Being in the audience when a speaker delivers a speech you’ve written is great, for all kinds of reasons. But it does hold one big danger: being asked, “Did you write it?”

See if you can spot where this conversation at a banquet table after a luncheon keynote went south:

“So what do you do for a living?”

“I’m a speechwriter.”

“Oh! Did you write this speech?”

“This? This speech? The one you just heard? Ha, ha, excellent question. My gosh, my throat’s dry. I’m just going to get some water, and then sit down at a different table on the far side of the room.”

We love to get credit for the work we’ve done. (Maybe not when a speech bombs. Success has a hundred proud parents, but failure is an orphan.) But when we’re writing for someone else, claiming authorship is complicated at best, and fraught with moral and financial peril at worst.

It’s not “your” speech.

Remember this simple rule: unless you deliver it, it’s not your speech. I know it may feel like your speech after you sweated blood over getting the structure aligned, the applause lines right, the jokes razor-sharp, and every single word and sentence tuned for maximum impact. But it isn’t.

I’m not just talking about the legal issue of work for hire, although there’s that. I believe the speech belongs to the person who has to own it. And that’s the speaker.

The speaker has to live with the consequences of this speech, for better or worse. They could have it quoted back to them years from now and held accountable for its contents. They end up looking foolish if we screw up a fact, and they have to apologize if our text inadvertently offends. And for that matter, they lived the life that provides the context for them delivering this speech. Their experiences, their attitudes, their points of view animate it.

We don’t claim authorship of our speeches for the same reason that midwives and obstetricians don’t claim parenthood over the babies they help to birth. It isn’t our DNA, and we don’t have to live with the consequences.

(There’s another factor at play, and that’s the stigma some people attach to using a speechwriter, and that others attach to using a speaking text at all. Unless the speech comes off as something that just happened to occur to the speaker as they were walking up to the microphone, then it somehow lacks authenticity. I won’t address that except to say those people will die lonely and unloved are wrong, but it’s an added reason that a speaker may not want you announcing yourself as the playwright behind their performance.)

So is the correct answer to “Did you write this speech?” a flat “No”?

Some would say so, but I disagree. (Unless it bombs so badly your personal safety could be an issue, in which case you may want to answer “Hell, no!” and then slip away.) I did indeed string those words together in roughly the order the speaker spoke them, and I don’t believe in lying.

So if the answer isn’t no, and it can’t be yes, what is it?

That depends on you, your client, and how much you’re both comfortable with you disclosing. But let me give you three options for starting points that will let you answer that question with integrity and even a little social grace:

The evasive-maneuvers answer: “I can’t talk about individual speeches. But she’s a great client to work with.” This isn’t my favourite. But if your client is firmly opposed to your acknowledging your involvement with a particular speech, this kind of approach lets you explain you won’t answer the question, and pivots to talking about the speaker herself. You don’t just want to shoot the other person down for asking; it’s not like they wanted to know confidential medical data. Instead, you keep the conversation open.

The this-is-as-specific-as-I’m-going-to-get answer: “Here and there.” “A little.” Here you’re acknowledging that you played some role, without saying very much about what that role was. This is the porridge-just-right answer for a lot of occasions. You can stop there, pivot to a related topic, or give a little more detail (see the next option).

The peek-behind-the-curtain answer: “I worked with him on it. I took the ideas and messages he wanted to convey, and helped shape them into a story.” This makes it clear this was a collaboration, credits the speaker with the substance of the speech, and gives a sense of your role.

Finally, discuss this in advance with your client — ideally when you first take on the engagement. (You may not want to take on a speechwriting gig if you aren’t allowed to acknowledge it in any way. That isn’t just an issue of ego; it affects your marketability to not be able to mention you’ve worked with them.) Once you’re agreed on how to describe your relationship in public, answering the Question of Doom becomes a whole lot easier.

How do you handle people who ask if you wrote a particular speech? What’s the most awkward conversation you’ve had about it? The comments section awaits!

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