The Parable of the Painter

In July 2009, less than two weeks before I was set to get out of the military, I got a call from Colonel Mike Bell, Director of the Commander’s Initiatives Group at U.S. Central Command in Tampa, Florida. He said, “General Petraeus reviewed your file and he’d like to bring you on the team as a speechwriter. He thinks it would be ideal if you could write for him in uniform. Would you be willing to stay in the Navy for the job?”

I said yes and the next day Colonel Bell copied me on a note to his team. He let one of the speechwriters know that General Petraeus thought it would be great to get my input on the “Marine Corps pitch” – the General’s upcoming speech to the Marine Corps Association in Washington. As part of my input, I wrote a few paragraphs about the training and discipline of Marines. I was proud of one sentence, in particular: “Young people in modern society do not wake up in a hut everyday and stare down an enemy, hatchet in hand.” I liked that sentence because I thought it evoked a memorable image.

I sent my edits and got a reply from the General’s primary speechwriter. She wrote, “I like your ideas…overall, though, it’s not the boss’s style.  Your style is more dramatic than his naturally is. He doesn’t really talk in superlatives. When he does, it’s only ever about the troopers…” She said I’d sent “some great and usable phrases…right up until young people waking up with a hatchet in hand…I can’t see him uttering that phrase.”

In the end, only a handful of my suggestions made it into the final draft. I still hadn’t learned the first principle of speechwriting:  it’s not about the speechwriter. I was putting myself and my own thoughts front and center. I was trying to write something profound, when I should’ve asked ‘what message does my boss wants to send?’ And ‘which themes would help send that message?’

I didn’t know it then, but I was also violating another principle of speechwriting:  don’t overreach. Don’t make a grab for insight; just state the obvious. Every sentence in a speech should develop an argument, not interrupt one (the point of the drafting process is to arrange ideas, not invent one-liners). In fact, most of the time there should be nothing ‘memorable’ in a speech if you want the overall effect to be persuasive. The primary job of a speechwriter is to keep words out of a speech, not put them in.

On the day of the speech, I drove to the Residence Inn next to the Pentagon and met the team before the event. The speechwriter on the trip showed me the normal travel setup for the General and his staff. I saw the communications and security rooms, and hard plastic cases stacked up and down the hallway. I met General Petraeus after he participated in a small ceremony for his Aide-de-Camp. He asked if I planned to see the speech that night, and I said yes. He said, “Good, I think it’s important to get a sense of these events in person, and to read the audience a bit. It’ll help you set the right tone when you draft speeches.”

Later that night I talked with Colonel Bell and he told me, “There are two things you need to know about General Petraeus. First, he’s the most competitive person you’ll ever meet. And second, words matter to him a lot. Before he signs his name on a letter, or approves a memo, or delivers a single line of a speech, he’s going to make sure he uses exactly the words he wants. Our job is to help him do that. Oh, and one more thing,” Colonel Bell said, “He’s serious about mentorship. To be blunt, he’s going to use you to advance his career, so you need to use him to advance yours. Trust me, he’s going to get a ton of work out of you. He expects that you’ll ask him for help when you need it.”

I watched General Petraeus deliver his speech and I got an early education on the importance of choosing the right words. The speech included a section on the Marine ethos, and General Petraeus illustrated Marines’ affinity for hardship by telling a joke. Just before the punch line, though, he ad-libbed a line that later caused a minor controversy, prompting him to apologize to the Air Force Chief of Staff and write an open letter explaining his deep respect for members of the Air Force.

A few weeks later I was assigned as the lead writer for the General’s remarks to the 2009 American Legion National Convention in Louisville, Kentucky. I traveled with him to the speech in a military plane, and on the way back he called me to his cabin. We talked about the speech and he said:

Let me tell you a story. It comes from the experience of an American painter, Samuel F.B. Morse, who wanted to become a master painter. So he went to London to study painting under a noted British master at the time. And the master painter told Morse to do the very best painting he could and show it to him. Morse went off, worked hard on his painting, and took it to the master painter, but the master said, “Before you show it to me, can you make it any better?” Morse said yes and went back to work. He noticed a few blemishes, and changed a whole section of the painting. He took it back to the master painter, but again the master said, “Before you show it to me, can you make it any better?” This went on several more times and Morse became more and more frustrated. But every time he worked on the painting he found something to improve, even if it was a minor detail, and by the time he showed it to the master it was nearly a masterpiece.

General Petraeus paused and said, “That’s the kind of effort good writing takes. When you draft a speech I want you to ask yourself whether you can make it better before you show it to me.” That story taught me three lessons: first, don’t waste your boss’s time (make sure you have a good product before you show it); second, you can do better than you think if you work at it; and third, in almost every case, the work itself teaches you more than the instruction.

Before we landed in Tampa, General Petraeus said, “Earlier in my career, when I was about your rank, I was a speechwriter and aide to General Jack Galvin. He was the Commander of U.S. Southern Command and later Supreme Allied Commander, Europe. General Galvin urged me to broaden my horizons and extend my vision beyond the max effective range of an M-16 rifle. He wanted me to get out of my intellectual comfort zone. I think that’s what you’re going to have to do in this job. Your challenge is that you have to think like a general even though you’re a lieutenant – and you have to do that without ‘wearing the rank,’ you know, acting like you’re the general or something like that.”

Ever since those first few weeks working for General Petraeus, I’ve come to recognize the connection between the two qualities Colonel Bell mentioned about him – his competitiveness and his belief in the power of communication. General Petraeus first applied his competitive spirit as an athlete, and as his military career progressed, he applied the same spirit to the world of ideas. In the late 1980s, he exchanged notes with General Galvin about ‘The Information War’ and the effort it takes to win it. And as a general during the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, he was relentless in communicating ‘big ideas’ about every element of the mission to everyone who could affect the outcome.

As a speechwriter for General Petraeus and other government officials, I participated in this constant struggle to change opinions. I also learned some lessons about the broader relationship between competition and communication (these lessons are distinct from leadership lessons, which I’ll write more about later, but they apply to any member of a team who wants to help the boss and organization succeed).

Here are five lessons I learned while helping leaders communicate:

The first lesson I learned is that words can be used to win a competition of ideas. They can be used to shift attitudes toward a way of thinking, or as General Petraeus did at Central Command and elsewhere, to unify individual conversations within a common narrative. Moreover, I learned that it’s possible to define a public narrative through sheer force of will – so that the narrative becomes a force unto itself, strengthened by its own logic and aligned with other forces to propel an idea. In the competition between two sides of a debate, the side with a stronger argument usually wins.

The second lesson is that the stronger argument does not always win. The ability to define a narrative requires more than just changing perceptions; ultimately, it requires manifesting success through positive results. Over time the reality of a situation speaks for itself. But, crucially, a counter-productive narrative often persists even in the face of positive momentum. So to win people over, an organization must relentlessly communicate its big ideas within and outside the organization.

The third lesson I learned from helping leaders communicate is that teams must fight to extend the influence of their leaders. This principle applies especially to the leaders themselves. It may sound obvious, but to communicate well, and to impress ideas as broadly as possible, it’s necessary to cultivate relationships with influential people. Doing that takes an extraordinary effort to publicly and privately reinforce ideas.

The fourth lesson is that leaders must build and guard their personal credibility (and teams have a responsibility to help leaders do that). One test of leadership is to engender widespread trust in the judgment, actions, and words of the leader. The more people trust and respect the messenger, the farther the message carries. Guarding credibility entails verifying factual statements, attributing sources, using clear language, and above all else, telling the truth. Even an off-handed comment like the joke General Petraeus told at the Marine Corps event could damage credibility.

The fifth and final lesson I learned is that helping the boss requires thinking like the boss. I don’t mean knowing a lot about the boss, I mean pretending that you are the boss, and that you hold the boss’s position. As a word of caution, of course, and as General Petraeus reminded me early on, it’s also imperative to adopt the boss’s mindset without ‘wearing the rank’ (and to do that you need to prove every day that you’re a fair and honest broker). I’ve found that thinking like the boss required me to take responsibility for the outcome of the organization – to take ownership of the situation in my mind, and then I began to have a better handle on what the boss wanted to say.

As one last thought, and in keeping with the parable of the painter, I learned that the key to powerful communication is preparation. This relates to the point about credibility because a great communicator has to earn an audience through life experience and through hard work on the message. In one sense, it’s true that the hardest part about writing is drafting new sentences, and much credit is due the person who writes the first draft. But the real essence of preparation is the drive to fix the blemishes, large and small…it’s your answer to the question, “Can you make it any better?”