In this second installment on our speechwriter at the Federal Aviation Administration, the subject explores her processes for research and capturing the speaker’s “voice.”
As was the case with the subject at the Washington Metro, research into audiences and subject matter often occurred simultaneously. In preparing a speech, the writer may begin by calling the president of the organization that will serve as the primary audience but also other sources within the audience about what they want the speaker to talk about, and what would they like to hear. The subject put considerable emphasis on cultivating personal relationships, as a way to gain quick help with everything from audience analysis to pithy quotes to determining the accuracy of subject matter. She has used fellow speech writers, the friends of prospective speakers, old speeches, libraries, and librarians like the one at the Air Transport Association. (“I got a library degree after undergrad … and the main thing I learned from library school was that I couldn’t be a good librarian, but I should always know good librarians.”)
For the Aero Club speech, delivered not long after the 9/11 attacks, it was necessary to review the history of airplane hijackings. For that history, the subject drew from her own files for previous speeches, from conversations with the “head of security at FAA for many years,” from documentation compiled by a White House Commission on Aviation Safety and Security. She sends thank you notes assiduously, and gave a book of poetry to the security chief when he retired.
“There’s a guy at MIT who teaches statistics and he gets these different contracts and works on aviation statistics. Now, he was quoted in USA Today last week … Well, I developed a relationship with _____ … when I was writing for ____ cause you’re always looking for factoids of how safe flying is. So I’d call _____ and I’d say ‘Ok, she’s speaking here.’ You know, and he’s the one that gave me the line of ‘A child born today is more likely to grow up to be President than to perish in this next, you know, airplane flight.’ … Once you learn how to smooze these people you just don’t stop. Last week he was quoted in USA Today and I wrote him an e-mail and said, ‘_____, nice sound bite in USA Today.’ And he writes back, and his last sentence in his e-mail is, ‘Well, aviation safety really is the eighth wonder of the world.’ And I thought, ‘Oh, my God, a good one too.’”
Like the Washington Metro subject, our writer at the FAA was very scrupulous about ensuring what she wrote reflected the intended policy positions of the people she was representing, rather than changed those positions somehow. She mentioned two examples where she “had to carefully craft the language.” At the international colloquium we mentioned last post, her speaker was discussing new technology on aircraft that “can sense where other aircraft are … , you know, who needs controllers?” Whether the technology will ever bring about a major decrease in the number of air traffic controllers remains to be seen, but the very wording of the possibility could create a stir. The first Aero Club speech she wrote for the Administrator called for a non-punitive process for reporting flight data. “If a pilot does an abrupt landing at National, we’d want to know about that and we’d want him to report it but see, he could lose his license if he reports it, so you needed this non-punitive thing cause everything is so litigious here.” The subject makes sure experts “sign off” on what she has written, to the point where the administrator once said, “You’re having too many people read the speeches.”
However, the FAA subject also disagreed emphatically about the notion of assuming the identity of the speaker for whom she was writing. “No. I call it having channels. I’ll turn to the ______ _______ channel in my head. I’ll turn to the ____ ______ channel. It’s just, my little note here says, ‘It’s a subconscious weird talent. I’m tone deaf in music, but I can pick up a person’s style.’” This may be a case of the connotations assigned by these two subjects to the words “personality” and “identity.” (After all, “channeling” someone’s style might be regarded by some as the same thing as “assuming an identity.”) Both subjects appear to take great pains to have personal contact with their speakers. At U.S. Airways, the subject listened to audiotapes of the chair before writing speeches for him, after ghost-writing editorials for him that appeared in the in-flight magazine. She went through copies of previous speeches given by the FAA’s first administrator before she began writing speeches for her. After spending five years working for that administrator, writing numerous speeches, she definitely knew her style and her preferences. That administrator liked “the perfect quotation,” while the next one “always wants the perfect story.” And the subject would consistently ask “what do you want them to think when you leave the room?”