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To slip the surly bonds of speechwriting

January 27, 2017

David Murray

You’re doing your job. But are you doing your job?

As we read every week in The Executive Communication Report, executive commuincation professonals are hired to “prepare speeches and other communication materials for senior executives.”

Some exec comms pros see their jobs as bigger than that. They think they should slip the surly bonds of C-suite messaging, and broaden the scope of leadership communication.

For instance:

There’s a new Harvard Business Review piece out by a couple of management professors that provocatively begins, “Great leaders, especially in large organizations, aren’t really people. They’re mental images.”

They may be flesh and blood to the senior team and the assistants in the C-suite, but to people in outer orbits, from operational departments to business units, they are imaginary constructs. Employees create pictures of what leaders seem to be, based on the bosses’ accumulated emails, tweets, speeches, and videos, plus whatever tidbits are picked up here and there.

You know that’s true. And you notice “speeches” are only one of the things that make up employees’ mental images of their leader.

And nothing can be more important than those mental images. As I wrote a few years ago, “employees want to know only one thing” from the highest levels of their company:

They want to know what kind of people they are working for.

Let me repeat: They want to know what kind of people they are working for.

That’s all they want to know: What kind of people they are working for.

But that’s a lot: They want to know how smart are the people they’re working for. How honest. How empathetic. How interested in new ideas. How down to earth. How consistent. How careful. How generous of spirit. How forward-looking. And how committed to the welfare of the employees.

Seriously. That’s all they want to know. You may want to give them other kinds of information, and they may be pleased to get it.

But if you can convince your employees that the people who run the organization are solid human beings who care about what they’re doing … well, that’s a team employees will find a way to help.

And if you lack the communication ability to get that across (virtuous executives not included)?

You’d better dance fast.

The HBR piece picks up where I left off:

Companies assume, or merely hope, that people will somehow derive inspiration from these mental images of the leader. But employees are judgy; a perceived shortcoming in a leader can easily undermine the image. But the mental process of building an imaginary picture is complicated, and certain weaknesses can be interpreted as strengths, lending the image an aura of authenticity. Understanding this process can be advantageous for leaders who hope to motivate and inspire.

Examples of intentional picture-building abound in the HBR piece, which concludes importantly that the best way to build credible imaginary pictures of real leaders is through surrogates—”employees who have had inspiring interactions with [leaders] and spread stories throughout the organization. These individuals amplify your concern, standards, vision and humanity.”

The HBR piece includes only one false note. Unfortunately, it’s the last. “Even if you lack surrogates, rest assured that if you keep doing the right things, people will eventually notice and spread positive stories about you. And those stories will form themselves into an army of mental images that will mobilize people to achieve your goals.”

Pretty to think so, Professors, but not the way to bet.

Executive communicator, if you do work for leaders who deserve a better reputation with employees, it seems to me you should take it upon yourself to help find genuine surrogates, and seek to give them a voice. Where to find them? You’ve got to get into the stream of interaction between the executives and the employees. (Some clues about how to do this may be found in a fascinating piece in last Sunday’s New York Times magazine, about how the Obama White House culled 10,000 letters every day into 10 representative letters that they sent to the president—and eventually, began routing to White House speechwriters, too.)

You’ve got to get down into the organization, and find out how people perceive executives, hear what kinds of stories they are already telling about execs, good and bad. You might do this organically, by walking the halls. More formally, I’ve also thought organizations should do a quantitative and qualitative “executive communication audit,” surveying employees and interviewing them on how they perceive the top leadership. Seems to me it wouldn’t take long to find a representative pattern—or, to idenitify some surrogates, who have good stories to tell about the bosses, and only need a platform to tell them.

That’s not your job, of course.

Not unless you choose to accept it.

This post originally appeared on VSOTD.com.


  • David Murray

    David Murray heads the global Professional Speechwriters Association and the Executive Communication Council, and comments daily on communication issues on his blog Writing Boots. He is an award-winning journalist and is editor and publisher of Vital Speeches of the Day. He is the author of Raised By Mad Men, a memoir about his advertising parents, and co-author of the New York Times bestseller Tell My Sons: A Father’s Last Letters.

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