What is the speechwriter’s primary goal?


How do we determine whether a speech is successful or not? The response of the audience is the usual answer. But which audience? In most instances, the speaker addresses an audience who is present in the same room. But that may not be the speaker’s primary target.

Several years ago, I wrote a keynote speech for the CEO of a Fortune 50 company who was speaking before an association of vendors. The group had been trying for several years to convince the company to relax its vendor standards so that more could qualify. The audience was hoping that the CEO would include such an announcement in his speech. When I met with him, he told me to write a speech beginning with a brief description of the state of the industry, then focus on the outlook for the company over the next quarter, and end with a discussion of the international opportunities available to those vendors—opportunities which he believed they had not sufficiently recognized.    

I wrote the first draft and then met with the CEO who made several suggestions which I incorporated into the second draft. He approved it with no further changes. On a Friday we flew to California where an audience of around 250 vendors anxiously awaited his remarks. He delivered the speech well, adding anecdotes from his own experience to personalize the message.  When he finished, the audience politely applauded. 

As I got on the plane to return to New York I was forced to admit to myself that the speech had not been a success.

Afterward I wandered among them to learn what they thought about what he had said. I spoke to around 20 people who all were disappointed that the CEO had not addressed their major issue of relaxing vendor standards. A few acknowledged that what he said about international opportunities was true, but they were not enthusiastic about pursuing them. Certainly that was not the result I was hoping for. As I got on the plane to return to New York I was forced to admit to myself that the speech had not been a success.


The following Monday morning I received a call from the CEO’s office saying that he wanted me to come up. I was not looking forward to reporting to him what I had heard. When I entered his office, he handed me the business section of the Washington Post. “Look at this,” he said, with a big grin. The article described the speech as proof that the company was among the world’s leaders in recognizing major international opportunities available for Americans. “These opportunities should become a focus for American vendors who have concentrated too long on selling their products only on American soil.”

“That’s the message I wanted to get across,” he said. “It enhances the company’s global perspective. You did a good job. Thanks.”

“That’s the message I wanted to get across,” he said. “It enhances the company’s global perspective. You did a good job. Thanks.”

“I have to admit,” I said, “that the audience in California were not happy with what you said. They wanted our vendor requirements changed.”

“I know, and I expected that. But it doesn’t matter. We got the message out worldwide to thought leaders and the business press that this company thinks internationally, not just nationally. That’s what I wanted to accomplish.”

Would the speech have been better if he had told me that he was indifferent to the audience reaction in California? Probably not. Knowing his indifference, I might unintentionally have adapted a more remote tone that would have served only to distance him even further from that audience. There was certainly no point in needlessly offending them.

The lesson I have taken from that experience is that the primary goal of the speechwriter is to write something that pleases the speaker. And that does not necessarily require pleasing the audience he is directly addressing.

Photo—Erich Ferdinand/Flickr