The phone rang. Focused on the words on my computer screen, I absentmindedly picked up the phone.
“He wants to see you.”
“Now?” I asked.
I grabbed my suit coat (that’s what we wore in those days), made a mad dash down my building’s back stairs to the tunnel connecting all of the buildings on our campus. I surfaced in the executive building next store – a place of granite, art work, and polished wood bathed in toney silence.
In corporate communication circles, I occupied one of the high positions – the CEO’s speechwriter. I had written for CEOs before him, and I would write for CEOs after him. But no one had the reputation this CEO did.
He had run through three speechwriters in four months before I received the dreaded invitation. I had written a speech for another executive that had received outsized attention inside and outside the company. And that call came from the head of communications: The CEO wants you to write his speeches.
In normal circumstances, I would’ve been thrilled. These were not normal circumstances. This CEO could be awful to work for. He seemed to relish being awful to work for. His supervisory style was known as management by intimidation.
I had already set a record for being one of his speechwriters – I had lasted more than a year.
I reached the outer office where his secretary sat. She nodded toward his door, slightly arching a eyebrow.
The eyebrow was code. The CEO was not in a good mood. I didn’t know how I was going to handle going back to square one in our working relationship.
I took a step toward his office and he started yelling at me. Literally yelling. And waving the pages of a speech draft I had written.
You don’t know how to write. This is trash. It’s the worst thing you’ve written. You think you’re a writer but you’re not. I don’t have flacks write for me. This went on for some time.
I sat in the chair in front of his desk and let him finish his rant. I knew it wasn’t the speech draft. I knew I had written a really fine draft. But I knew it must be something, so I listened for clues.
When he finally muttered something about me not knowing how to write for certain audiences, it clicked.
“It’s the audience, isn’t it?” I asked.
He exploded again.
After the rant subsided again, I spoke. “You’ve never spoken to a minority audience before, have you?” I asked, surprising myself at how abrupt I was being.
He sat there, glowering at me.
“What if we do this,” I said. “I will send the draft to” – I named two company executives who happened to be minorities – “and have them read it. And see if they think it’s OK for this audience.”
Grumbling, he agreed.
The CEO never allowed anyone to read his speeches beforehand. So, this was a rather unusual move for him, underscoring his high anxiety.
The two executives read the draft. One suggested a single word change (in a 2,000-word text). The other said he wouldn’t change anything, and that he would give the speech if the CEO wouldn’t.
The CEO gave the speech, to a group of 250 minority business students.
A couple of days later, I received another phone call.
“He wants to see you.”
“Now?” I asked, knowing the answer.
When I arrived, the secretary nodded me toward the door and winked.
That was a good sign.
I walked in his office.
“I gave a great speech,” he said. “I knew it would go over well. They gave me a standing ovation.”
I nodded. “I don’t think I would have expected anything less.”
He nodded. “So, let’s talk about the Boston speech next month.”
After 18 months of my career being over once a week, we both had had one of those business epiphanies. He realized that I might know more about something than he did. And I realized that there was a human being sitting behind that executive desk.
Photograph by Taylor Nicole via Unsplash. Used with permission.