November 29, 2014
Sat 11, 2014

When we put words in other people’s mouths

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Have we lost something precious in our pursuit for the perfect word or turn of phrase? Steven Burgess’ thoughtful article Society forgets that public figures don’t write their speeches reminds us all what it meant when leaders put the effort into writing their own messages.

Can you think of any leaders these days who sit down, pen on paper or keyboard and computer screen and take the time to craft their own words? There’s a whole profession out there, the one I work in, that’s ready and willing to take on the challenge and does.

Yet what if the speeches Winston Churchill gave during the Second World War that sustained the British people had been written by an earnest speechwriter toiling away in the back room? Would Churchill’s words and the man himself still be held up today as leadership at its best?

Before you think I’ve lost my mind by questioning the profession that feeds me  and my family let me explain. A return to the good old days is unlikely to happen. Our expectations of leaders today are far greater and I doubt we’ll see many adding speech or key-message writing into an already packed schedule.

Here are three ways PR and communication practitioners can make sure the key messages and speeches given by leaders reflect who they are and what they believe.

  1. Experience has shown me that it doesn’t have to be all or nothing. Some of my best speeches and key messages happened because leaders cared enough to get involved or I built the case for them to care. And then they became his or her speeches and key messages.
  2. PR and communications people can help rate how important each message sent out by a leader is. Social media has a voracious appetite for new content and part of a company’s success is how successfully it can feed the different communication channels with fresh material. Not every message written for leaders requires their deep input.
  3. Sometimes spontaneity is the only response. I was responsible for communications during a major chemical plant fire in the ‘90s. What stands out for me in a time of high stress and emotion was the plant manager’s interview with media. He stuck with the key messages explaining what happened and then gave a personal, heartfelt mini “speech” (no writing or preparation beforehand) of his pride and confidence in the employees he worked alongside everyday and their ability to put out the fire. That, along with the facts of the incident, made it into local, provincial and national media.