The Speechwriter's DilemmaBy: Henry Ehrlich
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:
* 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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