Monday, April 18, 2016

Guest Post: Big Data, or B.S.?

By David Murray

We got wind of it last week, through a splashy article on Stanford Business School’s website titled excitingly, “A Big Data Approach to Public Speaking.”

An Austin, Texas-based consultancy called Quantified Communications “analyzed more than 100,000 presentations from corporate executives, politicians and keynote speakers,” according to the Stanford piece. “They examined behaviors ranging from word choices and vocal cues to facial expressions and gesture frequency. They then used this data to rate and rank important communication variables such as persuasiveness, confidence, warmth, and clarity.”

Let’s set aside the fact that the above paragraph reads like a suicide note.

The insights the “big data” yielded are at once completely commonplace—strong and clear language matters, vocal qualities matter, gestures matter, authenticity is good—and comically specific.

For instance, the company claims that “the language used in corporate earnings calls affects up to 2.5% of stock price improvement,” according to the Stanford piece. “Up to” 2.5%? How on earth could they come up with that?

We also learn that “a 10% increase in vocal variety can have a highly significant impact on your audience's attention to and retention of your message.” How do you measure a 10% increase in variety, and how do you NOT measure the size of the impact beyond saying, “highly significant.”

And finally—get your mind ready for this one—we learn that “the top 10% of authentic speakers were considered to be 1.3 times more trustworthy and 1.3 times more persuasive than the average communicator.” The Stanford piece adds, “Authenticity is made up of the passion and warmth that people have when presenting.”

The folks at Quantified Communications have some explaining to do, to natively skeptical speechwriters everywhere: About how they actually “analyzed” 100,000 presentations, how they came to the figures they came to, and most importantly, to what imaginable use might this big data be put by working leadership communicators who already know that compelling communication is the combined result of what the speaker says and how the speaker says it.

They have explaining to do, and they should have a platform to do it.

So Vital Speeches of the Day is sending this article to Quantified Communications’ executive communications practice lead Briar Goldberg, and they’ll publish her response.

David Murray is executive director of the Professional Speechwriters Association. He's also editor of Vital Speeches of the Day magazine.

This piece was originally posted on Vital Speeches of the Day.

Monday, February 8, 2016

Guest Post: Speechwriter, Write

By Michael Long

Those of us who like Americana or alt-country music—country music with rock sensibilities—can be obsessive and last year, boy, were we. All through 2015, the golden boy of Americana, Ryan Adams, teased out the delivery of his new album, except it wasn’t quite a new album. It was going to be a song-for-song remake of one of the biggest records of the decade, Taylor Swift’s pop confection 1989. And Adams wasn’t going to do it ironically. He would sincerely reinterpret Swift’s songs by playing and arranging and singing them as he would his own.

This seemed an odd plan, recasting the dance-pop of Ms. Swift as the grungy guitar-in-the-garage roar of Mr. Adams. Her well-polished pop gems—huge hits such as “Shake It Off” and “Bad Blood”—were hard to imagine as anything but summertime soundtracks and club workouts. Yet when Ryan Adams’ 1989 was released in September 2015, it was clear he had produced something intriguing, very good, and completely his own.

If you somehow hadn’t heard of 1989 by Taylor Swift by the time you heard the Adams version, you would assume this new recording was, as usual, written by Mr. Adams. It sounds like a typical Ryan Adams record. But it wasn't even Mr. Adams' songs. It was written by Taylor Swift—nearly word for word, melody for melody, and chord for chord.

The feelings you get when you hear one of these albums versus the other are absolutely different. How can these recordings be so dissonant in effect when their foundations are the same?

The answer tells us something basic about art that speechwriters ought to remember about their craft. Presentation is, as the old line goes, all about the singer, not the song.

I tell speechwriters to stop writing for the speaker’s “voice.” Get the facts right. Get the organization down. Fuss over the structure. Know the topic. Learn the priorities of the audience and write to them. But don’t spend a second trying to find the so-called voice of the speaker, because personality and style—the fundamental aspects of voice—come out in delivery far more than in words.

Every speaker is unique, and he cannot hide his true nature—the singer, not the song. Give the same speech to two different people and you’ll hear two different speeches, even though the words are the same.

(I did stand-up comedy years ago. When we were starting out and my friends and I would see a comic who was better than we were, we'd say something like, "He could headline even with my act." We were being only a little hyperbolic. The material matters, but great delivery can elevate anything.)

Thus when the cheerleader’s Saturday night of “Shake It Off” is channeled through Ryan Adams, it comes out as the brooding, creepy obsession of a full-grown man. The pop queen’s na├»ve romantic poses in “Blank Space” emerge as a lonely last hope when Adams turns his delivery down to a whisper and pulls the simple melody through fingerpicked, arpeggiated chords.

As the writer, your best move is to get the content right and to find an effective structure. That’s a matter of intellect, not of following around your client for days making notes about how she uses prepositions. You’re not going to turn a buttoned-down CEO into a bouncing motivational speaker by capturing his “voice” in words. Don't imagine that the qualities of performance arise from filigree on the page. Coaches and writers have very different jobs.

Michael Long is a professional speechwriter, playwright, and writing teacher.
This piece was originally posted on Vital Speeches of the Day.

Monday, December 21, 2015

Dear Authors, I'm Sorry: Confessions of an Editor-Turned-Writer

By Sarah Knight

During my fifteen years as a book editor for major publishing houses, I made a number of observations about the behavioral patterns of authors. These observations led me to conclude that most of those authors were special little snowflakes at risk of melting if I so much as looked at them funnylet alone failed to include at least three paragraphs of glowing praise in my editorial letter before launching into the actual, you know, edits.
I have seen the error of my ways.
This summer, I wrote my book proposal for The Life-Changing Magic of Not Giving a Fuck. I received a round of comments from my agent and sent the revision back to her in twenty-four hours. I vividly remember the appraising look she gave me from across her glossy 5th Avenue desk and her comment: “God, I love working with professionals.”
That was the first and last time that I felt snugand smugin the knowledge that I, a professional book editor, was totally going to kill it as an author.
Not only was I going to write a hysterically funny, brilliant parody of a bestselling Japanese tidying guide, I was going to sail through the publication process without any of the anxieties, insecurities, last-minute changes, cover art hemming/hawing, or obsessive Amazon-rank-refreshing exhibited by my authors over the years.
Instead, I wrote a hysterically funny, brilliant parody of a bestselling Japanese tidying guide and fell victim to all of the above, and then some. But hey, I’m a grown-ass adult, and I know when to say I’m sorry.
Here goes…
Dear Authors,
I’M SORRY for suspecting some of you of leaving little typos on random manuscript pages just to see if I was paying attention. I used to think it was impossible to make so many typos in a 300-page document, so you must have been fucking with mebut now I realize you were so gacked out on caffeine and sleep-deprivation by the time you handed it in, that you probably really thought “different” was spelled “fidderent.”
I’M SORRY for being annoyed when you “checked in” just to make sure I “got the file” less than forty-eight hours after you sent it, when twenty-four of those hours comprised “Sunday” and another eight, “sleeping.” If, like me, you told your editor (who would also be me, in this scenario) that you “weren’t too eager for feedback yet” or to “take as long as you needI just want it off my desk!” what you really meant was “Every minute that passes that I don’t hear a kind word from you, I will assume that you and my agent are on a call deciding who will be the one to break it to me that everything is shit.”
I’M SORRY for wanting to reach through the phone and bonk you on the nose like one might a recalcitrant cat when you kept asking me how many more daysnay, hours (oh let’s be honest, minutes)you’d still have to make final changes before the book went to print. Don’t you want to be done with this thing??? I would fume incredulously, predicting [correctly] that you’d ask for more time no matter what my answer. Only now do I know that peculiar fear of waking up from a day-after-deadline fever dream with the PERFECT addition to the end of chapter four (or in my case, an improvement to a Nick Nolte joke), and not being able to make it.
I’M SORRY that I ever expected you to be able to approve your cover art and then not second guess yourselfand the motivations of your editor, publisher, and art director in “pushing” this design on youand then email hours later to rescind said approval and ask for more changes. (I may or may not have submitted an innocent query to my editor about “bumping up” the shade of red in my title font the day after I approved the art.)
I’M SORRY for rolling my eyes every time you emailed me excitedly about your Amazon ranking having gone from 655,782 to 655,001 and also asking me if I knew why it had done so. Here is the actual text of an email I sent to my editor and agent several weeks ago:
Date: October 15, 2015 
Subject: It has begun
Last night I looked at my Amazon page to post something funny about my ranking (182 in Humor/Self-Help & Psychology). Then this morning I checked again and it was up to 54. I now see how this can be addictive.

I’M SORRY that I told you to feel free to stet as many of the copyeditor’s comments as you wanted, without also warning you that going through your copyedited manuscript would feel not unlike being slowly debrided of burn wounds over 80% of your body by a spastic toddler wielding an old toothbrush.
Without anesthesia.
AND I’M SORRY that when you emailed me in a panic about missing a deadline because your computer died or your postman dropped the first pass pages in a puddle or your daughter had to go to the E.R. or your house was hit by a tornado, I didn’t believe you for one goddamn second. I am sorry about this because, on the eve of the deadline for turning in my final corrections, my printer literally ate my manuscript. Half the words were missing from the pages; the other half were mysteriously bolded.
Knowing as I do the standard reaction of an editor to this sort of late-game tomfoolery, I actually sent mine a photograph of one of the affected pages, along with a request for a new set printed at Little, Brown and Company and messengered to my apartment the next day. Then I thought about how, if one of my authors had sent me a photo of her house destroyed by a tornado and asked for an extra day with the manuscript, I would have assumed she’d spent three hours learning the ins and outs of Photoshop just to score a reprieve on her due date.
(I would therefore also forgive my editor for assuming that this entire essay was concocted to give further credence to the above scenario.)
Love, Sarah

Sarah Knight is the author of The Life-Changing Magic of Not Giving a F*ck (Little, Brown /Dec ‘15), a freelance editor, and writer at

This article was original posted on Medium.

Monday, December 14, 2015

Guest Post: Authentically Simple-Minded

Reuters/Alex Domanski
By David Murray
And here comes a prominent business professor who actually thinks authenticity is bullshit.
"Leaders don’t need to be true to themselves; in fact, being authentic is the opposite of what they should do," writes Stanford's Jeffrey Pfeffer in a currently popular book called Leadership BS. "Each of us plays a number of different roles in our lives, and people behave and think differently in each of those roles, so demanding authenticity doesn’t make sense."
All of our namby-pamby talk about how leaders are most convincing when they're speaking from the heart? Which heart? Pfeffer asks.
"One of the most important leadership skills is the ability to put on a show ... to act like a leader, to act in a way that inspires confidence and garners support—even if the person doing the performance does not actually feel confident or powerful."
To me, Pfeffer sounds like he's being purposely disingenuous. I'd love to ask him if he thinks the "role" he plays as a husband or a father isn't any kind of true self—or at least a truer self than the "role" he plays with his students or his colleagues or his administrative assistant. Are they utterly separate roles or just different sides of one soul? Surely he doesn't boil down all of his life's behavior as merely pragmatic reactions to the drama at hand? I'm pretty sure a person who felt that way would not write books.
Pfeffer's idea isn't merely simplistic, it also old—too old to be called provocative by anyone who has read Shakespeare: "all the world's a stage, and all men and women merely players."
But the endurance of this amoral vision forces us to acknowledge it. It forces us to question, as Pfeffer does, the authenticity notion that the leadership industry (and also the leadership communication industry, of which I must consider myself a part)—has been making too simple-mindedly.
"The leadership industry is so obsessively focused on ... what should leaders do and how things ought to be," Pfeffer writes, "that it has largely ignored asking the fundamental question of what actually is true and why."
And this, my friends in and around the leadership communication industry, is where and why we must be careful. Because we want leadership to be closely tied to authenticity. We want it because authenticity is good and we want to be good. We want to be involved in a noble social enterprise, not a mercenary racket.
But if we believe all the time what we want to believe, our counsel will be appropriate to the clients we wish we had rather than the ones we have. And those clients will notice. (And maybe they've noticed already.)
To be effective and moral actors, we must do four things simultaneously:
• Believe in a kind of authenticity as a leadership ideal.
• Acknowledge the more complicated way many leaders actually behave.
• Bring ourselves to acknowledge that some of those leaders actually know what they're doing.
• And nevertheless seek other leaders—leaders whose version of authenticity give us the chance to do our best work—to serve.
David Murray is executive director of the Professional Speechwriters Association. He's also editor of Vital Speeches of the Day magazine.

This piece was originally posted on Vital Speeches of the Day.

Monday, November 23, 2015

Guest Post: When Ghostwriters Need Each Other

Ghostpreneuers help ghostwriters step out of the shadows
By John Kador

If being a writer is a lonely occupation, consider the fate of the poor ghostwriter. Not only do ghostwriters toil alone, they don’t even get to tell people what they’re toiling on. When the book is published, someone else gets the credit, stands up at the bookstore readings, and sits down to sign books for adoring friends and fans.

The only satisfaction for the poor ghostwriter is that ghostwriting makes them a little less poor. It’s a living that definitely has its moments, but attaboys or accolades from readers are not among them. Isolation prevails. Even finding fellow ghostwriters to network with is hard to come by.

Enter “Ghostpreneurs” a support group for ghostwriters that has boosted my professional practice. The group was started three years ago by Derek Lewis, a business ghostwriter based in Baton Rouge, LA. Each month, six highly successful ghosts call in to share tips and leads, describe best practices, and help professionalize the craft. The title of the group is a mashup of “ghostwriter” and “entrepreneur,” a nod to the fact that ghostwriters are, first and foremost, in business for themselves.

Water-Cooler Conversations

The six members of Ghostpreneurs meet by teleconference every month for 75 minutes. After everybody checks in with a quick update on the last month, we focus on a theme to improve our game. We usually talk shop. After all, the business of ghostwriting is how we choose to support our families. So there is generally a lot of conversation about setting fees, marketing, structuring contracts, and qualifying prospective clients.

Often we have a guest speaker talk about some aspect of the work of ghosting. In recent months, we heard from an attorney on intellectual property law, a social media expert, a branding expert, and even an accountant on the best way to handle billing and taxes.

When a member is stuck, the group never fails to surface out-of-the-box ideas. For example, one member confided to the group that even with a steady flow of potential clients, the ghost was unable to get prospects to sign. Someone in the group suggested the ghost consider hiring a coach with the narrow task of getting better at closing sales. Within weeks of working with the coach, the ghost had closed three new book projects.

A Ghost Support Group

Sally Collings, a ghostwriter based in Palo Alto, CA, focuses on memoirs and life stories. Sally worked for HarperCollins and was editorial director for Amber Books before going out on her own in 2006 and founding Red Hill Publishing. “Being part of this group has been enormously valuable to me in so many ways,” Sally says. “Over the past couple of years, its members have become my pseudo-colleagues: people I can gripe to, celebrate with, and commiserate with. Our monthly calls are my water-cooler conversations.”

It's helped me, too. Sometimes, I’m stumped by how to work with a testy client; the group helps me figure out how to stay professional. When I’m looking for a fresh perspective, it seems like someone has a suggestion that helps me.

I met Derek Lewis, the founder of the group, at a rare conference for ghostwriters. It’s so rare, in fact, that the conference has yet to be repeated. Ghostwriters attended from all over the U.S., England, and Australia. As the conference was winding down, Derek suggested a few of us continue the conversation about professional matters and that’s how Ghostpreneurs was born.

“I wanted to set up a monthly conference with some of my fellow ghostwriters for a purely selfish reason,” Derek concedes. “I wanted to learn from the best for free. More than two years later, I'm still learning.”
Most of all, I’m reminded I’m not alone.

# # #

John Kador is a business author and ghostwriter based in Winfield, PA. His website is

Monday, August 31, 2015

Guest Post: Fun Facts About the Transcription Industry

Being a ghostwriter means talking to people. A lot. There are few better ways to capture someone’s writing voice than to hear how they communicate out loud. After hours of interviewing your client—digging through layers of triviality to find those nuggets that make up a good story—it can be hard to even look at your tape recorder. But all that glorious truth doesn’t do any good unless it’s been transcribed into words for you to shape and hone.

Whether you transcribe yourself, or hire out, we think you’ll appreciate some of the stunning facts and figures about the transcription industry found in this excellent infographic via Take 1 Transcription, a company that offers transcription services.

Infographic created and originally posted by Take 1 Transcription

Friday, August 21, 2015

Guest Post: Interview with a Heckler

Originally posted on Vital Speeches of the Day.
By David Murray

"Hecklers are vandals" was the headline of yesterday's post on my personal blog, Writing Boots.

I was taking on Zoe Nicholson, a lifelong political activist who had objected on her Facebook page to the Bernie Sanders campaign's anti-heckling tactics. When Sanders is giving a speech and hecklers start chanting, "Black Lives Matter," Sanders backers are instructed to overwhelm the hecklers by chanting, "We Stand Together."

"Maddening," said Nicholson on Facebook. "All hecklers want is a voice and the issues prioritized. Shouting down is making them voiceless. That is the real message."

Aside from questioning a heckler's right to complain about being heckled back, I questioned—partly in defense of my fine-feathered speechwriting friends who work too hard on speeches to have them shouted down!—the effectiveness of heckling, and whether it's worth the social cost:
At best, it may alert some people to the idea that there are people who think, for instance, that George W. Bush or Barack Obama is a baby killer. But if you didn't know in the first place that people felt that way, you're probably not inclined to read further, because you never were a big reader in the first place. 
Mostly, heckling just makes everyone embarrassed and sad, that people feel desperate or disrespectful enough to vandalize a community gathering, and destroy an attempt at communication.
Happily, the heckler Nicholson responded in defense of heckling, writing, in part:
I am pleased that you quoted me and perfectly too. I am a real fan of heckling, personally. I began it with George Wallace in regards to civil rights and the Vietnam War. My teacher is Alice Paul, who learned it from Emmeline Pankhurst. 
To really understand the organic effect of heckling you have to have the mission of pointing out to those in power that they need to prioritize the issues. For example, Senator Sanders was talking about the distribution of wealth and the hecklers wanted him to update his position on Black Lives Matter. It was not, 1) that he is a racist, 2) that his work in the 60s was ignored, or 3) redistribution of wealth is not important. And, the fact is—within 2 days his campaign did put out a NEW set of positions on the issues of the day. No matter how it appears—the fact is that it works. 
I heckled POTUS on the repeal of DADT. I was chanted down and escorted out by the Secret Service. BUT President Obama prioritized and set a committee in place to investigate the effects on the armed forces should they allow LGB to openly serve. Obviously it was repealed. 
It is the work of the militants to break convention. Heckling is a tried and true tool. But if you measure it on how the moderates react—it looks like rude immature shouting. However, the approval of the moderates is not the goal.... 
BTW—I just read that "Bernie rally tonight in LA opened with a woman giving a speech about Black Lives Matter. The cheers from the crowd were insane." Well done!
I thanked Nicholson for her thoughtful response and added that "even if I don't necessarily buy your implied direct connection between your heckling and the repeal of DADT," her points were well taken.

Speechwriter—O megaphone for power!—how do you respond?

David Murray is executive director of the Professional Speechwriters Association. He's also editor of Vital Speeches of the Day magazine.