If you look for a good speech now, you undo me for what I have to say is of mine own making.
William Shakespeare, Second Part of King Henry IV, Act V, Epilogue
Once you have become a speech ghostwriter, writing speeches to be delivered by someone else who will take credit for your work, you will become a target of attack from two sources: from yourself, when you question whether what you are doing is ethical; and from people who accuse you of confusing history by inserting your own writing style and ideas into the style and ideas of the speaker.
In the practice of speech ghostwriting, as in any endeavor, the question of ethics does loom large, focusing on how the ghostwriter and the speaker conduct themselves. Curiously, the question of ethics seems to be applied only to ghostwriting speeches and not to ghostwriting anything else.
A secretary who drafts a letter for the Chief Executive Officer-and which the CEO signs without alteration-is a kind of ghostwriter, but neither the CEO nor the secretary is criticized for the practice. In fact, a secretary who can prepare letters for the CEO in the CEO's own writing style, without direction, is considered a rare find.
An equally rare find is a speech ghostwriter who can capture the speaker's ideas and use of words, speaking cadence, and language flow. And in the case of the speech ghostwriter, as in any endeavor, honesty and integrity are basic, so some guidelines are in order: There must be no intention to defraud; every audience must be aware that the speaker uses a ghostwriter; the speaker and the ghostwriter must ensure that the speech contains the speaker's ideas and sounds like the speaker; and the speaker must accept full responsibility for the entire speech. In fact, there is no way that the speaker can disown information in the delivered speech.
By and large, those in a position to need a speech ghostwriter provide their own ideas, whether in direct discussion with or available to the writer from earlier writings or speeches. No power behind the throne, particularly no ghostwriter, is calling the shots. The ideas in a ghostwritten speech must be the ideas of the speaker in the speaker's own words and cadence, if the speaker is to continue to hold public confidence. No speaker can afford to announce a contrary idea without having first laid a solid foundation for that idea.
However, those rhetorical and biographical scholars who research the lives and speeches of individuals such as leaders of government, business, industry, the military, and such believe that the ghostwriter exerts an undue influence on the speaker and adulterates the speech. Some equate ghostwriting to students copying class assignments, which is cheating. But the two are not the same. Students are asked to prove what they learned; public speakers-presidents, governors, senators, CEOs of business, etc.-have no need to prove anything, least of all an ability to make a public speech, an ability they have honed on their way to the top.
Besides, those who research the nation's leaders do not lament the presence of other ghostwritten materials or the speaker's other advisers, some of whom present their advice in memorandum form.
Unquestionably, the advisers, including the ghostwriter, do influence the speaker, but so do scores of others. No one lives in isolation. People are products of everything that has ever happened to them, of everything they have seen or heard or felt or tasted or smelled, an almost endless list of forces that influence everyone constantly. Life simply cannot be otherwise. It is neither ethical nor unethical; it is life.
On and off across the centuries, the business of ghostwriting and the business of public speaking have coexisted to their mutual benefit and the benefit of those who use them. Whenever executives have had to address their following, others gifted in the art of persuasion have been available to help them with their speeches, providing assistance ranging from research to complete texts.
As a practical working arrangement, this is excellent. With a ghost in the background, public speakers can have more confidence that their public utterances are appropriate, contain no errors, and probably will be accepted-even applauded-by the audience.
Researching and writing a speech takes a lot of time, hours of reading and writing and rewriting. It is not that the executives who make speeches cannot research and write the speeches themselves; they can. By the time they reach high office, they have had plenty of experience in extemporaneous public speaking, during the campaigns or at lower levels in the business world, well before they have the financial means to hire a speech ghostwriter. Once they reach high office, the demands of that office control their time; they cannot forego their responsibilities and duties to meet the demands of researching and writing the myriad speeches on various topics demanded of them.
Demands on their time are increasing. Civic and professional groups want public officials and business leaders to report to them, often in the form of public speeches, on their stewardship of their offices. The public official, thinking of re-election or re-appointment, accepts as many of these personal appearance invitations as time will permit.
All of this means simply that public officials who want to remain in office cannot survive without the ghostwriter, and will not give up that aide. Once in high office, people in positions of leadership need help in administering the office, so they surround themselves with advisers, men and women knowledgeable in the various fields inherent in the office, who recommend courses of action. The ghostwriter is both one of these advisers and more than an adviser. The ghostwriter usually does not work with entirely new ideas, but with ideas that are presented in earlier public statements by the speaker.
More important, the ghostwriter works closely with the speaker to ensure that the finished speech not only contains the selected ideas but also that the speech reflects the speaker's own word choice, speech pattern, and speech rhythm. That can be done only through detailed and repeated interviews with the speaker and by inserting into the ghostwritten speech the speaker's own words and sentences.
So, the finished speech not only belongs to the speaker, but it contains the speaker's ideas and thoughts and is reflective of the speaker's speech pattern. Although public speakers want help in writing
The researcher seeking clues to the speaker's thoughts in his speeches shouldn't condemn the speech ghostwriter, who becomes a valuable asset in the researcher's search for information and insights on the speaker and the speech. It is the speech ghostwriter whose notes-and successive drafts-provide clues to the thinking process of the speaker in arriving at a final decision.
It seems that most criticism of speech ghostwriting doesn't really show an understanding of the process. Generally, none of these misunderstandings are true. So, it is not the speech ghostwriter alone who selects the topic of the speech, the approach to take, and the wording. Moreover, the speaker very rarely, if ever, accepts whatever the speech ghostwriter provides and reads it verbatim. Such a practice would, indeed, make the speaker a dummy to the speech ghostwriter's ventriloquism act, providing a ghostspeaker for the ghostwriter.
Although it is possible that some speaker/ghostwriter combinations do follow such a practice sometimes, it is far from standard. The standard practice is one of mutual assistance: The speaker assists the speech ghostwriter by describing what is to be said and how, and the ghostwriter makes recommendations for greatest effect.
In general, many public officials and other leaders not only can, but frequently do, make public utterances without the help of a writer. Some do this better than others, but a question-and-answer part after a speech leaves the speaker alone to respond. However, the higher the office, in spite of experience in extemporaneous public speaking, people in position of leadership need help to be maximally effective. The writer's major task is to work closely with the speaker in order to couch, in the speaker's own oral style and language (only more smoothly and felicitously) those ideas that the speaker deems appropriate.
That public officials should deliver speeches on any problem evolving from their official duties and its solution, without advice from anyone and without a prepared text, might be the ideal, but it is not practicable. For a President of the United States-or the CEO of a corporation or institution-to deliver any speech without seeking considerable advice from a host of experts, including a speech ghostwriter (or a corps of them), and without speaking from a prepared text would be foolhardy to the point of misfeasance, malfeasance, and nonfeasance in office.
For researchers of the speeches of the past, the ghostwriter must become real. Researchers must learn to live with the ghostwriter and work harder at their task. To develop an accurate evaluation of the speaker, speech researchers must delve deeper into the background of the speaker, study the speaker's advisers, family, friends, and reading habits, and particularly the speech ghostwriter.
Actually, researchers should be grateful that the speech ghostwriter prepares a speech text against which to compare the delivered speech. The ghostwritten text can be compared to the speech ghostwriter's other writings-or with words known to have been composed by the speaker--which may help them to determine what influences were at work.
They should not denounce the speech ghostwriter as unethical in a thinly veiled effort to banish the position. Not only is that illogical, it just won't work. Today's public speakers are far too busy with the duties and responsibilities of their offices to do all that is required to prepare their own speeches.
The speech ghostwriter, normally an honorable and ethical office, is here to stay.
The above article was published in Media Ethics, Fall 2006 (18:1), pp.10,39.