What I Learned about Coaching from Speechwriting

Much is written as well as taught about the process of executive coaching. For me, my introduction began with my first career: speechwriting.

Speechwriters are storytellers. They help leaders put their stories into words.

Executive coaches are story makers. They help leaders create their stories to grow their skills as individuals and their capacity as leaders.

Speechwriting and executive coaching are, of course, two distinct disciplines. Speechwriters work with words. Executive coaches work with behaviors. Both are in the self-improvement business. One focuses on words. The other on actions. Both focus on the same goal: authenticity. Keeping it real with honesty, integrity and compassion.

Speechwriters and coaches emulate each other’s professions with how they begin their processes—with good questions! Here are three good starter questions.

What’s happening? Context is essential. Both speechwriters and coaches need to know the lay of the land. How is the organization performing? What does the competitive landscape look like? Placing the speech in the context of vision (what the organization wants to become), mission (what the organization is doing), and values (what holds the organization together) is essential.

What challenges are facing the organization? Even in the best of times, there are clouds on the horizon. As well as rainbows. Asking your client (or her aides) to give a quick overview of organizational strengths, structural weaknesses, opportunities for growth, and threats to the status quo or the future is an excellent way to get a feel for the challenges. Speechwriters can integrate some topics into their presentations. Coaches use this information to know the challenges the executive is facing.

What is our plan of action? Good speeches are calls to action. Good coaching is anchored in action planning. It is the speechwriter’s job to encourage the client to be specific in what the organization will do and what role the audience (stakeholders) will play in it. It is the job of an executive coach to encourage the client to look at what they can improve and be specific about road-mapping action steps.

These questions may spark a host of other questions, but these three provide a framework for discussion that gets to the heart of the matter. They place the speechwriter or the coach on the road to understanding their client better.

Touching the heart

These questions are diagnostic. There is one other element: the heart. We call it empathy.

Empathy is the feeling of understanding another person’s suffering. Leaders need to do more than understand; they need to alleviate. They act with compassion to make things better for an individual and the team. 

Speechwriters who tap into the vein of empathy through stories and examples will enable their clients to come across with a sense of concern for others. Likewise, executive coaches who remind their clients to connect with their people on a personal and professional level enable them to build a strong sense of rapport and commitment.

“We speak not only to tell other people what we think,” wrote neurologist and author Oliver Sacks, “but to tell ourselves what we think. Speech is a part of thought.” And to which I add “the impetus to act.”

First posted on Forbes.com 1/07/2022