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The Speechwriter's Dilemma

By: Henry Ehrlich

Henry Ehrlich is a professional speechwriter whose clients include some of the world's foremost financial, manufacturing, and entertainment companies. He is also editor of The Wiley Book of Business Quotations and an author.

In the movie “Pretty Woman” Julia Roberts, as a streetwalker with a heart of gold, says to Richard Gere, “I’ll do anything for you, but I won’t kiss you on the mouth” -- the one line in this fairy tale that rang true.

I was reminded of this line when I was asked to ponder the subject of how to write a speech on a subject when you know you will hate yourself for it in the morning.  As Julia demonstrates, every professional should have standards for what they will do and what they won’t.

Not long ago, an experienced PR practitioner I know discussed in print the dilemma of the agency writer who couldn’t bring himself to do a speech for a tobacco company.  This commentator pointed out that speechwriters have a responsibility to serve clients, and those who are unable to do so ought to look for another line of work.  I agree.

However, there’s another side of this issue, namely, whether you can really serve the client well when you have moral or intellectual reservations.  Tobacco is the wrong example in some ways.  The moral low ground is well trodden.  Since you can’t make a case for the product on its own terms, you have to make a principled stand on some other basis.  As I learned from a short freelance assignment years ago, the trick is to turn smoking into a civil rights or tax issue instead.  But I didn’t have to live with this dodge day after day.  You might say I tried it but didn’t inhale.

More recently, I had to write a speech for an independent oil man who wanted to wind up a very interesting account of a long career that read like a Larry McMurtry novel with a diatribe about a pan-Islamic conspiracy to control the world’s petroleum supply.  My skepticism and tolerance for a broader spectrum of humanity short-circuited my imagination.  Again I was lucky: his vision -- fueled by dreams of restoring the oil-depletion allowance to Imperial Texan levels--more than made up for my reservations.

Like a competently run pension plan a good speechwriter needs a balanced portfolio of clients and subjects.  Some should be safe and others should involve a little higher risk.  That’s fairly normal in agency work.  But if your work is concentrated in gray areas -- and you no longer enjoy the challenge of making a full-blown argument based on half-hearted commitment -- then it might be time to find something else to do.

Here are some signs that your job may become untenable:
  1. Event creep.
    Most companies are principled when things are going their way.  However, when the tide goes out, people are capable of treachery.  This doesn’t happen overnight.  You don’t just go to work one day and find that everyone around you is possessed by the devil.  If you feel that larger events are about to turn cherished values into lies and esteemed colleagues into pod people, you’re in trouble.
  2. A growing gap between the principled words you write and the business reality around you.
    My favorite example is of former Bankers Trust CEO, Charles Sanford, who told recruits in 1995, “We have high standards in every way.  In addition to placing high value on ethics, we stress intellectual honesty in all our decisions...”  That same year, Business Week published this transcript of a an exchange between BT traders: “What Bankers Trust can do for Sony and IBM is get in the middle and rip them off...Funny business...Lure people into that calm and then just totally f--- ‘em.”*  Well, I suppose that does constitute intellectual honesty of a kind.
  3. Your frame of mind.
    Everyone is subject to burnout.  If you have trouble distinguishing between free trade and exploitation of Asian child labor when times are good, a mid-life crisis or February blues will make it harder still.  Reserve all stands based on principle until you’re sure you can’t take it anymore.
  4. No kissing.

* Banker’s Trust quotations and more than 5,000 others can be found in The Wiley Book of Business Quotations

© Copyright 1999, Henry Ehrlich

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