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Sweating the Details – Why Speechwriters Need to Pay Attention to Logistics
When Irish Prime Minister Brian Cowan spoke at the White House on St. Patrick’s Day 2009, he started reading President Obama’s remarks. The hunchback had uploaded the wrong speech. Someone screwed up. The speechwriter did not double-check with the teleprompter operator in advance.
Fact followed fiction.
A first season episode of The West Wing opens with speechwriter Sam Seaborn sitting at his desk. He is composing President Bartlet’s remarks to be delivered later that day at an outdoor venue in Washington. His boss, Toby, warns that the line “As I look at this magnificent view” won’t work if it rains and the event is moved indoors. Sam swears it won’t rain for him. He cuts to the final scene where Bartlet is about to speak inside an auditorium (where there is no great view) since it has, in fact, been raining. As the script shows, Sam realizes too late that he hasn’t double-checked everything:
We hear Bartlet inside the auditorium. Staff stand guard near the door.
BARTLET [OS] Thank you. A thousand thanks. It’s nice to see you. Thank you.
Toby and Sam just realized something.
SAM Damn it!
SAM I forgot to do something.
BARTLET [OS] As I look at this magnificent panorama…
Toby looks away in frustration as Sam slams his notebook away.
It is often the logistical minutiae that do irreparable damage to a speech.
I will never forget the time I worked with conference organizers in Spain to secure a place to speak for a top executive. I was pleased when they agreed that he could give the keynote address at an event in Barcelona where 2,000 attendees were expected. It wasn’t until the executive flew in from California and took the stage in front of 35-40 people that I realized Friday afternoon was a “soft” opening. Most of the attendees were still on their way and hadn’t registered. The conference really started the next morning. My reputation with the executive has taken much longer to recover.
Independent business writer Michele Hush learned the hard way that a lot can go wrong with a speech. He understands that speaking is often a one-time side job for clients, but full-time for her. He often finds that he is the person with the responsibility of checking that the logistics are covered. In one case, his client was giving a talk at a large university and planned to use two teleprompters. Michele contacted the student responsible and was assured that there would be no problems. Double-checking a few days before the speech, he discovered that no one had reserved the teleprompters. It is common for event planners to confuse trusted monitors with teleprompters. Because she took the time to double check, it was still possible to fix the problem.
What steps can speechwriters take to mitigate potential disasters?
Peter Faur is a communications consultant who once wrote speeches for Zane Barnes, CEO of Southwestern Bell. Barnes insisted that his speechwriter get up early on the day of a morning speech and check the news to see if anything had happened during the night that would affect the content. This was the late 80s, before instant news on the internet. Nothing major ever happened, but Faur has been building that drill into his regime ever since.
Laura Hunter, Senior Communications Manager for the Dean’s Office at the University of Chicago Booth School of Business, has a checklist that she runs with conference organizers and event people 1) when she is given the assignment, 2) two weeks before the assignment and 3) the day before the assignment. Laura says, “Having this triple check inspires confidence in my abilities, so much so that my clients start trusting me in other areas—judgment, gut, whatever—because they know I have the hard facts.”
Michele Hush triple checks the speaker’s position in the program, room size, view, presence of print, lighting, miking, and audiovisual arrangements, if applicable.
I rely on a standard three-page logistics form. This includes location data, date and time of the interview. It includes the length of the speech, other speakers on the agenda, audience size, and expectations. I will also list press and PR contacts and both event co-ordinator and A/V contact details. Having a standard pattern minimizes the chances of something slipping through the cracks.
While you can’t control the weather, remembering to double-check the logistical details helps ensure it doesn’t rain during the parade before the speaker takes the stage.
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