One of your most important skills as a speechwriter is listening to your client when they give you feedback. That often means hearing past their words, to what they’re actually saying… and it almost always means probing more deeply for the real issue behind a comment or request.

Here’s a little translation help – some of what I’ve learned to hear when clients give me feedback on the draft of a speech:

“I might say this instead.”

You need to hear two things from this: first, your client is signalling this passage of your draft won’t work for them. And second, they have a suggestion for changing it. But take it as a suggestion and not as gospel, unless they specifically say they want to say this.

“Let’s add (qualifier, weasel word, obfuscation).”

Your client is probably feeling uncertain about how baldly you’ve stated something. But often their instinct will be to make the writing weaker. Instead, either make a more convincing case leading up to the statement — so your client feels like they’re on firmer ground — or rewrite it in a way that doesn’t require the qualification.

“Punch this up.”

This passage probably needs to be more dramatic. Heighten the conflict, and frame it in starker terms. Try shorter sentences, and build to a pithy conclusion.

“This doesn’t sound like me.”

This passage will have to change—but not until you have a little more information. Ask what aspects particularly strike them as off: is it the word choice, or maybe the idiom? Is the tone too aggressive, too tentative, not warm enough, too touchy-feely?  Is the level of language too fancy, or too plain? Get as specific as possible; ask for examples if you need them.

“This is a little dry.”

This often flags a failure of “Show, don’t tell.” You may be reciting facts and statistics; keeping things at too abstract or general a level; or missing the emotional core of your story. Some possible fixes: Try connecting to the key conflict in the story you’re telling. Offer a tangible example of what you’re describing, and including a sensory detail or two. Make it personal. Or find an opportunity to use humour.

“I’m not comfortable with…”

You may need to dig a little to see what’s going on with this. Are they looking for reassurance about a good speaking practice (such as avoiding a lengthy preamble, or finishing the speech definitively instead of letting it trail off)? Do they need a little more support in the text so they can make a good choice for their message and their audience? Or have you just written something that goes too far or strikes too harsh a chord?

“Make it more like Obama.”

Oh, fellow speechwriter, I feel your pain; many is the time I’ve heard “Let’s try to capture some of that {insert name of oratorical wizard of the moment} magic” or something like it. But don’t despair; just probe a little deeper.

What aspects of that speaker’s magic do they want to capture? Is there a passage of his your client loves, or a structural technique she does that your client wants to try? Try asking similar questions to those under “This doesn’t sound like me”: ask about tone, word choice, level of language.

And don’t be afraid to push back gently. If the speeches your client admires are all from stadium rallies and the address you’re writing is for a Chamber of Commerce luncheon, then what they have in mind may not work that well.

Above all, don’t turn this into a celebrity impersonation. If your speech starts sounding less like your client and more like an SNL script, it’s time to start over.

One last thing: feedback is critical.

This is how your client makes the speech their own, and how you learn to write more confidently and effectively for them. So when I suggest you hear past their words, please don’t take that to mean you should disregard them.

Instead, apply your judgement to make an informed interpretation—and deliver a speech text that’s truly a collaboration.