Speech writers: the ghosts in the board room

At Mobil Corporation, when former chairman Rawleigh Warner Jr. gave a speech, it wasn't a collection of extemporaneous, off-the-cuff remarks. First he met with speech writer Michael O'Malley to discuss the theme. Then he'd call in Herbert Schmertz, Mobil's vice-president for public affairs, to sit in on the discussion. Mr. O'Malley wrote an outline, which he sent to Mr. Schmertz and Mr. Warner for approval. After approval, a first draft was written.

``Then the speech must clear technical specialists you didn't dream about when you wrote the copy,'' O'Malley says.

Welcome to the world of corporate speech writing. During the last 10 years, jobs for corporate speech writers have doubled, says Jean Cardwell of Cardwell Consultants, a Chicago-based recruiting firm that specializes in placing people in corporate communications.

Closer scrutiny of corporations by consumers requires executives to defend their positions, and thus make more speeches, she says. ``It also has to do with the ego of the CEO [chief executive officer] -- as part of having arrived. Having a speech writer at his elbow is part of the satisfaction.''

The six full-time speech writers at General Motors wrote 250 speeches one year. At Phillips Petroleum last year, the writers drafted 147 speeches. And Warner's speech writer wrote about one speech a month.

Corporate speech writers are often former public relations people who happen to be good writers. One of these is Eugene Anderson, who worked for Burson-Marsteller for 20 years and today writes speeches for executives of Amsted Industries Inc. Or they might be former journalists such as John McGrath, a speech writer at Miller Brewing Company.

Candidates for speech-writing positions need a broad range of writing styles: They must be flexible enough to write for an audience of financial analysts one day, employees another, and on still another occasion, perhaps, the Rotary Club. ``They must have an academic, analytical mind and an understanding of the global issues,'' Ms. Cardwell says.

But they must also be invisible. ``Inside, my title is speech writer; outside it's public relations staff,'' says Alan Perlman, a former Burroughs Corporation speech writer and now part of a speech staff at a Fortune 50 corporation. His company doesn't want it known that its executives don't write their own speeches.

Although the anonymity might be frustrating to some, the job also has many benefits: Speech writers rub elbows with top people in the company -- sitting in on strategy meetings, fleshing out policy and sometimes helping make policy themselves.

But that is only at some corporations. Mobil's O'Malley says he knows who makes policy at his company. It's not the speech writer; it's the executive committee.

Speech writers usually write for an executive they seldom see. They must familiarize themselves with the speaking style of the boss -- collecting jokes and anecdotes to illustrate points the way they think the person would make them. They must match sentences to his cadences and jokes to his style of humor.

If he says ``Oh, gee'' and ``Holy Toledo'' a lot in conversation, his speeches should echo his ``down-home, plain-folks'' character, one writer says.

Rob Phillips of Phillips Petroleum borrowed ``the right stuff'' theme from Chuck Yeager's recent book to embellish a rather dry, internal speech to employees.

At his church in Bartlesville, Okla., Mr. Phillips finds one of his best resources: his preacher. During 1985 takeover attempts on Phillips, the writer used several of his preacher's somewhat spiritual anecdotes to cheer worried employees.

Daniel Burns, a speech writer at Diamond Shamrock, keeps copies of the books ``Megatrends,'' ``Wealth and Poverty'' ``Intrapreneuring, I,'' and ``In Search of Excellence,'' at his desk.

``These books are much admired among corporate movers and shakers; I suspect, however, that they are little read,'' Mr. Burns says. ``Perhaps that's why it comforts the shakers to see them on or near the speechwright's desk. It is your job to create the illusion that your chairman not only reads Naisbitt, but probably had lunch with him, and perhaps even inspired the passage from which he is quoting.''

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