Wednesday, July 8, 2009

Writing by Walking Around

I don’t remember exactly when I started this habit, but it was most likely about 1990, when I started writing speeches for the CEO of the company I was working for. I started writing by walking around.

Most people in public relations, and most freelance writers, will all claim to be able to write speeches, but the fact is that is mastered by only a handful. A lot of people do it; only a very few do it well.

Even fewer like doing it. Writing for a CEO and other executives is frustrating on a good day. You’re typically dealing with a considerable ego, a number of gatekeepers, others who think you can find a way to slip their pet project or theme into the CEO’s speech, your own set of management who think they know how to do it better than you, and your own set of disadvantages and inferiority complexes (all writers have at least one). Writing speeches is not for the fainthearted.

I’ve written speeches for 12 CEOs and dozens of other executives. The CEOs were all different. But the process of writing a speech is generally the same, and it’s not easy. You have to write a speech to be read by a CEO so that he or she can say what it is they need to say. Three different communications media are involved in producing a speech – writing, reading and speaking – and a fourth, listening, is added when the speech is given. You write for the eye to see, the mind to understand and assimilate, the mouth to speak and the ear to hear. It’s complicated, and it’s why so few people are really good at it.

In 1990, I found myself writing for a CEO who was demanding of his speechwriters, to say the least. He ran through them at the rate of one every two months – either he didn’t like them or they quit. I was put into the position to “fix” this situation (which is a good part of the history of my career, come to think of it – fixing messes).

I don’t recall how this started, but I found myself writing his speeches by walking around. I likely got stuck in a place, and the draft wasn’t working. But one day I found myself walking the halls and the underground tunnels of corporate headquarters, oblivious to just about everything except the speech in my head.

And even worse was that I would speak sentences and sections out loud, to hear how they sounded. People passing me as I walked by thought I was the proverbial village idiot. And I admit I must have looked like that – walking slowly, mouthing words, phrases and sentences, shaking my head, occasionally writing a note on the pad in my hand, ignoring everything around me. Sometimes I would be stopped and asked if I was okay, and I would give such a look of befuddled confusion that it must have been obvious I was anything but okay.

Gradually, thanks to preemptive communications by my secretary, people understood, smiled and left me alone. “Ah, writing another speech?” they’d say. “Huh?” I’d respond, and walk on.

I write few executives speeches these days, but I’ve found myself doing exactly the same thing with the fiction I’ve been working on. Except I do it while walking and biking. (Imagine it: the village idiot on a road bike.)

Early this morning, I walked for an hour in my mother-in-law’s neighborhood in Shreveport, La., working through how to layer a sub-plot into the story I’ve been working on. It was early enough that few people were on the streets, so I didn’t embarrass myself too badly. And I’ve gotten adept at disguising what I’m really doing by waving at passing vehicles (drivers wave at you in neighborhoods here) and not losing my train of thought.

Yeah, I look like an idiot, but it worked. I figured out what I needed to do.

1 comment:

Sue Cannon said...

Ah yes! I remember those days so well! It certainly works well for you! We'll only start worrying about you if you start riding your bike in the tunnels! You always have been a great writer!