The phone rang. Focused on the words on my computer screen, I absentmindedly picked up the phone.
“He wants to see you.”
“Now?” I asked.
I grabbed my suit coat (that’s what we wore in those days), made a mad dash down my building’s back stairs of my building to the tunnel that connected all of the buildings on our campus. I surfaced in the executive building next store – granite, art work and polished wood bathed in silence.
In corporate communication circles , I occupied one of the high positions – the CEO’s speechwriter. I had written for CEOs before him, and I would write for CEOs after him. But no one had the reputation this CEO did.
He had run through three speechwriters in four months before the dreaded call had come. I had expected it. I had written a speech that had received outsized attention inside and outside the company.
The CEO wants you to write his speeches.
In normal circumstances, I would have been thrilled. These were not normal circumstances. This CEO could be awful to work for. He relished being awful to work for. His supervisory style was known as management by intimidation.
After 18 months of my career being over once a week, we both had had one of those business epiphanies. He realized that I wasn’t trying to run the company through his speeches. I realized that there was a human being inside of his business suit.
I reached the outer office where his secretary sat. She nodded toward his door, and arched a eyebrow slightly.
The eyebrow was code. The CEO was not in a good mood. I didn’t know how I was going to handle going back to square one in our working relationship.
I took a step toward his office and he started yelling at me. Literally yelling. And waving the pages of a speech draft I had written.
You don’t know how to write. This is trash. It’s the worst thing you’ve written. You think you’re a writer but you’re not. I don’t have flacks write for me. This went on for some time.
I sat in the chair in front of his desk, and let him finish his rant. I knew it wasn’t the speech draft. I knew I had written a really fine draft. But I knew it must be something, so I listened for clues.
He finally muttered something about me not knowing how to write for certain audiences, and then it clicked.
“It’s the audience, isn’t it?” I asked.
He exploded again.
“You’ve never spoken to a minority audience before, have you?” I asked, surprising myself at how abrupt I was being.
He sat there, glowering at me.
“What if we do this,” I said. “I will send the draft to” – I named two company executives who happened to be minorities – “and have them read it. And see if they think it’s OK for this audience.”
Grumbling, he agreed.
The CEO never allowed anyone to read his speeches beforehand. So this was a rather unique move for him. The two executives read the draft. One suggested a single word change (in a 2,000-word text). The other said he wouldn’t change anything, and that he would give the speech if the CEO wouldn’t.
The CEO gave the speech, to a group of 250 African-American business students.
A couple of days later, I received another phone call.
“He wants to see you.”
“Now?” I asked, knowing the answer.
When I arrived, the secretary nodded me toward the door and winked.
That was a good sign.
I walked in his office.
“I gave a great speech,” he said. “I knew it would go over well. They gave me a standing ovation.”
I nodded. “I don’t think I would have expected anything less.”
He nodded. “So let’s talk about the Boston speech next month.”
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Illustration by Karen Arnold via Public Domain Pictures. Used with permission.