Association communication professionals are often called on
to write or polish their association leadership’s speeches and presentations.
But these days, you must do more than simply churn out content. Consider these
underlying — yet critical — qualities.
By Ian Griffin
You know you’re a world-class speechwriter and
communications professional when you embrace these seven characteristics:
1. Serve as a CEO's confident confidant. As the speechwriter,
I'm the one person in the room without an agenda. A CEO once told me, "It's
lonely at the top. I've seen every scam that managers can pull to cover their
rear ends. I need someone who can tell it like it is."
Key lesson: Speechwriters with the confidence to speak up will
become the confidant and trusted adviser of senior executives.
2. Be an impartial observer. I was once brought in to edit an
annual report for a European client with four divisions. My role was to resolve
the different viewpoints of each group. Communications professionals are in a
unique position to be impartial observers in organizations with multiple
departments and competing interests.
Key lesson: Take initiative and tell the truth, no matter
what certain executives want to hear. But don't take sides within your
association. Keep lines of communication open to all parties.
3. Take out complexity. Associations are filled with subject-matter
experts, while a communications professional is a jack-of-all-trades, master of
none. But that's your hidden value to an organization. It's your job to know a
little bit about everything the organization does and who to talk to when you
But lack of detail is rarely an issue. Time and again I've
asked experts for background information for five to 10 minutes of a speech,
only for them to give me enough data for a two-day seminar. When writing a
speech or creating a presentation for your organization, your job is to absorb
enormous volumes of data and take the complexity out — to find a way to
communicate the message without putting the reader or 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. 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 business
world is an endless source of fascinating stories. I've found the best sources
of great stories are informal chats when you are sitting down over coffee or sharing
a beer and pizza with a colleague or customer. People will share stories about
the lessons they’ve learned, which you can use in future speeches and
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
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 television studios to produce All Hands
meetings. But it was just as exciting to work within 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 or use it to
time-shift, create content that includes outdoor shots, show audience
testimonials and impromptu out-takes, record staff interviews, livestream
events, and experiment with transmedia storytelling.
6. Open up the backchannel. Your 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 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 uses it for shameless
self-promotion and to stimulate a lively debate before, during, and after each
presentation he or she makes.
7. Learn to ask the right questions. As a communications
professional, it's not your role to out-gun the experts, vice presidents, and
assorted executives in the C-suite when it comes to content. Your 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.
The one lesson I've taken away from the work I've done is to
always be ready to ask, "Why is that?" when executives 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 they reveal the core of the speech.
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.
Griffin is a freelance speechwriter and annual report writer who blogs at Professionally Speaking.