🖋️ Learn to Write for an Executive
8 Best Practices from Communications Leaders
Over the years, I’ve written speeches, talking points and emails for several executives. But, my first job after college was one of the most memorable when I wrote speeches for a philanthropist. After months of getting to know his voice, I finally persuaded him to include a joke in his remarks.
It took a lot of explaining why he should take the risk — and this was long before we were taking “Humor, Seriously” at work. But, when he delivered the joke, I’ll never forget the audience’s reaction — laughter — and his smile — it was priceless.
Learning to write in someone else’s voice takes time, persistence and practice. This is a guide on best practices for approaching this art of writing for executives with recommendations from leaders featured on The Switchboard as well as my experiences. These are the eight topics covered in this article:
🎧 #1 Begin by listening
Begin by listening! As a podcast fan, I appreciate the art of listening. You can learn a lot by simply focusing on the words. You can also walk while listening which can help you focus and generate ideas — according to research at Stanford, walking helps spark creative thinking.
“Listen as much as possible. Audio-only can be more helpful than video. I used to walk around just listening to audio of my principles using headphones. Podcasts are a great, intimate format that can help with that. Something about the passive listening while walking helps me pick up cadence, word choice, and rhythm and lodge it deep in my brain somewhere. This is the same way I learn languages, by the way. Every voice is a new language”. -Emily Singer Mandel
“Invest time in deeply listening to the executive — patterns in how they speak, word choice, how they carry themselves in different situations.” -Joe Cohen
📝 #2 Study with Homework
In addition to audio, broaden your knowledge base with other content authored by or featuring the executive. It’s important to prepare before you begin your partnership:
“Do your homework. Read old memos, watch past speeches and listen to keynotes. -Ken Shuman
This includes reviewing internal and external moments — meetings, social posts, interviews and videos are great resources:
“Before day 1, check YouTube for recordings of speeches or media appearances. During onboarding, set aside time to watch recordings of previous company meetings or other internal events, and to review the archive of written messages.” -Phillip Hales
"At the risk of committing the MOB (Master of the Obvious) offense the first step is to, of course, read up on past comms. Next, take the opportunity to listen to them speak every chance you get. Whether it's by watching past recordings or current meetings, get a sense for their speech patterns or keywords. Everyone has them.” -Jiyoung Pamela Yoon
Your homework doesn’t stop once you’ve started your role. It is an ongoing learning experience to continue to study the executive’s voice.
“When attending communications planning meetings with executives, ask if you can record. This can be particularly valuable when developing key messages around complex subject matter or when trying to capture personal anecdotes for more culture-focused communications.” -Phillip Hales
🎯 #3 Create an Authentic Individual Brand Guide
Everyone has a unique story to share. The role of executive communications is to help find it, perfect it and shape its delivery. When sharing that story, it’s critical to portray their voice as well as stories, phrases and expressions. It’s the difference of knowing when to use the expression — “y’all” versus “you all.”
To do this effectively, create a brand voice guide for your executive just as you would for an organization. List the keywords that distinguish their vocabulary.
“Take note of common turns of phrase — you can capture these informally or build a full-blown messaging tracker organized by topic.” -Phillip Hales
Understand their priorities professionally so that you can weave those into their messages. Include a story bank of personal and professional moments that you can include in future speeches. Prepare for how they would respond to a crisis so that you can be ready should one unfold.
“The goal in writing for executives should always be to strive for authenticity. The best way to accomplish that is to spend time with the individual so that you can capture their voice. This includes familiarizing yourself with their often-used phrases, terminology, cadence, and, most importantly, personal anecdotes and stories that reflect the individual’s true personality. -Tracy Van Grack
Finally, it’s more than just words on a page when you’re writing for a leader, it’s understanding how they interact and engage with others.
“It's about being observant about the leader as an individual. Do they wear bright colors or neutral tones? Do they like to chime in early and often or do they prefer listening? Did their body language indicate something particularly resonated? Bringing all of these things together will help you get closer to the target. " -Jiyoung Pamela Yoon
☕ #4 Secure Time to Meet
In order to really know someone’s voice, you need to be in meetings with them and meet with them regularly. This helps shape the quality of communications to ensure that you truly capture their voice and perspective.
“One of the standard bits of advice everyone gives out is that you need to hear an executive speak in order to get their voice. I would go a step further and say you need to meet them in person because social mirroring is the key to ‘hearing’ that person when you are not with them. There are a lot of articles about the body language aspects of mirroring, but if you can mirror their vocal cadence, match their volume and energy in a conversation, and start to recognize their unique filler words or exclamations, it is so much more fluid and enjoyable to write those first drafts. I think all the really good speechwriters I've ever worked with have been able to mimic the person they write for, too.
Peggy Noonan's book about becoming a speechwriter for Ronald Regan has a passage about her experience writing for Dan Rather at CBS News, where she was embarrassed to hear herself saying phrases like, ‘That dog will hunt’ in her conversations because it was something he said. When I have had immediate in-person access to an executive, and am able to see them speaking in a wide variety of contexts, I was able to ‘hear’ them and work independently within a few days. When initial access was limited, in those jobs it took me much longer to gain my confidence as a ghostwriter.” -Laura Hunter
In our increasingly hybrid world of work, this doesn’t mean that you have to be in-person all the time, the time to meet can be video or phone calls. Keep in mind, when you are interviewing for a position, ensure you’ll have access to the executive.
🎫 #5 Know Your Audience
The day in the life of an executive could include meeting with investors, the press, senior leaders, employees and community partners. Before beginning to write for an executive, put yourself in the audience’s seat to consider your tone and potential impact.
"Always know your audience. This may sound basic but an executive is addressing many different key audiences throughout the course of the day.” -Ken Shuman
Keep in touch with the person managing the executive’s schedule to ensure alignment when new speaking opportunities arise.
⌛ #6 Take Your Time
In our fast-paced world, there’s a tendency to feel like you need to rush to meet a deadline — sometimes that date is made up by our team rather than external factors. If you move too quickly, mistakes can happen. While writing for executives requires moving fast, it should be done thoughtfully.
“Do your best to never allow your teams or yourself to rush out drafts – put in the time to craft carefully content where the messaging is clear, distinctive and delivered in a manner that matches the executive’s style.” -Joe Cohen
In addition, perfecting writing for an executive takes practice. You have to invest in the work and learn from each project.
“Be patient. It takes time to learn to write in a new voice. Let the executive know early on that an upfront investment on their behalf will accelerate the quality of work you will deliver." -Ken Shuman
Finally, executive communications is a skill that can be learned and earned if you put in the work:
“This is such an important skill for internal communicators. It comes easier to some than others, but with practice and persistence, anyone can do it.” -Phillip Hales
📚 #7 Learn from Other Leaders
Research the styles of leaders outside your organization to perfect your executive writing skills. There are many great books, speeches, podcasts and LinkedIn posts to support your learning. Find a leader you admire and begin learning about their stories.
Author James Clear has curated a great list of leadership-focused books. Former Disney CEO Bob Iger’s biography had a powerful impact of me — here’s a book report on what I learned from it. McKinsey Author Talks podcast features business leaders and their stories.
Learn from other communicators. Take a look at these past Executive Communications features on Butler Rondeno from Salesforce and Christine Alabastro who has worked with several top tech companies.
📈 #8 Measure Impact
After each major project, track your successes and opportunities for growth. Measure with data whenever possible, but also seek out specific feedback from executives as well as the different audiences you’re reaching. Incorporate what you learn into your next project.
Thank you to the many leaders who contributed their perspectives to this article. I’m grateful for their insights and time.
What recommendations do you have for writing for an executive? Comment below or share with your networks for their insights.
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