Thursday, March 15, 2012

Fire in the Voice

I was all of 24 years old when I stumbled into speechwriting, the discipline that would shape my career for most of the next 35 years. I was working on a special project, a major issue facing the company, because I had just changed jobs and was the only person available to do it. Some months into the project, an executive needed a speech on the issue. I had never written for someone else, but I did it. It worked, and soon I was writing speeches.

Some years later, I became aware that no matter what else I might be doing, I was at heart a speechwriter. It’s a practice/profession/job that most communications people avoid for many reasons, not the least of which is that someone else always gets credit for your work.

But I liked it and enjoyed it. I liked learning how executives spoke and what mattered to them, the words they used and avoided (or needed to avoid), how their personalities and deepest hopes and fears would come slipping out of those outlines and speech texts and blossom into policies, programs, initiatives and programs. I liked playing with ideas and translating them into human speech.

I found myself often climbing into executives’ heads, which could be both joyful and discouraging (and often both at the same time). A speechwriting friend who was considerably older told me once that I would know I was doing my job right if only the executive’s spouse knew him or her better than I did, and that it was a power and influence to be used carefully and with sober judgment.

And while most of my work was helping executives find their voices, I discovered that speechwriting also helped me find my own voice.

Poet David Whyte would say that finding one’s voice, a familiar enough concept to writers, is also vitally important to anyone working in a corporate or organizational setting. Even a timid, tentative voice is important, for it is through that timidity that we can begin to learn “to treat the world or the organization as a mythological equal, a peer instead of a parent, a co-partner on the path instead of an all-powerful provider or persecutor.”

Is such a thing as equality even possible?

Not only is it possible, Whyte would say, but also necessary for the good of the individual and the organization. Even the “mouse” sounds of timid speech are important, Whyte says: “Without the compassionate understanding of the fear and trepidation that lie behind courageous speech, we are bound only to our arrogance.”

Writing for some 12 CEOs and dozens of other senior executives, I learned quickly which ones were the best to work for – the ones who had that compassionate understanding, who knew that truly courageous speech arises form humility.

We’re reading David Whyte’s The Heart Aroused: Poetry and the Preservation of the Soul in Corporate America over at TweetSpeak Poetry. This week, we’re reading chapters three and four. My post on chapter three, “Fire in the Earth,” was Monday.


L.L. Barkat said...

Making room for the timid voice, that takes work in itself. I'm guessing we each have those timid voices somewhere, even those of us who appear anything but timid. Kind of cool to think about the importance of opening ourselves to that side.

H. Gillham said...

I hadn't thought about how knowing the person you were writing the speeches for was so key -- as you noted the words he would or wouldn't use.

Always interesting... here.

S. Etole said...

"truly courageous speech arises from humility"... enjoyed this post very much.

Anonymous said...

compassionate understanding, i would say, is worth quite a lot.