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Michael Long is a speechwriter, author, educator, and award-winning screenwriter and playwright.

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There's No Such Thing As Voice
Worry about the content and the structure, not the indefinable "voice."

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Those of us who like Americana music – country music with rock sensibilities – can be obsessive and in 2015, boy, were we. All through that year, the golden boy of Americana, Ryan Adams, teased out the delivery of his new album, except it wasn’t quite a new album. It was going to be a song-for-song remake of one of the biggest records of the decade, Taylor Swift’s pop confection 1989. And Adams wasn’t going to do it ironically. He would sincerely interpret Swift’s songs as he would his own.

This seemed an odd plan, recasting the dance-pop of Ms. Swift as the guitar-in-the-garage roar of Mr. Adams. Her well polished pop gems – radio hits such as “Shake It Off” and “Bad Blood” – were hard to imagine as anything but summertime soundtracks and club workouts.

Yet when Ryan Adams’ 1989 was released in September 2015, it was clear he had produced something very good and completely his own.

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On these two recordings, the same words and music create completely different feelings. This phenomenon tells us something useful about our work as speechwriters: no matter how hard you try, you can't inject somebody's "voice" into the text.

Oh, sure, you can add favored vocabulary and jokes and pauses, things that make a speech comfortable for and familiar to the speaker, but "voice" is almost entirely in the delivery.

As speechwriters, our job is to get the facts right, to make it all memorable, and to use structure to leverage attention and gain buy-in. But chasing around "voice" is a fool's errand.

Remember: Ryan Adams took Taylor Swift's songs and made them sound like his own. And nothing Ms. Swift could have written in words and music could have stopped that from happening.

Give the same speech to two different people and you’ll hear two different speeches, even though the words are the same. You can't do much about that, as the writer. I did stand-up comedy years ago. When we were starting out and my friends and I would see a comic who was better than we were, we'd say something like, "He could headline even with my act." We were being only a little hyperbolic. The material matters, but great delivery can transform anything for better or worse.

Personality is connected intimately to delivery, and barely to the choice of words.

Thus when the cheerleader’s Saturday night of “Shake It Off” is channeled through Ryan Adams, it comes out as the brooding, creepy obsession of a full-grown man. The pop queen’s naïve romantic poses in “Blank Space” emerge as a lonely last hope when Adams turns his delivery down to a whisper and pulls the simple melody through fingerpicked, arpeggiated chords.

You’re not going to turn a buttoned-down CEO into a bouncing motivational speaker by capturing that “voice” in words.

Don't imagine that the qualities of performance arise from filigree on the page. Coaches and writers have very different jobs. Get the structure and the facts right. Writers can make delivery easier, but they can't create a "voice." 

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