hooray!

And then I opened up the final remarks. All the facts were there. But the story I’d constructed around them was nowhere to be found. And I have to say, I was sad.

The event organizers requested a shorter piece. If I had been there, I would gladly have wielded my razor blade. Instead, someone used a machete. They cut out all the story, leaving only a jagged trail of facts.

Look, facts are essential. The provide proof; they give your story weight. But facts alone do not tell a story.

Analogies are not just the poetic bits that hold the facts in place. They are the mechanism that transports facts into the listener’s brain. They help us synthesize information—something we have to do before we can draw on it. There’s a reason our elementary school math teacher made us figure out how many apples Joan had ended up with if she started with four and Johnny gave her two more. Yes, you may get the same answer just by adding the numbers (did everybody get 6?), but it gets stored into a different part of your brain. Because: story.

Same reason so many of us learned French by following the travails of a young man as he encountered the world. In the textbook’s first chapter, he made a phone call. Feel free to recite along with me:

Allo. C’est Philippe LeDoux?
–Oui, c’est moi.

Memorize all the vocabulary words you want; they’ll fly out of your head as soon as the test is over. But put those words in the context of a story, and they stick with you for life. C’est vrai, n’est-ce pas?

Our brain organizes information in story form. But why make it do all that extra work? Tell the story your way and your listeners’ brains will store it your way. People will not only remember what you’ve said; they’ll act on it.

If you’ve got too much to say in the time allotted, don’t cut out the story. Cut down on the content. Audiences can only take in two or three ideas per speech. You can force feed them more, of course. They’ll sit there politely and listen. But they won’t remember a thing.

The client was happy; the organizers were happy; the audience was, reportedly, happy as well. But I know they could have been happier. My client could have had more of an impact. A missed opportunity. Tant pis.


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How do I write in someone else’s voice?: Frequent Questions

Q: How do I write in someone else’s voice?

A: First get their voice in your head.

Remember that scene in the movie Working Girl, where Melanie Griffith vacuums her boss’s house while listening to the boss’s dictation recordings?

If you don’t remember the part about the recordings, I forgive you. You may have been distracted by the filmmaker’s choice of costume for the scene: a bra and skimpy panties. I don’t know what your go-to housecleaning outfit is, but mine sure doesn’t come from Victoria’s Secret. Ah, the magic of movies. But I digress.Melanie Griffith's character learned to speak in someone else's voice

My point is that Melanie Griffith’s character was immersing herself in her boss’s voice. She needed to erase her Staten Island accent because in the ’80s, it would have marked her clearly and unequivocally as a secretary. (We didn’t even call them “assistants” back then.) By listening to the dictation tapes repeatedly, she also immersed herself in her boss’s syntax, her way of speaking, her tone and pace, the kinds of words she chose.

You want to sound like someone else? Do that. (Lingerie optional.)

Listen, read, type really fast

The Working Girl method doesn’t adapt all that well to 21st century: Who records dictation tapes anymore?

So when I start writing for a new client, the first thing I ask for is videos of them speaking and anything they’ve written. Those are imperfect proxies, though, because it’s safe to assume that they didn’t actually write the speech you’re watching them give. How can we assume that? Well, they hired you, right?

If you can score an actual sit-down chat with that client—even on the phone—that is golden. I type very quickly, so I generally take notes verbatim. Yes, I write down every word they say, even the “ums” and the verbal false starts and the “ums.”

If you can’t type that quickly, ask for permission to record the call. (Actually, I may start doing that too.) Explain that listening to a recording is the best way to learn to write in someone else’s voice. And the closer you can come to their voice, the better your first draft will be.

Once you have the recording, make like Melanie Griffith and play that sucker nonstop until you can repeat it word for word.

Then write.

And every time you sit down to write for that client, schedule five to 10 minutes to listen to the recording as a warm-up. After a while, you won’t need the reminder. Work with one person long enough and you get to the point where you know what’s going to come out of their mouth almost before they do.


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Afraid of ghosts

I gotta say one more thing about the Melania Trump plagiarism kerfuffle. Why is everyone so afraid of ghosts? (The writing kind, that is.)

There’s nothing wrong with hiring a ghostwriter. Lots of people do it. Even Ronald Reagan, “the Great Communicator,” had writers on staff. We don’t criticize President Obama for having speechwriters—and he has allowed his to be very public about their contributions. People expect the president to be doing more important things—saving us from disaster, leading negotiations, pardoning turkeys, meeting with the winning World Series team (shoulda been my Mets). They don’t expect him to be hunched over a laptop at 3am, sweating out welcoming remarks for the next State Dinner.

Hiring a speechwriter doesn’t mean you’re incompetent. It means you’re smart about how you use your time. People hire ghostwriters for the same reason I hire house painters:

  1. It’s not their core competency
  2. They’d rather spend their time doing other things
  3. They’re afraid of ladders (okay, that one may be unique to my house painter list)

And even people who might make the effort to write their own book or magazine article are smart enough to recognize that a speech is a very different animal indeed. So bring in an expert, talk to the writer about your ideas, and after you get that first draft go back to the writer and adjust. That’s how the process works.

Of course you want to “speak from the heart”—I may need to find a new phrase for authenticity; that one seems to be turning into a euphemism for Donald Trump’s loose cannon oratory. Okay, you want to express your ideas in your own way. Especially if you’re not a practiced speaker, you want to make sure you don’t sound stilted. So you think, Who knows me better than me? And you do it yourself.

Big mistake.

I painted my last house by myself—climbing ladders and everything. Between spackling, sanding, taping, and painting it took me months and for what I spent on post-painting massage and chiropractic I could have hired Michelangelo to do the work. I was in a world of hurt. I suspect Melania Trump feels a similar non-buyer’s remorse.

And it all could have been avoided so easily if they’d just found a writer Melania trusted to work with her. But for some reason, the idea that someone whose previous core competency had been walking and pouting at the same time would need help to write a speech—oh, no, we can’t have people thinking that. I mean, the woman has posed wearing nothing more than a thong and a gun and they think working with a ghostwriter would damage her reputation?

I’m sad to think that the lesson people will take from this is “You can’t hire a ghostwriter if you want to appear sincere.” A good ghost can help concentrate and focus your thoughts so your message resonates more effectively while your true personality shines through. Assuming, that is, that you have thoughts and a personality to begin with. If you don’t…well, that’s scary.