A talented younger friend attempting to make a transition from campaign communications consultant to building a full-time business as an executive communications consultant called the other day seeking advice. He had been “layered over” on a major CEO speech project by another writer considered to be a “better fit,” he was told. While still on the project, and still on retainer, he is now a subordinate.
My friend’s specific writing experience is rooted in politics and policy: news releases, news conference statements, blog posts, op-eds and other web content of this nature. Most important in this instance, while he had collaborated on several campaign speeches, this had been his first shot at a comprehensive, soup to nuts CEO speech.
Obviously, something went awry.
“A better fit,” in my experience, means a client or potential client simply lacks the confidence you can complete the project. Submitting a piece of writing, like doing a comedy stand-up routine or a solo guitar performance before a demanding audience is as deeply personal as it is challenging. There’s no hiding — you’re totally exposed, vulnerable and subject to the whim of audience expectations.
While everyone who’s toiled for years in the writing-for-remuneration vineyard has received the dreaded thumbs down, there’s also the rush of receiving “the boss loves this!” email from a client. Of course, this comes with time and experience in the writing marketplace. But the critical requirement of “meeting client expectations” is best achieved by being specific and ultra-transparent about your writing history. One’s writing credits and the type of content in which you specialize requires as much discussion as the business arrangement itself.
In my friend’s case, it was obvious to the client he had a requisite level of gravitas and credentials, having worked for a variety of known national politicians. But his big mistake was plain sloppy and a sin of omission: during initial project discussions, he presented himself as a “speechwriter” when, in fact, he had been simply a past collaborator. This is a huge difference. Consequently, I explained that he was in over his head, and set up for failure, before the first sentence was even written.
While my political writing is far more limited today than in my past, I used my own most recent “collaboration” on Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker’s 2016 presidential announcement speech as an example to explain how this works, or should work, in the business marketplace — especially when it comes to characterizing your contribution after the fact.
With just three weeks before the Walker announcement and campaign rollout, it was explained the latest speech text needed work. Would I be interested in working on the text? Absolutely. Walker happened to be my favorite candidate among a large field of GOP presidential aspirants. I looked forward to diving right into the project and confident I could help, having worked with a variety of high-profile lawmakers over the years on speeches, both in collaborative and comprehensive contexts.
Told the Governor had written almost every word, I had no idea what to expect. To say the text presented to me was far better than I expected is an understatement, and it became instantly clear why Walker was a highly successful politician and communicator. The messaging was tight; the language direct and simple; his all-important electoral rationale clear and strong. Yes, it needed some work, but more in terms of structure as opposed to messaging and language.
While I tweaked some of the content, including a retooled opening and closing, my contribution to the final largely centered upon reorganizing and streamlining. After all was said and done, this was very much Walker’s speech and voice, and perhaps just 10% of the content I added remained. The campaign went with my organizational revamp, and I was especially pleased the first line of the re-tooled speech I submitted — “I love America” — remained in the final text.
No, Walker didn’t last long in the Trump-dominated 2016 GOP primary. But as I explained to my friend, it’s essential for me to make crystal clear on my business website and in conversations and discussions with potential clients that my experience on this announcement speech was “collaborative” as opposed to “comprehensive.”
Doing so is vital — not just from the standpoint of professionalism and truthfulness, but helping others to most accurately discern how you can best help them on their own projects. My friend? He gets it now.
Gordon Hensley, a Professional Speechwriters Association (PSA) member, is President of sm/c/p, an Alexandria Va.-based strategic communications firm specializing in communications strategy, messaging and content creation.