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Voice Lessons

 By Shari Caudron

Several years ago, I was asked by some prominent people in a prominent company if I wrote speeches.

“Of course I write speeches,” I said. “I love writing speeches. Finding the right word, the telling anecdote, the lingering take-away message. I find speech writing very satisfying.”

I’d never written a speech in my life.

Plus, I was terrified by the thought of speaking aloud. I was that little girl who, on the first day of class when her name was called, whimpered “here” without looking up from her desk. How could I muster up the courage to put words in the mouths of Big Important Executives when I couldn’t find the courage to say them on my own?

Money. That’s how.

So I went home, read a bunch of books about speechwriting, and two days later met with an executive from the prominent company in an office he’d filled with framed articles about himself. He wore a brown jacket, brown pants and brown shoes. I was 33. He was 112 years older. We talked about his speech, during which time he may or may not have called me honey. But he definitely hugged me when I left, pushing his cool wrinkled cheek into my own.

I went home and wrote a speech about his corporate experience turning negative perceptions into positive ones. Apparently, he’d had a lot of corporate experience with negative perceptions. Woven into the speech were words like boycott and public slur, and phrases like, “in shoring up our communications strategy, we created five strategic message points.”

It was brilliant.

To get a sense of how the speech sounded, I stood behind my desk and recited it out loud, pretending I was the sonorous, brown-shoed executive. It felt good speaking the words I’d written. I felt important. People wanted to know what I had to say. My words could affect share prices. Public perception. Global markets. What power! What confirmation! After reading through the speech, I sat, triumphantly, back down in my pajamas.

Thankfully, the executive liked the speech, and soon, I was writing for lots of guys in brown pants. And mostly, they were guys. Women, for some reason, seemed more capable of preparing their own remarks. Not that I have any comment on that.

I went on to write for other executives, as well as lawyers and politicians and publishers and came to enjoy the challenge of giving voice to other people’s thoughts. Or, more accurately, giving thoughts to other people’s voices. It was an ego dance every time. The trick was to respect their intelligence and experience while also telling them what to say and how to say it, and somehow make them think it was all their idea in the first place.

Actually, I did like the work. I could do all the geeky research I wanted, then quietly weave that research into a story that would begin to come alive when I practiced it aloud at home. One day, while sounding out a speech, I thrust out my hand to emphasize a particularly important point. This startled my cat. I took it as a very good sign.

After a couple of years doing this work, I got a call about writing speeches for a man who, legend had it, chewed through speechwriters. A man whose staff spoke of him in the kind of hushed tones used by prisoners planning a midnight escape. A man whose staff never, ever, no matter what, referred to him by his name. He was known, simply, as The President. At the university where he worked, jeans-wearing professors might have been addressed as “Doc” by undergrads in the campus lounge. But The President was always just that. The. Period. President.

I first met The President on a bright leaveless December morning. His office was dark, wood-paneled and lined with bookcases. The blinds were drawn, and the dim desk lamp succeeded only in illuminating a western-themed pen and pencil set. The first thing I saw upon walking into his office was the shiny bronze rump of a bucking bronco which, in retrospect, I now realize was a sign.

After being outside in the sunshine, walking into his murky office was like walking in one of those dreams where you can’t open your eyes no matter how hard you try. I peered toward the right corner of the room where I thought I saw him standing.

“This is the President,” said the minion who’d brought me here. The minion was an efficient woman who wore chunky necklaces and suits in primary colors.

I paused, trying to decide how to address the man. Hello Mr. President seemed absurdly formal and completely out of my comfort zone. But Hi Prez was out of the question.

“Hiya!” I finally said, extending my hand and smiling broadly. It was my M.O. to play the part of the casual-but-eager speechwriter. He’d like the fact that I didn’t take his title and position seriously. He’d find my tail-wagging enthusiasm charming. My casual banter would lead us toward a chummy camaraderie that would make it easier to do the job I’d been hired to do.

I sat down, allowing my eyes to adjust to the darkness. My first assignment was to write a speech about charter schools.

“So,” I said, by way of getting started. “What is your position on charter schools?”

“Oh,” he said, waving his thin white hand in the dark office. “You know.”

I was beginning to get a sense of how the president got his reputation. So I researched charter schools, anticipated the kind of opinion a conservative university president might have on them, and presented a first draft.

By some miracle intervention of the speech gods, and more than a little help from his secretary, we managed to come up with something that worked.

Feeling emboldened, for the next speech, I suggested he risk being a bit more personal.

“That’s not necessary,” he said.

“Maybe not,” I said, rushing onward, “but since the talk is about overcoming difficulties, and since you came from an underprivileged background and went to an Ivy League university, it would be relevant. And people like hearing personal stories.”

The President looked at me, hands tented in front of his face.

“I think you are I are going to butt heads,” he said.

His minion, who was quietly sitting in the corner, began to ready herself for an intervention.

He raised a palm toward her. “Don’t worry. It’s okay.”

So I went home and spent days telling and retelling Marlowe, my cat, about how I’d overcome my underprivileged childhood and been accepted to one of the most prestigious universities in the country, after which I went on to run one of the largest companies in the country, after which I was put in charge of an honorable institution of higher learning.

Marlowe stared in me from her perch in front of the space heater.  I’d never had such an adoring audience.

The President liked the speech well enough that he gave me another, and then another, and my solo office sermons – sermons that delivered my thoughts and my words to his audience — grew ever more forceful.

Then he was chosen to keynote a national conference of humanities educators. The speech topic? The value of a classically based liberal arts education. Length: one hour.

The first challenge was for me, a proud underperforming graduate of the state college system, to learn what a classically based liberal arts education was. Next, I had to find people who felt that kind of education to be valuable. Finally, I had to plagiarize their thoughts and ideas and weave them into a script.

I loved the process. I quoted everyone from Socrates to Picasso. I used humor. Startling statistics. I wrote things like “wisdom is what allows people to think for themselves,” overlooking the fact that I was pinching these thoughts from other writers.

This was a speech that would be included in the canon amongst the I-Have-a-Dreams and all the other great speeches of our times. I wrote. Rewrote. Practiced and polished, and was so pleased with the effort that I went to see The President deliver the talk at the educator’s conference. I’d never done that before. I’d never cared enough. I even talked a friend into coming with me. “It’ll be good,” I said. “I promise.”

At the hotel convention center, we squeezed our way into a row jammed with smart people in sales-rack clothing. I sat down and waited for the talk to begin while smoothing the fabric of my pant legs over and over again with my palms.

The President thanked the emcee for the nice introduction, settled his script on the lectern, and started speaking. Only he wasn’t really speaking at allHe was reading the script. Reading it like it was the very first time he’d seen it.

Instead of booming out – like I’d done in my office – a phrase like: Knowledge can be taught. But wisdom must be nurtured.

He intoned: knowledge-can-be-taught-but-wisdom-must-be-nurtured.

He raced through passages meant to be read slowly. Stumbled on words that any Joe could easily pronounce. Accidentally flipped two pages ahead and lost his place. And then read a quote I’d included: “As Picasso said,” The President recited, “Computers are useless. They can only give you answers.”

After reading this he looked quickly at the audience, back to his script, and then back to the audience again. “Wow!” he said. “That sounds like something Picasso would say, doesn’t it?”

I was crushed. When the talk finally ended some lunar eclipse later, my friend turned to me. “That was good,” she said.

I wondered how she could tell.

I got one more assignment from The President after that. I struggled through one draft. Two drafts. Three drafts. I seemed to have lost the ability to guess what he meant to say. Lost the thrill I used to get from waltzing with his ego. Plus, I’d recently started writing a magazine column under my own name. And I noticed that when I read those columns aloud in my office, my voice sounded calmer somehow. More authentic.

After slogging through a fourth draft of the President’s speech, his secretary called me.

“I’m sorry,” she said. “This one just isn’t working.”

I hung up the phone, sat behind my desk for several long seconds, and thought about doing a few backflips in my office.

Then I picked up my pen and got back to work putting a voice to my own words.


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