The Art of Ghostwriting

Ghostwriting for senior leaders is a mix of being a detective, a researcher, and understanding what makes that individual tic.   

Many CEOs and executives simply do not have the time to communicate with their target audiences and employ their strategic communicators to assist with this outreach. When asked to craft a speech, article or script, a ghostwriter must first conduct a good deal of research to become familiar with the content. Reviewing the executive’s background will offer insights into their communications preferences and can really personalize the messaging. For example, if they are a U.S. Air Force Academy graduate, tailoring content to Academy sports events gives the senior leader more personality when engaging with their audiences.   

Engaging Subject Matter Experts 

Reaching out to subject matter experts is a great tactic as well. Topics can be difficult, for example, suicides gravely impact organizations and it is important to work with mental health professionals to help craft appropriate condolence messaging. If the topic is particularly sensitive, like a Congressional testimony or media round table, a full legal review of the prepared remarks and talking points will help set up your senior leader for success.   

Preparing in Advance 

In meetings and interacting with senior leaders, take notes and make mental about their priorities and guidance throughout the meeting. These notes will help craft quotes quickly for articles and will have a true sense of authenticity. If they mention a particular professional reading book, seek out that knowledge to help incorporate that verbiage into communications products. For example, one senior military leader was very fond of the children’s book written by retired Airborne Ranger Lt. Col. Dave Grossman called Sheepdogs: Meet Our Nation’s Warriors.   

The sheepdog concept in Grossman’s view is 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. 

Understanding Leadership Styles 

Servant leadership is another popular form of leading teams, and one that retired Gen. Stanley McChrystal recently featured on his podcast, “No Turning Back.” His advice to a young person who recently graduated high school and enlisted in the Army is to develop the deepest sense of empathy you can for others, not just the people you work with and the people who work for you. With the COVID-19 crisis, the need for empathetic senior leaders is vital to a healthy working environment. Researching servant leadership to understand the concept will help you to expertly communicate this message.  

Leveraging existing content will also aid you in that you don’t have to reinvent the wheel for every speech, commentary or quote. Research examples of Veterans’ Day speeches and draw from existing historical content.   

Drawing upon leading during a crisis, many CEOs have adjusted their leadership strategy as a result of COVID-19. Like Gen. McChrystal, Thor Harris, CEO ofPercepture, is focusing in empathy. In a Forbes article on top CEOs leading during COVID-19, Mr. Harris says:

My approach is to listen first and be empathetic, with an obvious skew toward the optimistic side of things. I focus my attention on the demeanor of the individual person I’m interacting with and intentionally raise the mood one level more positive. It’s incredibly important to pay close attention to how this is received so I’m not coming off as being tone deaf or insensitive to the current situation, but rather an appropriately positive version of my usual self. I send daily emails to my team that cover a wide range of topics, focused less on business topics and more on them as individual human beings: how to better connect with their families, activities they can do with their kids, ways to relax, stay fit, and de-stress.” 

Finally, allow your senior leader time to add their finishing touches on the product. Schedule a meeting with them to review the drafted content and garner their candid feedback on areas to expand or improve upon. Document their edits by scanning handwritten inputs and keeping them for a depth of continuity.   

Becoming an expert at ghostwriting doesn’t 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 here.