Friday, April 10, 2015

Blank Page, Blue Sky

by David Murray

I get it on the golf course every time I'm paired with a stranger. There's a wait on the fourth tee, and the guy says, "So what do you do for a living?"

(I generally want to avoid this conversation because I like to keep golf separate from life—the reason I play in the first place. Similarly, I don't take my business cards to bed with me in case I meet a potentially useful new contact in my dreams.)

"I'm a writer," I say, never able to hide the pride. It's cool to be a writer. It's old. It's elemental. It's a little like announcing that you're a fisherman or a hunter (or a clown or a prostitute). "Am a writer," my novelist mother once wrote. "Get to call myself that because I write."

But then there is dread. Dread because the response is so perfectly predictable.

"Oh, wow!" Pause, two seconds. "What sort of writing do you do?"

That last question means, "How on earth do you make a living? Or is your wife an investment banker and you're actually a bum and that's why you're on the golf course in the middle of the week?"

My pride forces me to convince the fellow that I do make a living, by hook and by crook, an exercise I resent. Once I've achieved this, his next line, if it's not the worst case ("I've got a story you should write!") is something to the effect of how interesting my work must be.

Which I take as a confession about how boring his life must be.

My old man, an advertising writer, used to see everyone else's job as a nightmare of tedium. Even a doctor! He said: "Can you imagine, day after day, hour after hour, patient after patient, describing the same symptoms over and over as if they were just the most important thing in the world? And you having to listen gravely, even though in most cases you know from the moment they walk into the office that you're going to prescribe amoxicillan."

Glad Dad wasn't a doctor? Me too. But maybe he was on to something. Maybe a writer does have a kind of blue sky that others don't. But the writer also has a blank page to contend with. (A bus driver once told me he pitied writers when he opened up the newspaper and tried to imagine some poor wretch having to write all those words!) A writer's work isn't done for him in the form of a full waiting room. A writer's work, however familiar the subject has become, must be done from scratch.

“People would say I must have had such a great life doing this, people who were engineers, doctors, insurance salesmen or whatever,” said radio comedy writer Tom Koch, who died last week. “But it was the kind of work where every morning I would wake up and think, ‘My God, I wonder if I can do it again today.’ There is no way you prepare to do it, or even know how you do it.”

And maybe that's the best thing about it.

This post originally appeared on Vital Speeches of the Day.

Friday, April 3, 2015

Around the Word

Here's the latest in our regular roundup of literary news.

Cover chosen for Harper Lee’s Go Set A Watchman
Michael Morrison notes that the jacket “draws on the style of the decade the book was written, but with a modern twist.” The cover, featuring a 1950s train forging off into the distance, touches “literally and figuratively on the book's content.” Surely, in contemporary celebrity fashion, Harper Lee’s fans will line up for half a mile just to catch a glimpse of the 88-year-old author’s winning smile.

Nine Launches, One Book
Can you be in nine places at once? In May, he folks at McPherson & Company, in an innovative experiment, will inhabit nine parallel universes—well, nine different bookstores—to launch the multi-author essay collection Every Father’s Daughter. Nine of the book's 20+ authors will host a simultaneous talk, with readers at one shop being able to Skype their questions to authors across the country. Join Gotham Ghostwriters (in nine separate realities) as we congratulate their achievement.

Centennial Stories
Best American Short Stories is celebrating its 100th birthday! Far from being infirm, crotchety, or behind the times, the series is vigorously planning a special anniversary edition to celebrate becoming a centenarian. 100 Years of the Best American Short Stories will feature seminal works from the last century, with contributions from literary luminaries such as George Saunders, John Cheever, Sherman Alexie, Edna Ferber, and many more.

To Self-Publish or Not to Self-Publish?
Lulu recently published an infographic based on a survey conducted by Digital Book World and Writer’s Digest, touting the benefits of going indie (self-publishing). Traditionalists beware! The revelations of the changing publishing landscape are gothic and dire. However, while the enticing “Indie Math” may lead writers to believe that navigating the dense forest of self-marketing is profitable, the article goes on to describe how difficult a venture this can prove.

Monday, February 23, 2015

To Write Well, Forget Everything Your High-School English Teacher Taught You

By Jonathan Rick

In today’s the-world-is-flat era, few things can differentiate you better than polished communication skills. Indeed, even at the world’s top PR agencies—among people who make their living off the written word—those who can write well are shockingly few (and increasingly well compensated).

Happily, the mechanics of good writing are eminently learnable. For most of us, the problem is readily diagnosable: our last English class was in college, and from our corporate perch today, we look down on continuing education—“Do I really need a two-hour seminar on something I do every day?”

Yes! We all do. (If you disagree, ask your boss.) In fact, the time you spend writing (emails, memos, reports, proposals, website copy, blog posts, social media content, e-newsletters, and so on and so forth) is a reason for training.

In that spirit, I hope you’ll page through the above presentation. A refresher on the myths and rules of good business writing, it contains cameos from House, Good Will Hunting, Saturday Night Live, Shakespeare, Churchill, Einstein, da Vinci, Orwell, and of course Strunk and White. Even the IRS makes an appearance.

Enjoy—and happy writing!

Jonathan Rick is the president of the Jonathan Rick Group, a communications consultancy in Washington, DC. For more linguistic learnings, pursue his blog, Sprachgefuhl.

Monday, February 16, 2015

GG is Hiring

Our firm is actively seeking candidates for three open positions to help us run and grow our business.

First, we are looking for two senior content pros with an entrepreneurial streak to serve as Managing Directors of our Bookwriting and Thought Leadership groups.

The MDs will be responsible for leading and scaling up our two main practice areas. The work will involve a mix of business development, brand ambassadorship, and client management.

You can find the full job descriptions here:

Managing Director, Bookwriters Group

Managing Director, Thought Leadership Group 

Additionally, we are looking for a highly organized self-starter who has a way with words to fill a Junior Associate position.

The Junior Associate will work closely with the President and other senior staff to help manage the firm's daily operations, support and service clients, and expand our brand.

You can find the full job description here:

Junior Associate 

If you are interested in being considered for one of these positions, please email your resume and at least three representative writing samples to:

Guest Post: Patrick Sweeney, on the three audiences

by Neil Hrab

Speechwriters, don’t let your eyes deceive you. When writing a speech, you’re typically trying to help a speaker connect with not one, but three distinct audiences. Patrick Sweeney, an author, speechwriter and corporate executive, explains the three audiences as follows:

“There’s the audience who requested you to speak, a separate audience whose job is to interpret your message, and then there is the audience of your audience. What I mean is that, first, there’s the audience who invited you because they are interested in your perspective. They are looking for you to engage, inform and inspire them. The second audience comprises journalists who are covering the event. Journalists are listening for content and style, substance and memorable phrases. They have an appreciation for words and language, so through your speech, you are also seeking to give them a place to take their story, realizing that your phrases can suggest possible headlines and lead paragraphs.”

“And then there’s the third audience—the people whom your listeners will interact with following the speech. You need to consider what they will remember about the speech and share with family and friends at the dinner table, for example. When drafting a speech for New Jersey Governor Brendan Byrne, my goal was to keep these three audiences in mind, and write something that would, hopefully, resonate on all three of those levels.”

A talent for connecting with audiences is, in some ways, the thread that binds together Sweeney’s multi-faceted career. After graduating from college in 1974, Sweeney worked as a newspaper reporter, magazine editor and assistant to the producer of a current events TV program. He also wrote feature articles for the New York Times.

In 1978, Sweeney left journalism to become the primary speechwriter to Brendan Byrne, who had just been re-elected as Governor of New Jersey. Being new to speechwriting, Sweeney particularly appreciated how generously Byrne shared his time, thought process and guidance on draft speeches. 

“In all honesty, it took a while to learn how to emulate the Governor’s style of speaking. I remember spending the first few weeks getting a sense of his cadence, his timing, and the way he liked to tell stories and make his points. He was very good at sharing with me what was working in a draft, and what I still needed to refine,” Sweeney recalled.

Sweeney would also research the subject matter for each speech, drawing on his experiences in journalism. “I would make sure the information in the draft was accurate, and then work with the Governor to create a message that clearly reflected his intent in a manner that was compelling.” 

Sweeney observed some similarities between his journalism and his speechwriting: “To me, speechwriting is a unique combination of the typical news story format, with elements of feature writing. These are two completely different ways of telling a story. A news story is all about facts, with the important information up front, in case it needs to be edited for length. A feature story, on the other hand, usually starts with some intriguing observation or story up front to pull readers in and grasp their attention. By putting these two approaches together, you can capture feelings and facts, thoughts and emotions – which is what I found myself doing for the Governor as a speechwriter.” 

While Sweeney was a journalist by background, and Byrne was a lawyer and former judge, the two shared a keen interest in ensuring that all speeches would connect in a moving way with their intended audiences.

“When he agreed to a speaking engagement, the Governor always had a very clear perspective on what message he wanted to communicate and how he would convey it. As we were developing a draft, he did not have to talk very long before I would often hear him say something that was very quotable. It was a very collaborative process, and the more time we spent with each other, the more effective I became as a speechwriter,” Sweeney said.

“With Governor Byrne, speaking engagements were opportunities to make a statement. So, he took the preparation very seriously. In the case of major addresses, for example, I would meet with him several months beforehand to discuss the speech. The Governor would explain the points he wanted to make and the impression he wanted to leave, as well as why he was doing the speech in front of this particular audience. I’d then craft the initial draft, and show it to him, and he’d say what he liked, where he wanted more details, where he might want the phrasing to be stronger, etc., and I would go back to work.”

For Sweeney, the most memorable speech that emerged from his work with Governor Byrne involved a March 4, 1981 speech in Philadelphia, PA. The Governor informed Sweeney he would use the speech to comment directly on then recently-elected President Reagan’s agenda. Byrne, a liberal Democrat, explained that he was not terribly impressed by Reagan’s claim that he could simultaneously balance the federal budget and increase military spending. “The math just doesn’t work,” Byrne told Sweeney. “There’s been a grace period for the new President, but I want to say that I feel like I am in the fairy tale where everyone seems to be admiring the new President’s clothes…but you can actually see right through them,” Byrne said.

Byrne further shared that, for this particular speech, he wanted Sweeney to confer via telephone with the renowned journalist and former editor of Saturday Review Norman Cousins. As a long-time admirer of Cousins’ work, Sweeney was thrilled to have the chance to collaborate with this legendary figure.

The speech delivered by Byrne to an audience of tri-state business leaders was a respectful but hard-hitting and carefully reasoned take-down of Reagan’s political program. It received extensive media coverage.

“I agree with the President that nothing is more important than our ability to defend ourselves,” Byrne said during the speech, “[but] the central question is: ‘What does our security depend upon?’ We cannot defend ourselves with 1890 ideas, any more than we can with 1890 weapons.”

On the President’s proposed military build-up, Byrne said: “We have human needs far more pressing than the foolish desire to continue building our stockpile of nuclear weapons…[For] if there was security in the arms race…we would certainly be secure by now….What are we doing [by building more nuclear weapons] except overloading our boats with life preservers to the point where there is no room for people?”

On the President’s plans to reduce the federal budget, Byrne adroitly observed Reagan wanted to “cut spending at every corner, unless those corners happen to be on the sites of military installations.” 

Sweeney subsequently left the Governor’s office in 1981 to begin working at Caliper, an international management consulting company based in Princeton, NJ. His accomplishments at Caliper include: serving as the company’s president; co-authoring two books with the company’s founder; and acting as one of the company’s key spokespeople. Sweeney recently decided to venture on his own, taking a page from a New York Times bestselling book he co-authored called Succeed on Your Own Terms. He is currently hard at work on a new book to be published by McGraw-Hill.

In his own speaking engagements, Sweeney has carried with him several lessons from his speechwriting days. One of them is that, as a speaker, Governor Byrne “was always true to himself. He had his own style of speaking, which he honed. My style of speaking is different from the Governor’s. Still, I carry with me his advice about being true to myself, being clear about my message, and seeking memorable ways to truly connect.”

Another lesson is to practice for speaking appearances, just as Governor Byrne would do: “It’s about honoring your audience, and showing that you’ve given the appearance your full dedication, commitment and enthusiasm.”

For Sweeney, pulling this all together is about ensuring that the perspective he is sharing, the points he is making, the humorous anecdotes, the poignant accounts, and all of the final touches he adds to his speeches are not just there to be amusing or interesting in and of themselves. “Stories enrich speeches, certainly. They can touch us in ways that are very deep and meaningful. What matters is that they come authentically from the speaker’s experience, interest and heart. That is when they truly connect and become much more powerful,” Sweeney said.


Sweeney shared one more piece of advice about connecting with an audience – inspired by a brief conversation he had with João Carlos Martins, the pianist known for his passionate interpretations of Bach. In 2007, just before Sweeney was about to go on stage to address a huge crowd at a leadership conference in São Paulo, he turned to Martins, an internationally-renowned performer, for some advice on connecting with such an enormous audience. Martins, who was featured in a book Sweeney co-authored, was scheduled to perform immediately after him.

Martins replied: “What I do beforehand is connect with my heart, and then I imagine the hearts of everyone in the audience. In this mediation, our hearts connect, and float up together. And, after that, I know everything will be fine.”

Sweeney cited Martins suggestion as an excellent way to sooth one’s pre-speech nerves. It’s one that other speechwriters-turned-speakers may want to file away for future reference. As Sweeney has learned, it is all about connecting.

This article originally appeared on Vital Speeches of the Day.

Monday, February 9, 2015

GG Founder Dan Gerstein to Appear on Bookwriting Panel

Our president Dan Gerstein will be appearing on a wide-ranging panel covering many aspects of the publishing industry later this month in Arlington, VA. Other panelists include published authors and the director of the Naval Institute Press.

If interested in attending, please email Taylor Kiland at

Tuesday, January 20, 2015

Guest Post: Speechwriting never goes out of style

by David Murray

Tonight's the State of the Union Address, and today is the one day of the year when professional speechwriters emerge into the sunlight of cable news punditry, to bask for a day in their own importance as shapers of policy, articulators of arguments and supporters of leaders. And everyone vaguely wonders, "What kind of people are these, anyway?"

Today I'm here to answer that question, perhaps as authoritatively as it's ever been answered, with the results of the first survey of the global speechwriting profession.

First, I should say: I go back with these people. The very first business conference I ever attended in my first job out of college was a conference of speechwriters. I was assigned to work in the cloakroom.

So now, as the founder and executive director of the Professional Speechwriters Association, I can reliably interpret the findings of our first membership survey (co-conducted with Gotham Ghostwriters): Although the set and costumes have been rearranged—speechwriters no longer smoke pipes, nor research their speeches by leafing through quotation books, nor wear cloaks—the players remain and the script is unchanged.

See for yourself. According to the PSA survey:

• Speechwriters are older than their colleagues in public relations, more likely to be male, better educated—and better paid. 
The typical speechwriter is a 51-year-old man with a master's degree. More than half of the speechwriters surveyed make more than $100K, with 23 percent pulling in more than $150K (and half of those making over $200K).

• Speechwriters found their way into their work through serendipity.
Some speechwriters claimed a method to their professional madness, with one saying he joined the business "to fuse my love of writing with my love of policy/politics."

In a more typical answer to the question, "Why did you become a speechwriter in the first place?" one PSA member wrote that he "stumbled into the job—CEO needed a speech."

• Speechwriters love their work, and hate their work.
Asked what they like most about speechwriting, speechwriters said, "shaping public debates," "finding and telling stories," "intellectual and creative challenge and reward," "the variety of topics and amazing people that I get to work with," and "the silent hours when I through writing try to understand and share something important."

What do speechwriters like least about the job? Solitude, short deadlines, slow workflow, lawyers, leaders' indifference. Speechwriters resent clients who "don't care about content" and bureaucrats who care too much.

"I have to contend with constant micro-managing by people who see risk lurking in every corner and are afraid of letting the CEO take any kind of position," one speechwriter said. "They also have no feel for what constitutes good writing yet exert a huge influence over the process."

• Speechwriters fear for the future… 
Speechwriters feel threatened by new challenges, such as the increasing use of the Q-and-A format and other informal presentation techniques to replace formal speeches. And they face timeless ones, such as quantifying the strategic value of their work and "the everlasting suspicion of rhetoric."

• …and speechwriters envision a brighter future. 
Now that they're getting organized for the first time in a global association, they have very specific requests of their new Professional Speechwriters Association: They told us they don't want another rigid structure in their lives, nor an elaborate guild or union, but straight-up professional development and an expanded network through online and in-person networking programs.

Speechwriters are a joy and a pleasure to serve, because they're the most erudite, intense, joyful people in the communication profession. They're also the most frustrated. Now that they have a platform to organize, I hope they'll realize their potential as powerful actors in their organizations and in society.

Yes, I go back with these people. Now we'll go forward together.

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