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Ethics in public speaking (don’t do this to cure writer’s block)

Sometimes speakers like to put some initial thoughts on paper for their speechwriters to use as a starting point.

It’s the speechwriter’s job to first decide whether this material should be used, and if so, how it should be used.

Yes, I’m talking about ethics in public speaking.

Here’s a true story:

Recently I wrote a speech for a new client ahead of an important event in his life. During our initial phone call, he told me he’d struggled for weeks to write the speech himself without success. So he decided he wanted to work with a speechwriter.

At our first meeting (important for setting the right stage for building a trusting, respectful relationship), he surprised me with a first draft.

Our time frame for completion was tight, he noted, so he’d suddenly gotten inspired enough to write a first draft in an attempt to cut down the time I might have to spend writing and editing his speech.

He slid his draft across the table.

I read it while he sipped his iced tea — and knew immediately that 95 percent of it had been lifted straight from the internet. (That is plagiarism, pure and simple, and not OK.)

As I continued to scan the page, I had to quickly decide how I was going to respond.

“What did you think?” he asked me.

I told him that the parts he shared about his family were a great starting point, but that other parts seemed familiar to me — like I’d read them online before (and perhaps others would find them familiar, maybe even cliché, as well).

So perhaps we could use some of the family pieces as background, I suggested, and continue with the questions that I’d prepared ahead of time.

He was sheepish at first (his internet inspiration had gone too far, and he knew it had created a problem with ethics in public speaking). But then he looked relieved.

He agreed with my suggested next step, and we proceeded to have a fascinating discussion that provided more than enough material to develop just the right speech for his important event — a speech only he could give).

If you’re writing a speech, it’s important to be clear about ethics in public speaking.

It’s OK to use ideas from the internet to jump-start your own creative process.

But using paragraphs of someone else’s material as your own?

That’s NEVER OK.

At the end of our meeting, my client left feeling confident in what he’d shared with me and how his speech would likely shape up.

I left with a solid theme in mind – and an interesting, original thread that I was ready to get on paper.