Most PR professionals spend their careers as ghostwriters. We may not think about it that way — we’re simply drafting a memo to employees or writing the president’s message for an annual report.
But the fact is: Few executives reach the C-suite because of their writing skills. They get there for other reasons — great ideas, an appetite for risk, a deep understanding of customers or technical prowess, among other attributes.
As PR professionals, it’s our job to help executives communicate their ideas, plans and priorities in their own voices. Some executives are eloquent writers and inspiring speakers, comfortable with employees and investors alike. But even the most gifted communicators can’t possibly create all the content demanded today. Customers want to know more about the people who lead the companies they patronize. Executives seek to amplify their own voices through “thought leadership.”
It’s up to us as PR professionals to make sure our CEO’s voice, and not ours, shines through in these messages. According to the 2017 Edelman Trust Barometer, CEO credibility fell 12 points from the previous year, to 37 percent. In this low-trust environment, communication from the C-suite must be authentic. (Find the 2018 Trust Barometer here.)
Speeches, white papers, blog posts and even tweets create expectations about an executive’s communication skills that must be met when they do live Facebook chats, meet customers or talk with employees. As PR pros, we can’t fashion a brilliant, witty CEO on paper and then send a different person with the same name out into the world to fend for themselves.
Here are four tips to help you capture an executive’s authentic voice when ghostwriting:
1. Build strong relationships
If you work with your organization’s executives regularly, then you probably already have good relationships with them. But you might also have habits that make authentic ghostwriting more difficult.
On one occasion, I was given an assignment to write something for the CEO. He barely gave me any direction, simply instructing, “You know what I want to say. Just draft it and I’ll take a look.”
I could have written about the company’s most important accomplishments or how proud the CEO was of his employees without any further consultation, but skipping the process of conversation and discovery with him meant that I was missing the opportunity to tell a good story.
If you’ve been hired for a ghostwriting assignment or are working with a new CEO for the first time, considering preparing by talking to people who know the person well, attending a meeting to observe your client in a natural setting or emailing the CEO a short list of questions before your interview. Learn what executives want to say and how they think and express themselves.
2. Research and ask questions
When starting any ghostwriting assignment, take time to research the topic. By knowing the broad context, details and opposing viewpoints, you’ll be a better listener and can ask more informed questions. Your client’s answers will clarify details and let you hear their voice. Use open-ended questions such as, “How do you think this will impact the industry?” or “Why does this stakeholder have a different point of view?”
Asking questions also helps you discover anecdotes and stories that make the final product more authentic, such as “How did your career prepare you for this position?” or “Can you tell me about an employee who has made a difference to your customers?”
For written assignments, send open-ended questions via email. A client’s writing and speaking styles will have subtle differences.
3. Learn your client’s communication habits
Writing for executives requires attention to both the content and form of their communication. One CEO I worked for wrote very long sentences that contained multiple semicolons, even in email subject lines. His style wasn’t particularly clear, but employees recognized it as uniquely his. Another executive liked using three-word phrases, such as “prudent business principles” and “optimum cost management.”
When interviewing executives, listen for phrases, word and sentence lengths, and unusual terms they favor. Also notice the point of view they use — first person (I/we), second person (you/your) or third person (he/she/they/it).
For particularly important assignments, it’s a good idea to record the interviews. It’s hard to pay attention to content, tone and style while asking follow-up questions and taking notes.
4. Revise without altering voice
Even if you capture the CEO’s voice in the first draft, it can easily be lost when the copy is revised and approved by outside editors, who may unconsciously push the writing toward their own voice and style.
To protect your client’s authentic voice, hand-carry your first draft to anyone who is revising it. Read through it with them and talk through any instances where they find the writing too informal, pushy or personal. This prevents unnecessary markups while also keeping facts and details accurate.
Being a modern ghostwriter has benefitted my career in many ways: I’ve helped customers and employees get to know CEOs better, influenced strategies during periods of crisis, and built trust in my organization with important stakeholders. I’ve learned a lot while helping smart, capable and caring people express their thoughts more clearly.
Blythe Campbell, APR, has been a ghostwriter for eight different CEOs and their leadership teams over a 30-year career in public relations and marketing. She’s written memos, opinion pieces, letters to the editor, legislative testimony, white papers, speeches and more — both as a freelancer and in a corporate setting. In local, regional and national workshops, Campbell has taught hundreds of professionals to be better ghostwriters. Her book, “Modern Ghostwriting,” will be published in fall of 2018.
On Feb. 15, Blythe Campbell will present a webinar titled “Modern Ghostwriting: Helping Senior Leaders Create Authentic Communication.” The session is free for PRSA members.