Guest Blog: A Corporate Speechwriter’s Halloween Tour of Medieval England

A veteran speechwriter and executive communications specialist, Ian Griffin helps CEOs and senior managers develop strategic messaging and content for presentations to audiences worldwide. He is Past-President of the Northern California Chapter of the National Speakers Association and an active member of Toastmasters. A version of this article first appeared in Ian’s blog Professionally Speaking. As a speechwriter for various Silicon Valley companies, I’ve seen both the bad (the tricks) and the good (the treats) of corporate speech development. And while speech writing may seem like a bore of a job, in truth the role of a speechwriter can be as diverse and intriguing as a Medieval Renaissance Fair. For fun on this Halloween day, let’s imagine the world of corporate America set in the time of Medieval England.

Quite ridiculous of course! We’ve come such a long way since the 14th Century. For example, back in the Dark Ages literacy was at an all-time low. Only a minority of the population held a passport and had traveled overseas. The rabble was entertained by jousting, feasting and Mystery Plays. And the King gave speeches no-one listened to.

I can’t possibly imagine what this era of history has in common with our own.

But what if? What if I did imagine?

What costumes could my corporate colleagues wear? And what do the characters in the Canterbury Tales, or Monty Python and the Holy Grail tell us about life today?

Obviously the CEO is the King (or, in rare cases, the Queen). An enlightened monarch or raging despot ruling over the organization. The EVPs and SVPs are the Barons at Court, consumed by intrigue and power plays. Sales managers are the Knights, conquering new territory. The staff are serfs and peasants, laboring in cubicle farms.

What about the speechwriter? Who would the speechwriter dress up as for a Medieval Halloween Ball?

Actually, there’s quite a number which fit the job description.

For starters, how about the speechwriter as the Motley Fool?

The Motley Fool

The fool on the hill Sees the sun going down, And the eyes in his head, See the world spinning ’round. - The Beatles: Fool on the Hill

The Fool in the Medieval Court stands behind King’s throne. While Barons and Knights give measured advice the Fool whispers in the King’s ear “That’s boring. Rubbish! Claptrap! The people won’t buy it. You’ll have to spice it up to keep their attention at the Guild Hall Luncheon tomorrow. Make ‘em laugh my liege. Tell ‘em a story.”

The Fool adds Laughter! Humor! Interest! He has King’s ear, for the moment. The King tolerates him (just) and values his fresh point of view.

The role of the Motley Fool is politically cool. You get to hang out with the powerful and mighty in the land. You might even spend time with the King on the Corporate Jet. But never forget that you’re the only person in the room without 5,000 serfs reporting to you and a quarterly number to make.

Screw up and it’s “Off with his head!”

As Robert Schlesinger said about JFK’s White House, speechwriters counter the “diplomatic blandness” the State Department bureaucracy produced.

Lessons for Speechwriters as Fools

  • Step outside the corporate bureaucracy.
  • Look at issues and topics with fresh eyes.
  • Inject humor, levity, tell stories – audiences love it.
  • Have the courage to speak frankly to the powerful.
  • Don’t show fear when the King growls.

Enough with the Jester. What other role characterizes the job of an Executive Communications Manager (aka Speechwriter) in today’s corporation? How about …

The Ploughman

Businessmen they drink my wine Ploughmen dig my earth - Dylan: All Along The Watchtower

A world away from the gilded Court, Ploughmen till the fields. Tedious but necessary work plays a large part in speechwriting. Doing research. Fact-checking. Ploughing through the background papers which spew from Subject Matter Experts like weeds sprouting on a April morning after a few sweet showers.

Lessons for Speechwriters as Ploughmen

  • It’s boring work, but learn to live with it. With any luck you’ll have the fields tilled by nightfall and the King will invite you to the feast that evening.
  • Have systems in place to take care of the boring stuff. Tracking forms; checklists; everything to speed the plough.
  • Divide up tasks. It’s less overwhelming to focus on today’s furrow than worry about the rest of the forty-acre field.
  • Take breaks, quaff ale, be strong behind the plough.

The Fisherman

Fish supplemented the Medieval diet. Carp was delicacy plucked from the castle moat by Fishermen. It’s always fun to throw a few lines in the water and see what slippery items of information you can catch. Today’s fisherman uses email and voice mail to leave requests for information with subject experts across the kingdom. Bait your hook with the name of the CEO. (“I’m doing some research for a speech John is giving next month and wanted your views…”). Always use the King’s first name. When the fish bite, reel them in.

Lessons for Speechwriters as Fisherman

  • Plan ahead. The fish might not be biting today. You need to get your lines in the water early on in the process.
  • Have patience. But if you don’t get an answer after a few days, fish in another part of the corporate millpond.
  • Don’t forget to bait your email requests with the first name of the executive you are writing for.

The Miller

The Miller is an important member of every Medieval community. Without him, there would be no flour and no loaves of bread. Bread and circuses are what keep the serfs fed and happy. Every Miller is dusty from grinding wheat into flour; separating wheat from chaff.

Subject Matter Experts (SME’s – rhymes with please) will bring sacks and sacks and sacks and sacks of data to your mill. Each direct report likes to provide at least 45 minutes of content for a 15 executive minute speech. If the executive has 10 reports that means you’ll have to sieve through eight hours of content.

It’s the speechwriters job to grind it down, then bake fresh loaves to feed the audience.

Lessons for Speechwriters as Millers

  • This is your biggest single value-add. No-one else wants to stand there while the mill-wheels are a-turning.
  • Edit ruthlessly – throw out 90% of the data the engineers and SME’s send you.
  • Say ‘No’ to requests for more data and facts from Knight’s and Baron’s who pile on the grain as a CYA strategy.
  • Keep the mill-wheels turning. Don’t send un-milled sacks of data to the court. They are paying you to sift and select.

The Alchemist

The Alchemist turns base metal into Gold. Like Rumpelstiltskin’s daughter you’ll take their words and sit in your room all night spinning them into gold. And next morning no-one will know how you did it.

Lessons for Speechwriters as Alchemists

  • Study the book of spells – text-books on speechwriting such as those listed at the end of this parchment.
  • Safeguard the Mystery. Don’t reveal your secrets to the other members of the Court.
  • Practice makes perfect. Alchemy is an art, not a science. Cultivate your Craft.
  • Understand that what you do is magikal to ordinary mortals.

The Monk

Scriptorium: a place for writing – commonly used to refer to a room in medieval European monasteries devoted to the copying of manuscripts by monastic scribes. - Wikipedia

Monks spent hours, days, weeks, months, years in the Scriptorium illustrating manuscripts like the Book of Kells. Everyone admires their artistry but wonders why they spent so much time coloring basic information and making it, actually, harder to comprehend.

That was then. This is now.

The speechwriter today spends hours, weeks, months, years in front of the computer illustrating presentations in PowerPoint. Future archeologists will gaze in wonder at the endless decks of slides. Beautiful, mindless illustrations of…what? Will anyone be able to comprehend these charts in the future? Can members of the audience comprehend them today?

Who cares. Monks may have had a diet of thin gruel, but illustrated manuscripts occupied them on winter evenings.

Lessons for Speechwriters as Monks

  • Learn cutting-edge PowerPoint skills. Take time to study and learn techniques.
  • Develop a good relationship with your graphics team who support you in this.
  • Read two of the Bibles of the modern era: Nancy Duarte’s slide:ology and Garr Reynold’s Presentation Zen

The Wandering Minstrel

Hey! Mr. Tambourine Man, play a song for me, I’m not sleepy and there is no place I’m going to. Hey! Mr. Tambourine Man, play a song for me, In the jingle jangle morning I’ll come followin’ you. - Dylan: Mr. Tambourine Man

OK. I saved the best for last. All of the previous roles are aspects of life at Court, inside the hierarchical corporate world, bound by proscribed roles and strict protocols.

The Wandering Minstrel travels the land a free man composing sonnets and madrigals for clients.

Today the speechwriter as consultant wanders freely, far from the twisted reach of crazy sorrow. If this sounds like the life for you, there’s important lessons you need to learn.

Lessons for Speechwriters as Minstrel

  • Aim for niche markets. Become an expert in a specific industry. You’ll make good money if your expertize is an inch wide and a mile deep.
  • Work fast, bill clients a flat fee, clean up and move on (just like Joe the Plumber).
  • Stay at the top of your game. You have to be good, darned good.
  • Work by referrals. People love to hire a Minstrel who has performed for the crowned heads of Europe.

Book of Spells

Here are some reference books I keep close by:

Read these great book but also spend time listening to speeches. Here’s a list of 100 great ones.