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The Art of Ghostwriting

November 1, 2020

Ghostwriting for senior executives requires a detective mindset, research acumen, and an understanding of that individual.  Many executives employ their strategic communicators to help capture their vision and tailor their messages for the targeted audience. Based on our team’s decades of experience ghostwriting a wide-range of communication products, our communications team shared their top tips on the art of ghostwriting.

Understanding the Speaker

When crafting a speech, article  or script, a ghostwriter must first research both the content and the speaker. Reviewing  the executive’s background will offer insights into their communication preferences and can help personalize the messaging based on their experiences. For example, if they are a U.S. Air Force Academy graduate, the content may be tailored toward Academy sporting to showcase the senior leader’s personality. 

Engaging Subject Matter Experts 

By reaching out to subject matter experts, communicators may better incorporate the technical details that enrich a narrative.  If the topic is particularly sensitive, like a Congressional testimony or media roundtable, a full legal review of the prepared remarks and talking points will help set up your senior leader for success.   

Preparing in Advance 

In interacting  with senior leaders, take notes about their priorities and phrasing throughout the meeting. These notes will help craft quotes that capture a true sense of authenticity. If they mention a particular professional training or book, seek out that knowledge and incorporate key verbiage into your communication products.

For example, we have worked with one senior military leader who was fond of the children’s book written by retired Airborne Ranger  Lt. Col. Dave Grossman called  Sheepdogs: Meet Our Nation’s Warriors. In Grossman’s view of the sheepdog concept, if you have no capacity for violence then you are a healthy productive citizen: a sheep. If you have a capacity for violence and no empathy for your fellow citizens, then you have defined an aggressive sociopath—a wolf. Weaving this story into his talking points painted vivid imagery and ensured the message was authentic to his beliefs.

Tailoring to Leadership Styles 

Gen. Stanley McChrystal recently featured servant leadership on his podcast, “No Turning Back.” His advice to a young person who recently graduated from high school and enlisted in the U.S. Army is to develop the deepest sense of empathy you can for others.

Understanding Gen. McChrystal’s leadership style and belief enables his team to better coach him on speaking engagements and weave in his existing content. By tying in previous talking points or previously published content, communicators will not have to reinvent the wheel for every speech, commentary, or quote. 

Reviewing Final Products 

Finally, allow your senior leader  time  to add their finishing touches to ghostwritten communication product. Schedule a meeting with them to review the drafted content and garner their candid feedback on areas to expand or improve upon. Our team frequently hosts read throughs with senior leaders to ensure the language captures their authentic tone and provides time to iron out awkward phrasing. 

Becoming an expert at ghostwriting  does not happen overnight, but really understanding your senior leader and  being a good detective will set you out on the right path.  To learn more about how WBD experts can support with ghostwriting or other communications support services, visit our Communications Practice page. 

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