Jan 17, 2020

Fill in the Blanc

Finding voice when you ghostwrite


By Stu Slayen

When I bought my Looney Tunes poster years ago, it was simply because I was a fan.

The cartoons cracked me up as a kid, and I still laugh when I go down the occasional YouTube rabbit hole (joke intended) searching for my favourite snippets of Bugs Bunny, Daffy Duck, Porky Pig, and the oft-misunderstood Foghorn Leghorn.

When I look at the poster in my office, I smile, I giggle, I embrace the nostalgia. About a decade ago, though, the poster was more than a source of laughter. It was a source of inspiration.

I was ghostwriting a speech and I was boring myself silly. On paper, it was dull. When I read it out loud, it was worse. The words were right: I welcomed the guests, thanked the organizers, praised the sponsors, expressed a key message, et cetera. It checked off all the boxes, but no one would have remembered any of it the next morning. My draft sounded like it was written by a committee.

I glanced around the office to give my eyes a break from the screen. The Looney Tunes poster caught my attention. As usual, I smiled. I remember thinking in that moment that one man—Mel Blanc—voiced almost all of these characters. Mel Blanc was brilliant. Each character had a distinct voice; a distinct rhythm; a distinct personality.

The reason I can remember the characters, their traits, and their best lines is because the cartoons were about voice as much as they were about script. Maybe more. One man understood each character deeply and furnished each character with the perfect tone, energy, and cadence.

In that moment, I realized that when ghostwriting, I had to be more like Mel Blanc. I needed to focus on the speaker’s voice to write the speech in a way that mattered. What did the person sound like? Are they warm? Serious? Self-effacing? Dramatic? Do they cry? Are they willing to laugh while standing at the microphone?

The key is to interview the person for whom you are ghostwriting, ideally in person. Study their facial expressions. The rhythm of their speech. Their body language. How comfortable are they in their own skin? Watch thoughtfully; listen actively; figure out how to fill in the Blanc. Ghostwrite in a way that the speech only sounds right when delivered by that one person on that one occasion.

Your effective observations will help you find their voice. You will then be able to package the words in a way that will mean something to the audience; in a way that helps the audience understand more about the speaker and the topic. Without that voice, you will be dull.

People can still repeat words that Mel Blanc recorded in the 1940s. Wouldn’t it be nice if your audience could remember anything you scripted for yesterday’s news conference or gala?

Getting the words right is comparatively easy. Creating a memory requires voice. Finding that voice requires insight, focus, and some heavy lifting. That’s all, folks.