By Ryan DeBoef
Chief of Staff and Assistant to the President for Governmental Relations, Missouri State University
“Let us never underestimate the power of a well-written letter.”
- Jane Austen, Persuasion
A decade ago, when I was getting started in the legal department at Missouri State University, one of our campuses became embroiled in a turf dispute with another educational institution.
Stakeholders from both institutions met to explore collaborative options. The stakeholder meeting was wholly unsuccessful. In a last attempt to avoid an inevitable clash, our general counsel asked me to draft a message from our president to the other institution’s president (along with staff at the state department of higher education) advising them to stand down.
Before drafting the letter, I met with the president and the other stakeholders who had attended the meeting. From their perspective, the offers made at the meeting were comically unreasonable. We felt disrespected and grossly undervalued. Based on those conversations, I decided the letter should be professional, but aggressive and decisive. I also decided the letter should be short and concise to convey our strength and confidence.
I drafted a scathing letter, designed to evoke a negative reaction. The letter:
- Unequivocally rejected the offers presented at the stakeholder meeting
- Restated our position conveyed during the meeting—we would collaborate only if the arrangement avoids duplication of services and protects our pre-existing presence and investment in the area
- Clearly stated we would continue to voice our objections to the commissioner of higher education and advocate that the state intervene
No apologies. No sugarcoating. No counteroffer. No offers to meet again.
I nervously delivered the letter to my president. He read it—“it’s perfect, send it.” Several days later the president of the other school sent a stammering response, backed down to a much more reasonable offer, and the rest is history.
To ghostwrite a letter or other message that yields these kinds of results, you need to discover (and improve upon) the principal’s voice and master the interview/write/edit technique.
First, let’s get some terminology straight. When I talk about the “piece,” I’m talking about the correspondence, article, newsletter, blog post, or other written work that you are ghostwriting.
When I talk about the “ghostwriter” or the “writer,” I’m talking about the person doing the act of writing.
When I talk about the “principal” or the “boss,” I’m talking about the person whose name goes on the piece. Some people call this person the “author.” While this is 100 percent accurate, I find it confusing.
Discover the Principal’s Voice
The audience should read the piece and believe that the principal wrote it independently. We call this writing in their voice. To do this well, you must discover and use the principal’s signature words and phrases. You must understand their tone, demeanor, posture, and temperament on various issues that arise.
Ghostwriting for someone you don’t know very well typically doesn’t work. By the time you’ve completed editing, it probably would have been easier for the principal to simply write the piece for themselves. This is because the ability to write effortlessly in another’s voice manifests naturally from a strong relationship.
Ideally, you are ghostwriting for the person to whom you report as an employee—your boss. To develop the backbone of your ghostwriting relationship with your boss, you should:
- Have regular one-to-one meetings (I recommend weekly)
- Exchange frequent correspondence between meetings about work related topics
- Travel regularly together to meetings, conferences, and the like
It helps if you can take your relationship a step farther, developing a rapport where you intrude into one another's offices several times a day to talk through a news story or recent email you both received. In addition to necessary work conversations, discussing politics, sports, leisure, and everything in between will develop your relationship with your boss and help you to deeply understand their voice.
Through this relationship you will discover the way your boss thinks, acts, and talks. You will grow to know what verbs your boss likes to use and the tone they bring to topics and situations.
When you write, you make an infinite number of decisions about what words to use, what posture and style to apply, and what tone to convey. These decisions flow naturally if you have fostered a strong relationship that allows you to predict your boss’s thoughts and words.
These kind of relationships are not created overnight. When you take a new job or when a leadership transition brings you a new boss, you must find ways to discover your boss’s voice while you are in the process of growing the relationship. Helpful strategies in such a situation include:
- Read pieces your boss has authored
- Listen to speeches your boss has given
- Talk to others who have previously ghostwritten for your boss
- Pay attention to word choices, style, and tone when your boss speaks in meetings
- Ask your boss to describe their style of communication and especially take note of the way they describe their demeanor and directness in addressing divisive issues
Regardless, when you ghostwrite for someone you don't know well, you will almost certainly need to rely more heavily on the interview/write/edit routine described below.
Even when you know your boss’s voice well, you are often asked to write on topics where you don’t know their position. Even when you know your boss’s position, you will usually need a bit of guidance on what they want to say.
I recommend a three-step process to learn your boss’s position and discover the parameters of what they want to say.
Step 1: Interview Your Boss
At my university we send out a campus newsletter each week called “Inside Missouri State.” The president’s weekly blog post (called “Clif’s Notes,” because my president’s first name is Clif) is featured at the top of that newsletter. I ghostwrite this blog post.
At my weekly one-to-one meeting, I ask my president what he wants to cover in his blog post. I often come prepared with suggestions, but he makes the final decision. Once we identify a topic, I ask “what do you want to say?” He takes 30 seconds to free flow his thoughts on the subject. I write them down, sometimes interjecting with questions or thoughts of my own.
The interview is that simple. Often it takes less than a minute.
Sometimes the interview will be a longer, more drawn-out process. This is particularly true when you are ghostwriting for someone you don't know well or when you are asked to write on a topic or position with which you are not familiar.
In these situations, it helps to do preliminary research and brainstorming before the interview. Research could involve:
- Searching your institution’s website and communication channels for information on the subject
- Looking outside your institution to learn about things going on in your community or at other institutions
- Calling a colleague who you think may have a better handle on the topic
Two or more interviews may be required. In the first interview, you may learn what topic your boss wants to cover or the position they want to take. You can then research the topic and conduct a second interview to flesh out the details of what specifically your boss wants to say.
Don't be scared to do multiple interviews. Questions will come up as you conduct research and write the piece. Sometimes you will be able to answer these questions on your own, but often you will need to go back to your boss and ask questions to gain insight and guidance.
Sometimes it is necessary to discern the emotion behind your boss’s position on an issue or to hear their particular words and phrases when describing a topic. Yet for some people, interviews and open-ended questions can create barriers, resulting in their unwitting reluctance to talk openly and freely.
Other than conducting an interview, there are other ways to get conversation flowing and to suss out your boss’s tone and language on a particular topic or issue. My favorite techniques include:
- Play devil’s advocate, stating the contrary arguments or negative feedback your boss should be prepared to address. For example:
BOSS: Let's do our weekly update on the new business incubator.
YOU: I'm good with that, but we are sure to get some pushback from our arts and sciences faculty who thought those funds should have been used to renovate Lewis Hall.
BOSS: Good point. Let's do it as part of a bigger update on multiple campus projects. Let's include the new business incubator and the chemistry lab addition. Get with our facilities people to find one or two other projects to include as well.
- Create hypotheticals to gain a sense of the parameters your boss has in mind. For example:
YOU: Are there limits on the scholarship program we are proposing in this letter?
BOSS: I don’t think so.
YOU: Would we be comfortable providing this new access program scholarship to 10 students if our partner selects that many?
YOU: What about 1,000?
BOSS: Of course not.
YOU: So, what’s our limit?
- Pause to create uncomfortable silence that your boss must fill with a deeper explanation of the topic at hand. For example:
BOSS: Several of our international students got harassed off campus last night. I want to do a statement condemning the harassment and supporting our students. Do a draft and send it to our communications team for feedback.
YOU: Ok. What do you want to say?
BOSS: I’m not really sure.
[You continue to take notes—or act like you are taking notes—while allowing silence to linger]
BOSS: The police came by and ran off the harassers. We should mention their good work. I want to make it clear that our students didn’t do anything wrong. And we don’t have any reason to think the other people were connected to the university in any way. . . .
- Suggest opinions, words, and phrases and invite your boss to agree or disagree with them. For example:
BOSS: What are we doing our weekly blog post on?
YOU: What would you think about an end of the football season update? We can mention how it increases the university’s national profile.
YOU: Can we say it was an historic season? Best in recent history?
BOSS: I think that’s too much. Let’s talk about their success on the field and the national profile but also the team’s grade point average and community work. And we have a football player going into active-duty military in the spring. I think he wants to be an Army Ranger. Let’s talk about him.
Step 2: Write the Piece
Take the notes from your interview and begin to draft. To fill in the blanks:
- Reference internal and external webpages and documents to help with language and to obtain data
- Call on other administrators as needed to provide information, orient you on the topic, or fill in blanks
- Channel your boss’s voice to flesh out the highlights from the interview with a dynamic narrative
It can be easy to stray off course while writing for someone else—to lose sight of their voice or their decisions, positions, and opinions and substitute your own. You must resist that urge while ghostwriting. Developing a great ghostwritten piece requires you to imitate your boss, using their words, tone, temperament, and brevity or elaboration that is consistent with their style.
Step 3: Review and Edit the Piece
Step back and take a look at what you wrote. For some people it helps to set the piece down and pick it up several hours or a day later to re-read it.
When you review the piece, look for more than punctuation errors and accuracy of the data and information. Read it critically and search for evidence of your voice coming to the surface. Sometimes it helps to read the piece aloud, listening for rhythmic clues of your own voice breaking through. Scrub those areas to replace your voice with your boss’s voice.
Sometimes it is beneficial to send the piece to a larger group of administrators for feedback and suggestions before submitting the draft to your boss for final edits and approval. This is often the case when you write a piece on a very sensitive topic or on a topic you are not familiar with. The appropriate group will differ based on the topic of the piece (e.g., you will often want a facilities administrator to review a piece about facilities projects, etc.). Give the group clear instructions—if you just want them to review for substantive factual mistakes and not to pen stylistic edits, then you should tell them that.
Once you are satisfied with the piece, send the draft to your boss. If you have a firm grip on your boss’s voice and you are writing on a topic you fully comprehend, you will probably receive few (if any) edits.
Otherwise, you should be prepared to receive a lot of edits. Sometimes you may even receive a suggestion that the piece be scrapped. In that situation, you should start the interview/write/edit process over from the beginning.
You will likely receive fewer and fewer edits from your boss the longer you ghostwrite for them. The relationship grows over time, and you become better attuned to the way your boss thinks, acts, and talks.
Don’t take edits personally. Writing is art, and different artists take different approaches. The work is not yours, and your name and reputation won’t be attached to the piece. There’s only one person who needs to feel comfortable with the finished product—your boss.
Likewise, don’t feel miffed when your boss receives compliments for something you wrote. The work is not yours, even if you wrote the piece with very little input or editing. Moreover, it is your job to make your boss sound informed, prepared, and persuasive. If your boss gets a compliment, pat yourself on the back—you have done your job well.
Improve Upon the Principal’s Voice
It is imperative that you remain true to the principal’s voice. However, if you regularly ghostwrite for the same principal, you can (and should) play a role in developing their voice. Replace their passive voice with active voice. Eliminate grammatical slips to which they are prone. Turn their negative language into positive language. Blend their signature words and phrases with new words and phrases that, over time, will become fondly attributed to them.
Your principal doesn’t just speak for themselves, they speak for the whole university, division, or department. Your principal can assume the knowledge of others at your institution (and sometimes the knowledge of people outside your institution), often without attribution. It is entirely permissible to use a fact or figure in the piece even when your principal does not have firsthand knowledge of the fact or was unaware of it when you interviewed them. Miraculously convert your boss from a novice to an expert on the subject at hand.
Your boss may sound passive or unsure when you interview them. They should not sound that way in the piece. The piece should project authority and confidence, backed with statistics and metrics.
For example, an unimproved paragraph in your boss’s weekly newsletter article could read like this:
Next week we will celebrate the opening of our student theatre production of Grease. Performances will start at 7:30 p.m. on Thursday, Friday, and Saturday. Tickets can be purchased at any campus box office. I hope you will plan to attend.
This may be a perfectly accurate regurgitation of what your boss said during the interview. But it’s dry and stale. You can improve on your boss’s voice by conveying the same information like this:
Next week marks the 45th anniversary of an important tradition at XYZ university—our summer student theatre. This program partners music theater students with professional actors from productions on and off Broadway. Our students get a life-changing, high-impact learning experience. Our university community gets the opportunity to experience professional quality theatrical performances right here on our campus.
This season’s production is Grease, a fun-filled musical about American high schoolers featuring 1950s rock ‘n roll music. We will only have three performances—next Thursday, Friday, and Saturday at 7:30 p.m. You can purchase tickets at the box office in Lewis Hall (open 10 a.m. – 7 p.m.) or at any other box office on campus.
I hope you will buy your ticket and join me in supporting our students and taking in an amazing show.
Your boss probably doesn’t know how long your student summer theatre has existed, the hours of your box office, or the marketing byline for Grease. You discover those things through independent research, and by including them you present your boss as an expert with complete knowledge of the subject at hand.
Your boss probably didn’t use uber-positive language about “life-changing, high-impact learning experiences” during the interview, and they almost certainly didn’t say “be sure to invite people to join me in supporting our students and taking in this amazing show.” Yet nothing in the piece is untrue to their voice or their intent, either. You improve upon your boss’s voice to turn their mundane, negative remarks into upbeat, active words designed to illicit a positive response.
Your boss is probably an extraordinarily smart person with a valuable message to share. Having a good message is important, but effectively communicating that message is downright essential. Through ghostwriting, you have the unique opportunity to build on the foundation your boss has laid and help enshrine their legacy and impact.
By developing a good ghostwritten communication, you can help your boss turn the tables. Your combined work can change the landscape, put the competition on their heels, or calm the fears of a nervous workforce or student body. Clearly communicating situations and decisions to others separates the truly great leaders from the rest of the pack.
Ryan DeBoef has been Chief of Staff and Assistant to the President for Governmental Relations at Missouri State University since July 2014. He is responsible for facilitating the university’s achievement of its state and federal legislative agendas and coordinating the governmental relations activities of the university. Prior to becoming Chief of Staff, he served as legal counsel for Missouri State University from almost 4 years. Before coming to Missouri State, he was an associate at Husch Blackwell, LLP and a law clerk for U.S. District Judge Richard E. Dorr. DeBoef received his law degree from the University of Missouri - Columbia in 2005, where he graduated at the top of his class. He received his Bachelor of Science degree summa cum laude in 2001 from Evangel University with majors in government and public administration.