I’m (finally) watching the convention episode (“Chapter 48”) of season 4 of House of Cards. And early on, there’s a great exchange between a new speechwriter and the pair of writers who’ve been with the Underwoods from the beginning.
They complain about his revisions to the convention speech: “You changed everything we wrote.”
“There was no imagination to it,” he says. “No rhythm.”
They counter, “We’ve been writing their speeches since they took office. We know what we’re doing.”
And he replies — devastatingly — “Well, do you want it to be good, or do you want it to be yours?”
It’s kind of a rotten management style, but it’s a great TV moment. And as advice goes, it’s every bit as important to heed as it is hard to swallow.
As speechwriters, we care about words. Our liveliest work often comes because we’ve dug deep and found a primal emotional connection to it.
But if that work doesn’t work for our clients — if it isn’t in their voice, or isn’t true to their message — then it’s our job to scrap it. And (maybe even more painful) if someone else comes along with something that works better, then it’s also our job to set ego aside and use that instead.
The speaker is the one who has to own those words, imbue them with life and answer for them later on. (And speakers have to do the same thing, by the by. If they’re in love with an anecdote or turn of phrase that doesn’t serve the speech well, they have a responsibility to turf it, too.)
House of Cards gets it absolutely right. The moment you realize the speech you’re writing for a client isn’t yours, the moment you surrender ownership and embrace working in service to the speaker, message and audience… that’s the moment your speech turns toward being good.