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Rhetoric is not a four-letter word
authenticity served raw or presented as fine cuisine

Social media has an authenticity fetish.  I ran into this head on some years ago when I was doing ghost writing and speech writing, and a friend of mine got "busted" for her assistant writing a weekly entry on her corporate blog under her name as CEO.  The local social media scene closed in like piranha.

I wasn't her ghost, but I did take this opportunity to out myself as a confidential ghost writer for the first time.  Ghost writers have a lingering bad odor with many writers historically because we don't take credit, we do work for hire, we let non-writers look like writers -- give them a paid ticket into the sacred grove.

But not every great thinker, great do-er, great artist, is a great writer -- and those people deserve to get their message out, too.

So I wrote this essay, which remains toward the top of the Google search on my name:

The most commonly cribbed aha! moment in this essay involved my culture hero, Ted Sorenson, who was Jack Kennedy's speech writer and confidant.  When you look in nearly any source for the quote,

"Ask not what your country can do for you.  Ask what you can do for your country."

that quote is credited to JFK.  But it was only presented by him.  It was written by Sorenson.  Did it amplify and represent Kennedy's authentic feelings of patriotism?  I have no doubt.

I have worked with scientists, business execs, politicians, and others who were excellent in their fields and needed help expressing their genius on (virtual) paper.  It's roleplaying.  At one point my son started totting up the Ph.D.s I'd "simulated" at nine and it's likely over a dozen now.  I love the work -- big brains are sexy.

Part of the reason people such as myself are in demand in modern America specifically is that rhetoric is very much out of fashion.  To gain support in business, politics, or to gain funding for a grant for science or a nonprofit end, writing must be both persuasive and natural.  

Rhetoric is subject to the "uncanny valley" effect.  In animation, this is the phenomenon where a cartoon-ish creature is accepted by the viewer as real enough, but as a figure becomes closer to photographically human, we get weirded out by how unnatural some details are.  The movement of the hips is not right.  The cheekbones are cavernous.  The torso proportions are off.  These details trigger instinctual revulsion.

In rhetoric, the equivalent is the web "landing page" as taught by formula in thousands of "get rich quick on the web" books, right on up to (who does a better job than most).  These formulaic infomercial scripted monstrosities make us cringe at their inauthenticity, their door-to-door sales pitches, so we say, "authenticity is king!"

The community then insists that each person -- celebrity, business exec, politician, whoever -- must tweet for themselves regardless of their talent with the written word.  Or the Authenticity Police, a minor branch of the Fashion Police, will have their ass on a platter.

As a result, social media and the public have become completely vulnerable to rhetoric on the next level up.  We do not learn what "assumptive language" is, or how rhythm or repetition is used in persuasive text.  

We leave ourselves vulnerable to tricks that the Romans documented before the time of Julius Caesar because our fetish with new media forbids us to examine the psychological technologies of the past for their value.

So, we can't criticize our own commercials, our news, our politics or the reporting on our politics, the infighting in our businesses, or the struggles between the estates (remember how the press is sometimes referred to as the fourth estate?  the others are the clergy, the ruling class, and the people --  today perhaps add some mishmosh of business/financial, sci/tech, military/industrial to the mix?).  Because if we assume authenticity in the news, from our politicians, from Fox and MS-NBC?  We're sunk.  And if we assume authenticity from commercials we will be fat and sassy and vain.  Oops.

As a further result, neuromarketing and its bastard industry, social games (I'm looking at you, Zynga) have created a whole bleed on society based on the neurotransmitter based and fMRI proven methods of parting a fool (that's each of us) from his or her microtransactions in the most efficient manner.  Social games are fine for those who understand the risks -- just like any drug.  But make no mistake, they are a manufactured virtual drug meant to drain money in exchange for neurological rewards.

Rhetoric should not only be taught to writers, but should be part of the basic literacies of the modern citizen, to protect from abusive marketing, political, and other messaging that comes in over the media stream.

And I say this with every authentic impulse of good will to all of you.
Social media is in deep denial of its emergence as the child of public relations and speech writing, which has traditionally been delegated — and, yes, purchased.
Martin DeMello's profile photoShava Nerad's profile photo
i think the aversion to ghostwriting is amplified on social networks because writing is in some sense both the face one presents to the world, and the coin of the realm. so there's the double hit of "they are not who we thought they were" and "they have garnered reputation they haven't properly earned".
Yet, how many social media folks work for PR companies?  What is PR but ghost writing for corporations?  Seriously.  If you think that the average CEO of anything larger than the tightest smallest startup writes his or her own material without having a PR droid or two review it, you or the CEO are living in a dream world.

It's a matter of degree.  Most of my clients tell me about their ideas and I internalize their "voice" and later they tell me I say things on the page better than they could have, but as they would.  That is the greatest compliment.

These are not people who don't have ideas.  To me this is like people who think dyslexics are stupid because they can't spell -- a person is not an idiot because they can think but are not a talented writer.  They earned their reputation -- why shouldn't they share it?  Why shouldn't they write a paper or share tips or mentor people, tell the story of their company or be able to extend their leadership along with the help of a campaign team?

The only reason they "aren't who we thought they were" is because the American public has this notion that they want leaders who are celebrities -- in some demigod-like way.  Who can be "not like us" and therefore trustworthy.  Because if our leaders were "like us" and therefore not good at everything, and not good and virtuous in all ways, then we might be in danger.

Well guess what?  We set ourselves up to only invite liars into leadership roles, except for those who are sophisticated enough to understand that behind every successful man or woman there is a team making up for the front person's deficits.

Ghost writing or speech writing or PR is just one of those roles, just as much as graphic design (is someone inauthentic because they can't design their own logo?   A logo expresses so much!) or customer support (what, you mean the CEO isn't going to personally ensure that each client is satisfied?  Horrors!  What a lack of compassion and personal touch!).

Do you see how insane this is?  This is a harmful invention of the media culture -- we have a new toy -- this personal and immediate access to media -- and so we fetishize it.

It's like when the Mac came out and every print newsletter had to include every font available, in every size, on every page.  No.  It's not good design, and the fad will pass and the value of "authenticity" in this sense will look insane in a few years.

Meanwhile, it simply makes us vulnerable to the con men and grifters of the media revolution in politics and marketing.
oh, i fully agree with you that it's an unreasonable stance; i'm just arguing that it's an understandable one. it's not so much that people want their leaders to be celebrities as that they hold them to an absurd standard of "genuineness", that they want to feel that they are getting the pure, undiluted essence of the Great Man/Woman. for instance, much was made of the fact that steve jobs answered people from his "personal" email account, though he probably had an army of people to read and winnow that account, and for all we know, to deliver form replies to common enquiries.

i myself will admit to being a bit taken aback when i found out that "surely you're joking, mr. feynman" wasn't completely written by feynman himself. i got over it, but my initial reaction was definitely disappointment - even though, as you point out, the value of the book was in no way diminished by the fact.
I'm given to understand that most if not all of Obama's books are written by the man himself -- but that a proportion of Profiles in Courage, according to the Kennedy inner circle, is Sorenson's.  It doesn't diminish it in my mind, certainly.  This is why they call it the executive office -- there is no dictator, this is the leader of a team who knows how to rally people who know him or her intimately to compensate in trustworthy ways according to their strengths.  I should hope that the ego of the executive is such that they understand who they need, that they have an eye for talent, and I admire those such as Sorenson (and yes, I'll take a bit of this for myself paradoxically) who set aside ego to serve another.

I have always said I would rather be influential than famous, and teaching, mentoring, writing -- and especially ghosting for people far more willing to take on the burden of the spotlight -- these are ways for me to do that as a person who is introverted and wrung out by public exposure.

I like people.  They just wear me out.  I wish I were like my dad and charged up on a crowd, but I'm not.  But I can be Radar to some Corporal, the wise woman in the cave, the sage advisor to kings.  I can do great things on behalf of mon general or a great purpose or principle, but that's my comfort level -- so this is what I should rather do, too.  It's a guilty pleasure to see my words delivered to effect and not have to be up front.

My favorite story (that I can tell) is when I wrote the keynote for a fellow from the Kennedy School for a conference before the WTO99 ministerial.  My badge at the conference marked me as technical staff.  The conference was on digital divide issues -- 150 attendees, all high government officials, top executives from big foundations and international NGOs, and west coast billionaire tech entrepreneurs like Bezos and Gates, Sr. (who was there actually for the foundation I think).  The attendee list was stellar.  

During the evening reception, Jim Wolfensohn, then head of the World Bank, approached me (the bouncy little grrl geek)  as I was squirreling away the amazing prawn cocktail in a quiet hallway.  He asked me if I worked with Craig, who'd delivered the keynote (my badge showed me as being affiliated with his consulting group), and I said I was.  He asked me if I were familiar with the points of the keynote.  Well, in this case, this was the very first ghosting job I'd ever done, and unusually, I'd actually written the key points myself (I was blogging at my domain, at that point) because a key grant which had supposed to have been nailed down by the opening day of the conference was not ready for announcement, so we'd had to scrap the original keynote last minute.  I'd written the keynote in Craig's voice with my knowledge of the field to make him look good (as I said, an unusual case) and he massaged it a bit with his own anecdotes.

So, "Yes," I said, "I'm pretty familiar with the points in the speech."

For about twenty or thirty minutes, I got to wrestle with angels with the head of the World Bank on how leveraging systems into giving people access to tech and signal, easing business licenses, and doing end runs on the top down restrictions of many governments' locks on entrepreneurial freedoms could create better leverage for development through tech uplift than "charity" work or threats and beating the government into privations.  Infodev (a group within the World Bank) was already doing some good pilot work in that general direction.  The conference brought together ideas from the Grameen Bank and other programs that were demonstrating more.

If it had been just me, I'd never have gotten his ear.  (Which might be sad, but whatever...)  It was a stunning opportunity for access and influence.  And that is the reward from my point of view.  I get to work with amazing people with amazing reach.  (And I choose my clients carefully.)

Sadly, lately, with my health, I haven't been doing much at all with it -- my ability to commit to deadlines has been pretty gawdawful.  But I do love the work when I can do it.
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