should I be honest with a young employee that she’s not cut out for our field?

A reader writes:

I’m the head of the speechwriting team at a major organization. Earlier this year, I hired my former intern as a junior speechwriter, because she impressed me with her work ethic and positive attitude.

Nine months later, I’m no longer confident my employee has what it takes to cut it as a speechwriter. She still works incredibly hard, but to be frank, I don’t think she has the talent needed to move up in her career. I’ve devoted a lot of time trying to help her become a better writer, but I haven’t seen much — if any — improvement since she started.

This employee has dreamed of being a speechwriter since she was a little kid, and she has a number of mentors encouraging her to pursue her dream. I’m worried that her career goals are unrealistic and that no one else in her life will be honest with her.

Should I have a conversation with her about considering other fields, or is that too cruel? How do I even approach a conversation like that? I feel responsible for her since I hired her for her first speechwriting job, and I want to set her up to have a successful career.

I think anything that conveys “you will never succeed in this field” would be overstepping. It might be true, but it also might not be true. Realistically, with writing it’s more likely to be true than not — the level of writing skill that you need for speech-writing is really hard to teach if someone isn’t starting out with natural talent — but there’s no way to say for sure that she won’t work incredibly hard and develop in ways you didn’t foresee.

But you can definitely have a conversation with her about the gap between her current skills and the skills she would need to be successful in the field. You can frame it along these lines: “Here’s what your skills are now. To succeed in a job like this one, you’d need to do X, Y, and Z. I want to be honest with you that based on what I’ve seen from people in the past, it’s a tough road from this starting point to that kind of mastery — and while I know you’ve been working on developing in those areas, I haven’t seen the kind of improvement that would make me urge you to stick with it.” You could also add something like, “I do think your strengths would serve you really well in a field like A or B.”

There’s also the question here of what to do about the job she’s currently in. It sounds like it might be time to talk with her about a transition out of the job with you, which is a separate thing from urging her to leave the field entirely.

{ 371 comments… read them below }

  1. Katie the Senual Wristed Fed*

    Oh, this is a really hard one because it’s as much an art as it is a skill. So you can master the technical aspects but still not be that good, so it’s hard to point out where specifically she’s deficient.

    Is there another component of the field that you might be able to steer her toward? Like editing or fact-checking?

    1. EA*

      I agree. I liked the part AAM said about giving her another option. I mean, this is probably going to hurt, but I think if you give her something else to think about it will come across more compassionate.

      1. Tyrannosaurus Regina*

        I know young-me (or current-me!) would hear what the LW has to say with a lot less pain and defensiveness if the LW’s advice were framed as “here are other paths adjacent to this field that you should consider, because you have strengths A and B which might serve you well as an [editor/fact checker/whatever].” If you can make it more about how she might thrive in a related field, it’s more like you’re helping her understand how much bigger the world is—instead of just crushing her with “you’re not cut out for this thing you’ve been excited about for years.”

        I know I would have emerged from my bruising experience in graduate school with more of a belief that I could still have *a* future (even if it wasn’t *the* future I thought I’d wanted) if professors had delivered some difficult feedback within a framework of “consider other fields; you do have strengths!” instead of “you are terrible at this and therefore also a terrible person, probably.”) (…which doesn’t sound like the attitude the LW has to her employee, but that was my experience and the harshness with which these authority figures delivered their opinions about my prospects contributed to a deep well of self-doubt that still sometimes derails me and undermines my confidence, professionally. And that was, like, ten years ago.)

    2. 42*

      But to say all this less than a year into her career? Isn’t this something she can grow into? I’m not a writer at all (I’m actually an editor), but even taking into account all of your comments (art/skill, etc)…squash her dreams so soon?? It just sounds so sadly premature to me. Again, this coming from not-a-writer.

      1. Ask a Manager* Post author

        Depending on what her writing is like, I think you can sometimes know pretty confidently. In some ways, having a talent for writing is like having an ear for music; if you don’t have an ear for how the words flow, the most you’ll probably attain is technical competence (which is well below the bar for something like speech-writing).

        1. Me Too*

          That really depends upon OPs ability to judge. If she’s been doing the same type of work in the same industry and market for 10 years, I’m less confident than if she’s got 40 years of diverse experience across multiple markets.

          What plays in Paris does not play in Peoria.

          People frequently over-estimate their own ability to judge others.

          Also, wrt language, a lot of great speech-writers don’t follow the rules.

          I have a friend in DC who does press releases for a major player. Was told very early on he had no talent.

          So, my question is: Is OP truly in a position to make an absolute pronouncement? If so, go ahead.

          1. Ask a Manager* Post author

            Sure, and that’s why I told her in the post not to deliver a “you’ll never make it in this field” pronouncement but instead to talk about the gap between where the person is and where she thinks they need to be.

            1. Rat Racer*

              But how would you articulate a gap in someone’s writing if it’s not technical? From the OP’s letter it sounds like the problem isn’t grammar, spelling or fact-checking, it’s (like you said) a lack of artistry and an ear for the cadence of language. The reason these things are hard to teach is precisely because they’re hard to quantify.

              1. Rachel*

                But you can teach these things. It’s harder but it’s doable.
                OP, if you want to point your employee toward some resources (and it’s OK if you’re checked out with this person, it sounds like she’s been pretty frustrating), Roy Peter Clark’s books are amazing. There’s also just the idea of reading and absorbing good language – I’m sure there are books with transcripts of good speeches out there.
                This is not to say that anyone can be a writer just by reading some reference materials, but it is possible to improve in these more floofy, qualitative areas, I think!

              2. fposte*

                Honestly, I don’t think they’re that hard to quantify–it’s just that it’s a skill most people don’t get a chance to develop. Editors, book reviewers, writing teachers–they do that stuff all the time.

                It’s just that having the difference explained to you doesn’t mean you can do it yourself. Mileage and practice have to go with the explanation, because that’s how you develop the ear, but even there there are no guarantees.

                1. Rat Racer*

                  fposte I always love your insights – particularly what you wrote down-thread about parsing into core elements of “fluency, drama and clarity.”

                  I’d argue that writing falls into 3 layers: creation of ideas, expression of ideas, and technical proficiency of language. Maybe that’s in parallel to what you’ve written above. Technical proficiency can be taught, expression of ideas can be coached, but creation of ideas is the one place where I would personally have trouble giving concrete and quantifiable feedback. And moreover, it is a critical element of the speechwriter’s job.

                  A technically proficient writer can give me an outline of Senator Somebody’s tax proposal, which I won’t understand and will put me to sleep. A writer who can also articulate ideas will be able to make me understand what’s being proposed. But only the technically proficient, articulate and creative writer can boot me off my butt and get me out to vote in 2018 because they’ve woven a narrative that explains why the tax proposal matters to me, the values I hold sacred, and benefit of society at large.

                  You can teach by example – but I try to imagine writing something like a PIP around that skillset and my head explodes.

          2. Engineer Girl*

            I agree so strongly with this. I was told within the first 2 years of my career that I would “never” be a good engineer. My senior manager actually mailed me job ads to other companies! I was devastated. At that point I initiated a conversation with my manager about the problem (notice that I had to initiate it?). My manager had an honest discussion with me. Most of it was about my lack of “tooting my own horn” and letting others know about the challenges I was working on.
            In retrospect I think there were several issues:
            * Severe sexism on that program. It had a reputation through the rest of the company and received sanctions from higher authorities. I think I was being judged by a different (higher) standard than my coworkers.
            * I was working in a specialty field, which most of my coworkers didn’t understand. They couldn’t know how hard my job was. They wouldn’t acknowledge it even after I left and they replaced me with 6 (six!) other engineers.
            * A lack of self-confidence on my part.
            * I approached problem solving in a very different way than my male co-workers. It turned out that I could detect problems far before others could, and later became known for that talent. I had to work on my explaining ability to translate that information to others. But when I was young I was dismissed for it.
            The irony came later, when I actually had to be the lead over the manager that told me I was no good.
            In short, deal with deficiencies in skill sets. Let the person survive or fail on the skill sets. Either they will learn the skill or not, but you’ve done what you had to do to help them succeed.

            1. Marcela*

              Ug, yes. I was told I wasn’t capable enough to be a physicist or work in anything where logic was important. Granted, I was under extreme pressure when I was studying and I had to see my world destroyed, but I wasn’t stupid or incapable. I work now as a software developer earning money beyond all my professors’ imagination, ha! And I am highly recommended by all the people that had worked with me.

            2. Lora*

              +Reynolds Number in Turbulent Flow.

              I got a raft of shit from a couple of particular teachers who felt that biologists were ruining their engineering programs, which they thought should be focused more on petroleum cracking than on curing cancer. They similarly did not like the science I did because it didn’t come from pure theory: there are engineering problems in biochemistry which are only solvable empirically with data – apparently this is…I don’t know, they didn’t like it for whatever reason. They were sure I was the worst engineer EVER. My god, I used STATISTICS instead of Euler’s method for determining a curve!

              Turns out I’m actually very good, because I am much more diligent about validating my models and prototyping than the guys who work from theory only. I have a reputation for building things that work robustly; they don’t. That comes because I’m willing to hear criticism and second-guess the math, whereas the guys who make it into, as you said, a horn-blowing contest, come off as blowhards in contrast. That, and a LOT of things are not model-able with a linear ODE…

            3. Aunt Helen*

              I don’t think we can downplay the sexist aspect of this! I was struggling in a freshman college class and sought help from the teacher. He He asked me if I thought I “belonged” in art school. Fortunately I had the confidence to know that art was what I wanted to do, but it’s been 20 years and I haven’t forgotten his lack of faith in me.
              Girls are discouraged from succeeding in traditionally-male dominated fields at higher rates. A lot of it is that without adequate representation, it’s hard for people (men and women!) to picture women in these roles. Add to that the lack of mentorship and networking opportunities, glass ceilings, etc and it’s no wonder that a woman’s career can be sidelined or even abandoned after a careless “you’ll never make it here.”
              (FWIW, I have been a wildly successful professional artist most of my adult life, so I’m glad I was right about “belonging!”)

        2. 42*

          OK, I can see this now, Alison. Comparing it to music is a good analogy and was helpful.

          But then the devil on my shoulder says that desire has to count for something, too. Maybe this is a ‘you either have it or you don’t’ -type of calling, but I know that there are times when *wanting* something enough can flip an internal switch on and give those eureka! moments. I wish there was another way around for her.

          1. actual speechwriter*

            I’m a speechwriter and I’m a bit puzzled by the comments in this thread. People seem to think all speechwriters spend their days writing “I have a dream”-type speeches. Would that it were so! In reality, the vast majority of speeches are pretty mundane affairs — congratulating an employee who’s retiring, announcing a new product, proposing regulatory changes, etc. Anyone who’s willing to learn can become a decent speechwriter. All you have to do is read and re-read: “Style: Lessons in Clarity and Grace” by Joseph M. Williams.

            Experience matters a lot in this field. There are a million little tricks to learn — avoiding hard-to-pronounce words, transitioning elegantly from one argument to the next, printing the speech in a format the client likes, and so on — and it just takes time. I don’t know that I could tell if someone is going to make it or not on the first day. If anything, I would be more concerned if the person were an awesome writer, because she would soon be looking for a more satisfying outlet than writing for people who think they know everything and can’t appreciate her work.

            Talent only matters when you get close to the top 1% of your profession. Below that point, having talent just saves you time and work. It’s true that not everyone can be a world-class pianist, but most people can become decent musicians if they keep at it.

            1. Bwmn*

              My guess on this letter (and open to being very wrong) is that it’s possible that they’re talking about speech writing for politicians at a certain high level…..because the idea of saying that being a speechwriter is a dream since childhood sounds a bit odd to my non-speech writing ear unless it’s the idea of speech writing for the President/top politicians. Unless the young person grew up in a speech writing household.

              I say this as someone who works as a fundraiser/grant writer – which no matter how many college students/adults say they want a job in the field, I’ve yet to meet one child who sees this as an aspirational field. That all being said, being an amazing grant writer does not always transition into being an amazing institutional fundraiser, so I can see the idea of working with a young person where you might want to direct them into a better fit. And to be blunt, sometimes that “better fit” is literally just the same job but in a different organization.

              1. Not the Droid You Are Looking For*

                I met one!!! It was like seeing a unicorn.

                We have a fundraising certificate program and this college freshman said they wanted to be a grant writer. It was so weird not to hear gift officer :)

            2. Browneyedgirl*

              I agree… on the other hand good speech writers can make even dull speeches and awful speech givers seem polished. Think about William Safire and Spiro Agnew with the “nattering nabobs of negativity.”
              That’s art.

            3. Another Actual Speechwriter*

              Another actual speechwriter here, too. I’d echo everything Actual Speechwriter said. It’s rarely home run stuff. It’s mostly, maybe, runner on base and even then that’s to am empty ball park on a Sunday home game.

              Speechwriting is an art, sure. But it’s a craft. It takes time to develop it into something that comes naturally. The difference between most writers and most speechwriters is the time it takes to get a product to the market. I don’t have the luxury of rounds of editing, rounds of opinions, and rounds of thought. On good days I get a few days to write. On normal days, a few hours. Then there are the – the speech is being given right this minute and you’re re-writing paragraph 412 in the teleprompter and hoping the principal can make it work -speeches.

              I would encourage your employee to keep at it. Encourage her to learn the technical side. Then show her how to get her own voice out of the way. Trust me, if she can’t do it, she already knows.

                1. OP*

                  Howdy, fellow speechwriters.

                  I agree with you that speechwriting is a craft that can be honed. I’m certainly a much stronger speechwriter now than I was 5 years ago, and I’ve got plenty of room left to grow.

                  My concern with this employee is that I’ve seen zero growth. Granted, 9 months is not a lot of time, and I don’t expect her to evolve from a college kid into Ted Sorensen in less than a year. But when I look at first drafts she handed me in April and compare them to drafts she sent me this week, there’s no improvement.

                  My employee also really, really struggles to keep up with the pace in addition to the other issues. She almost always gets me her drafts late, and then I have to do a total rewrite to get them to a place where our principal is happy with it. I’ve worked with her on time management and made a point of giving her assignments with longer lead times, but alas.

            4. Rat Racer*

              This is sort of a non-sequitur, but this reminds me of one of the internships I had in college working for a well-known political consulting firm in DC. I had to write one of those run-of-the mill speeches and my boss’s advice to me was as follows: “when writing speeches, the first rule of thumb is plagiarize, plagiarize, plagiarize.”

              Is that really true? Or is that just about the worst advice ever given? This was 15 years ago – I wonder if that consulting firm is still doling out that paragon of wisdom.

            5. jaxon*

              As someone who writes for a living – not speeches, but in the ballpark – and who has taught writing to college students, I sort of disagree.

              If someone hasn’t learned by age 18 how to construct an easy flow of sentences that move clearly from one idea to the next and accomplish a specific goal–let alone include flourishes and colorful but appropriate language and turns of phrase–let alone incorporate emotion, or high-minded discourse–it will be REALLY REALLY hard to teach that person anew, no matter how much you abide by and like your style guide.

              In other words, if I had a 24 year old’s writing samples and nothing else, I feel quite confident I would be able to judge whether or not that person could make it. I imagine that the OP, like myself, doesn’t want to spend half her day climbing an enormous mountain as an expository writing tutor.

              1. Honeybee*

                Yes, I teach writing and I agree with this. I do believe that writing is a skill that can be taught, and I work really hard with my students. But even then, I do recognize that some of them will get to an adequate level of technical skill that they can use in every day work, but no further. By the time you’re in college, if you’re still struggling with basic wordsmithing, I’d have my doubts about you becoming a speechwriter (or a novelist) too.

              2. Anion*

                Yep, another professional writer here. I’ve been asked in the past to give critique to all sorts of new writers, and spent some time moderating a forum whose sole purpose was critique. Speechwriting isn’t my field (I’m a novelist), and I don’t mean to imply that it’s easy when I say I’m sure there are–as described by other commenters–speechwriting jobs where as long as you can communicate clearly, style isn’t as important. But there are some concepts that simply can’t be *taught,* no matter how much we wish they could be. (Or rather, the teaching of some concepts either switches on a light-bulb or it doesn’t. I’ve had a few “students” or mentees who, as soon as you point out where their POV isn’t deep enough or they’re not using dialogue effectively, immediately see the problem and are able to fix it, but I’ve had others who just aren’t able to absorb the concept in a real-enough way to make a difference.) You can teach concepts, but you can’t teach instinct.

                Some of my first attempts at writing fiction are pretty sad: I hadn’t absorbed all the nuances of dialogue tags, my characters tended to fidget too much or use overly dramatic physical gestures for emphasis, etc. But the ability to structure a story, the facility with language, the flow of thoughts and actions, the ability to filter description and action through POV, and the ability to communicate inner thoughts with outward actions (for non-POV characters)…all of those things were there (if not quite polished), and with experience I think those are things that are either there or they’re not. You can explain the concepts and assign exercises to practice them to new writers, but if they don’t catch on quickly chances are that they won’t ever catch on.

            6. J*

              Awww, +1 for the Williams book mention. That was a very popular book at my alma mater and I still have a copy on my shelves. I can’t get rid of it because I have fond memories of it as a reference book, even if I don’t use it that often these days.

        3. fd as*

          It’s also hard to teach. I can write decently well but I struggle to explain “how to write well” to others (like my little sister). The most I can say is reading a lot helps your writing. So I definitely agree with the music analogy.

      2. Bonky*

        I manage writers and editors, and sadly, Alison is right: it’s very clear, very quickly, whether somebody has the aptitude for the job. I’d get to squashing those dreams (as kindly as possible) immediately to enable her to move onto something she does have talent for.

        Sometimes people in our organisation who are not writers end up producing something for one of our publications or for the wider media because they have very domain-specific knowledge. And sometimes those people are atrocious writers; it takes our editorial team a long time to turn what they’ve done into something we’d consider acceptable. My first impulse here was to say that some of these people (the very verbose, the stilted, the “what I did in my summer vacation” people) shouldn’t be writing for us at all. Another exec in our organisation suggested to me that we run training sessions: not in the belief that lucid, elegant writing is something that can be taught, but in the hope that they’d see what was expected of them and where they were falling short.

        Total waste of time: the Dunning Kruger effect is strong, and the people whose written product was worst were completely unable to perceive any difference in their own written work and the best work from the people we hire as writers.

        Big10Professor has the best advice I think anyone could offer an aspiring writer: READ. Read as much as you possibly can. And then read some more.

        1. Ask a Manager* Post author

          That mirrors my experience managing writers and people who want to be writers as well. Writing well is very, very hard to teach someone who isn’t coming in with strong natural talent, and definitely not in the amount of time that it’s usually reasonable for managers to invest.

          1. Artemesia*

            But it is too late by the time someone is striving to become a professional writer. People who have read a lot all their lives generally have an ear for grammar and written expression. You can really tell when you read student work who has been a reader and who hasn’t been. By the time someone is an adult professional it is too late to change that basic level of language sense that comes from having read copiously from first grade one.

            1. fposte*

              That depends what you mean by “professional writer.” I’ve known people who have, after a decade or two of adult reading, developed an ear they didn’t have before and have written well enough to be paid for it. However, there are writing careers where you can’t ever catch up if you’re a decade or two behind people, and I suspect speechwriting may be one of those.

            2. LQ*

              I think there is a huge difference between reading for pleasure and reading with a hyper critical eye (or in this case, listening with a hyper critical ear).

              I know someone who has been a fanatical reader his whole life and is horrible at writing. It is like a crypto game for anything he’s written, especially things he hasn’t gone and edited, just having a casual email conversation is a challenge.

              If you stop reading for pleasure and read with a critical engagement in the content instead it is a different ball game of reading.

              1. BPT*

                I think it’s more that: Readers aren’t necessarily writers, but writers are almost necessarily readers. In that, a lot of people love to read, understand composition, understand what makes a good story, etc, but can’t do it themselves. But if you’re a good writer, reading has almost certainly played into that.

                1. Anonhippopotamus*

                  I’m a writer, and I do well at my job for my level. I don’t like reading literature (except silly chick lit) and when I read non-fiction, I skim and I’m not paying attention to grammar and syntax. Mind you, I am more of a technical writer than a creative writer, but still…not at all a reader.

          2. RKB*

            Reading will help vocabulary but her brain won’t be able to absorb the flow and nuances of English as well as it could’ve when she was in elementary school. Unfortunately immersing yourself in a language isn’t as intuitive and helpful as people think. She’s missed the mark by ten or so years.

            She should still read because it’s not only good for her skills but her brain as well! But unfortunately at this point it won’t make her a better natural writer. Which isn’t to say she can’t work hard at being a good speechwriter, it’ll just take more effort.

          3. ArtsNerd*

            This concept applies to less formal means of communication as well! Reading the f*ck out of AAM and Carolyn Hax have gone a long way toward giving me a sense of how to be direct and assertive without feeling aggressive. My friend likes to tease me about how badly I avoided confrontation when we first met vs. how I nearly *always* speak up now.

            People have told AAM how helpful her scripts and suggested phrasing are, and I agree they are miles more valuable than any official professional development training I receive. But even in the way she frames her responses to the OPs, reacts to comments, etc. provides a model and a tone I can adapt to my own situations. Now I have people asking me how to approach conversations or phrasing, when in the past it was a real weakness of mine.

            1. halpful*

              This, so much this. :)

              My brain’s ability to program itself hasn’t dulled with age yet (I’m in my 30’s and got a major upgrade just last month); I think it’s more that most adults don’t have time to binge-read like that, or to relax enough to let their subconscious do its job.

        2. jaxon*

          Oh my gosh, I write for a living and have supervised writers and taught writing in the past, and I agree with this 100%.

        3. Ritchie*

          I work in non-profit communications and I would say that the Dunning-Kruger effect is the greatest challenge of my job. Everyone writes and speaks every day, but that doesn’t make everyone an effective or talented communicator. But unlike fields like IT that colleagues generally know very little about, people really like to weigh in on communications. When a layperson writes or reviews, say, a press release, they often genuinely can’t tell the difference between a terrible and a great draft. I often get questionable feedback from leadership without the same expertise that makes my products worse. Once a senior collegue insisted that I use “bachelors degree” (it’s “bachelor’s degree,” and not a matter of preference) in an official Congresssional report on education because it looked better to him.

      3. kac*

        I agree, 42. My husband is a writer, and I’ve watched him develop throughout his career. Early on, his writing was fine. It certainly didn’t light the world on fire, and he wasn’t getting published anywhere. 10 years later, after diligently working hard and continually challenging himself? He’s turned into a really incredible, aware winning writer. Nine months into someone’s career writing feels early to say they won’t make it in the field as a whole.

        It’s also worth noting: writing is incredibly subjective. There are certain benchmarks of basic good writing, but beyond that what one person loves another will dislike. Which, again, makes 9 months feel like a pretty short time period to determine that someone won’t be able to hack it in the larger field.

        So I agree with Alison–give her feedback on where she needs to be vs where she is, but don’t tell her she can’t make it in the field as a whole. That doesn’t feel productive and may not turn out to be true.

        1. BPT*

          Yes, writing is subjective, but from what I understand there are certain things that sell well at particular time periods. Speech writing is probably the same. Like, you might be good at really flowery language, description, and writing a 500 page novel, but if that’s the only thing you can do and can’t make yourself to adapt with what sells with speech writing, you probably won’t be successful. And with speech writing, it’s so incredibly important to capture the voice of the person you’re writing for. So if you only have one way to write and you’re stuck, even if it would make a good speech for someone, it doesn’t mean it’s good for your client. (A speech written for Obama would not go over well if John Conyers was the one giving it – they have such different speech patterns, ages, etc).

          So like, yes, someone might think that a piece is subjectively good. But that doesn’t mean that it will sell well or be appropriate for the current venue.

    3. Big10Professor*

      My thought exactly. One of the hardest things I do is try to help students improve their writing, because it’s just not that easy to explain why one paragraph is more readable than another if both are technically correct.

      The best advice I can give for improving someone’s writing is to READ. A LOT. But that’s just hoping they will absorb the type of thing that can’t be taught.

      1. Electric Hedgehog*

        I completely agree with the advice to read everything. I’ve always been an avid reader, and still manage to read a few hundred books a year. I don’t write professionally, but I am much more articulate in my writing than in my speech, and I’ve never had cause to blush for my written communications at work.

        My husband is an art teacher, and one of his greatest frustrations is the constant question ‘Why do I need to take art?’ and the current trend to slash art programs (traditional art, dance, theatre, music, etc.) in an effort to recoup funding shortfalls. This is the reason art and other creative programs are important for children. To produce beauty and creativity, you have to have a lot of exposure to many different types, you have to practice a lot, and you have to have honest critique of your output. This is how you learn what is pleasing to others and discover your personal strengths and preferences.

      2. Princess Consuela Banana Hammock*

        The other thing I encourage people to do is reverse outline and to break down what they’re reading. I usually use a house analogy—your overall organization is your foundation; your sections are beams; your subsections, topic sentences and transitions are walls and doors; and technical components (grammar, syntax) are the paint. But it’s hard to distinguish the work that each of those elements does if you’re looking at the house after it’s built instead of breaking it down.

      3. ArtsNerd*

        Yes yes yes. The language parts of our brain very much want to mirror the inputs we’re receiving. It’s nigh-impossible to have polished writing as an ‘output’ if you don’t consume any as an ‘input.’

    4. Manders*

      I agree that it might be to start pushing her towards exploring other options. Has she ever written a press release or a piece of content for a blog? What about something like ad copy for radio, which requires an understanding of how a short speech will sound when spoken aloud?

      I don’t know if all these positions are available in OP’s organization, and if they are, I’m not sure if she can be moved into one of them easily. But if OP knows writers in other fields, maybe she could offer to put her in contact with them.

    5. OP*

      OP here! I think she could succeed as a copy writer or in another communications field like PR. She’s very creative but lacks the sophistication speechwriters need to make speeches sound like how people talk.

      An old mentor of mine used to say there are two kinds of writers: those who write for the page, and those who write for the ear. Successful speechwriters need to be the latter, but there are plenty of professions where the former is a better fit.

      If folks have any ideas of writing-intensive professions that aren’t speechwriting, I’m all ears! I’ve been a speechwriter my whole career, so I’m not that familiar with copy editing, etc.

        1. CoffeeLover*

          I like the way it sounds too. While you may be closing one door, you’re opening others for her as well. I wouldn’t be surprised if there’s a part of her that has realized she’s not really cut out for this line of work. But it can be hard to imagine other paths when you’ve focused on one thing your entire life.

          If what you say is true, I hope she can accept this isn’t the right path for her and that she’s willing to try others.

          1. Tyrannosaurus Regina*

            “But it can be hard to imagine other paths when you’ve focused on one thing your entire life.”

            This is so true. Especially if speechwriting was a childhood dream, being steered away from it might feel like a more colossal, and personal, failure than it really is. In reality, she’s probably just better suited for a different career—which is a pretty value-neutral truth and doesn’t reflect on things like her work ethic, creativity, etc. But with a young lifetime’s worth of expectations about Being A Speechwriter weighing on her, hearing that from her mentor could feel disproportionately like a *personal* failing, like she’s just not a good enough, smart enough person to succeed, period.

            I think the LW’s concern for how to deliver this news and point her employee toward paths that would be a better fit is really heartening and I’m glad the LW is looking out for her. I hope the aspiring speechwriter hears her boss’s advice in the spirit it’s intended, and after maybe being sad for awhile she can get herself together and find fulfillment in exploring a different path.

        2. Jaydee*

          I would agree with that. It may do one of two things that would benefit her. One would be helping her “listen” to what she’s writing. As she does that, she may start to recognize the areas where her writing is great on paper but does not sound like how people talk. And that may improve her speechwriting. The other would be that she might say, “Yes, you’re right! I should start looking for jobs that require writing for the page” and end up with a very successful career.

          I will say, it sounds like she may not need to read more as much as she needs to listen more – listen to more speeches, more radio news (like NPR), etc. and practice writing in that slightly more conversational style.

          1. catsAreCool*

            Joining Toastmasters might help – that way she can write speeches and then hear how they sound and feel when she gives them.

      1. Anon in NOVA*

        Perhaps she could look at being a Public Information Officer for a government agency or organization? In my experience, PIOs draft more written documents/media releases, but only really do “talking points” and assist with message mapping for officials giving speeches.

      2. Nolan*

        Does she read her work out loud? I don’t know if that’s a common practice for speechwriting, but if the gap for her is writing for the ear, having her go somewhere quiet and read her work aloud, or even record it, might help her identify those kinds of issues.

        If that can’t/won’t work, then redirecting her energy to a similar field like you mention would probably go over the best.

        1. Marillenbaum*

          I suggest to my students all the time that they read their work out loud (I don’t do speechwriting, but I’m a TA for a political science course, and there are a lot of undergraduates with very clunky writing). If it sounds weird or bad when you say it out loud, that’s because it probably is. My English professor when I was in college had us do all that with papers: after we turned them in, we met with her and read her our papers, and she would stop us when the writing didn’t work or our arguments weren’t clear. It was a great chance to defend things she might not like, and to get a sense for why our papers weren’t working the way we wanted them to.

        2. Franzia Spritzer*

          +1 for recording.

          I do voice work reading essays, podcasts, or VO for video/film work, there is a HUGE divide between writing for the page and writing for the ear, or the mouth in this case. I have one client who is a brilliant writer but it’s nearly impossible to get my mouth around some of the work he gives me; sometimes I just run out of air before there is a reasonable place to take a breath; sometimes I struggle through his scripts because, “women don’t talk like that.” I think if he went through his work out loud these problems would drop off and the scripts would improve.

        3. designbot*

          Or even get someone else to read it–a boyfriend, your mother, roommate, whoever. This lets you see where a reader stumbles over your writing as well as just the sound of it.

        4. Future EdTech*

          Reading out loud what you write is possibly how I, a C/D English student in high school, got As in my writing classes in college. Also, what helped me was listening to music and going by the beat of the song as I read along.

          Writing to me is like my drawing hobby, a skill where progress isn’t a straight angle up, but curvy line that sinks down and then up dramatic then tampers off for a bit then goes up and down again.

      3. Bonky*

        That’s interesting: don’t make the mistake of thinking that copywriting or writing for PR is somehow less difficult and nuanced, though. The best communications professionals I’ve worked with are able to write in a lucid, conversational style that quickly gets across the point they’re making: not so different from speechwriting. Conversational flair is as important in written text as it is in spoken text, whether you’re trying to convince someone to buy something, vote a certain way, or consider doing something differently. And rhetorical tricks are as valuable in ad copy, PR copy or news coverage as they are in speechwriting.

        If her grammar and close attention to detail are up to it – and they’ll need to be superb – copy/sub edit is a way to go, and it offers a decent career path if she’s in the right sort of organisation. (I’ve a friend who started with no degree as a subeditor, and who worked his way up his organisation to become managing editor of a suite of magazines and book publications.) It can be an immensely frustrating career for would-be writers, though; two of the copy editors who work for me write fiction as a side-gig, and find satisfaction that way. Technical writing’s another avenue you might want to look into, but I have a sense that somebody whose heart is set on speechwriting may not look favourably on either of these options.

        1. OP*

          Oh, I don’t think other forms are writing are less challenging! I definitely didn’t mean to imply that speechwriters are superior in any way. They’re just a slightly different set of skills.

          Her attention to detail isn’t fantastic, but I do think that’s a skill she can work on.

        2. Karo*

          Most of my writing is done in a lucid conversational style, but I have no illusions about my ability as a speechwriter: I’m barely passable for internal speeches. Something about writing to be read is just so different than writing to be heard. Not that the rest of your point isn’t valid – being good (or passable) at one type of writing won’t make you great at another, and there isn’t one that’s particularly harder than another on the whole – but each type of writing has its own intricacies and you can be good at one and horrible at another in spite of any overlap.

          1. Marty*

            The difference is clear. Beat is in the ear. like music, speech has a rhythm. With speech, stress matters, get it right, it will sing; get it wrong, it will lilt. To improve, work your meter, write poetry, learn to hear the beat in everyday speech. Then let your manuscript sing.

        3. Photoshop Til I Drop*

          As a technical writer, I agree that a speechwriter would probably be dissatisfied in my field. Speechwriting strikes me as requiring an ear for the artistry of wording, whereas in tech writing we try to funnel complicated language into short digestible snippets. They seem nearly opposite in intent and skillset.

      4. LQ*

        Grant writing. It has a lot of the same pull at the heart strings, but those things are not meant to be read aloud.

        1. Victoria*

          Another vote for grantwriting. You get to help a cause you believe in, and if you get all the facts in, the quality of the writing is just an extra bonus. It does involve strategy.

        2. Leatherwings*

          Thirded. It’s also a pretty in-demand skill so she could do straight up fundraising, project management, programming, etc. with it.

          She could also combine that with major gifts work – people don’t write speeches for that but it is necessary to write and prepare talking points for those conversations which could translate well.

        3. Bwmn*

          As someone who does a lot of grant writing, while it’s a lot of technical writing which may be a solid fit with this kind of writing, it’s a job field that I think needs to be a bit better articulated.

          Organizations/universities/hospitals that hire straight up grant writers exist but it’s a niche. What’s more common in the field are more general fundraisers that will do a mix of other fundraising activities as well as grant writing and report writing. If the idea is to focus on copy that speaks to the public, then there are other kinds of writing within the nonprofit world that would make far more sense than grant writing. Grant writing by and large is far far more technical, but to also have a job where all you do is grant write is also very niche. It exists, but for a young person it seems aggressively limited – not to mention that as the situation with US government grants is a bit up in the air with a new administration coming in – I’d encourage any young person to pursue a more general position that can involve grant writing than being a straight up grant writer only.

          1. Venus Supreme*

            This is really interesting to hear — My job is primarily grant writing (I overlook all institutional relations, with about 80% of my job including grant writing) and I’m a very recent college grad. I went to school for arts administration, and I now work at an arts organization. I didn’t seek out grant writing straight out of college, but I had jobs in various areas of development and felt that this particular job opportunity was the best fit for me- and it just so happened to be grant writing. I didn’t realize how rare it was to find a job like this!

            In my limited work experience, I noticed that there is a fair amount of writing involved in the individual giving aspect of development as well – I found that I could put a more creative twist when crafting fundraising letters. I also work in the arts, so I don’t know if this is standard across all nonprofits or if we’re a little different.

            1. Bwmn*

              The individual giving aspect of fundraising has loads of more personal writing – especially where you can be creative.

              While it’s definitely not necessarily a rare job, I more emphasize it as niche because when you’re looking for new positions and you see Grant Writer/Grants Manager – by and large what those jobs entails can vary wildly outside of “writing grants”. Somepositions will also ask for you to be the relationship point person and steward the larger relationship with the donor – others are going to expect a significant amount of copy editing/proof reading for the entire organization. And then when you get into Grants Management, that can easily be a finance, project, study manager position that has very minimal writing. Being able to write grants well is definitely a great nonprofit skill – but I think it’s far better to think of a CV skill rather than a career trajectory.

              Those jobs definitely do exist and if you’re happy where you are and are able to slowly network and move around gradually – you can just write grants your whole career. But when talking about careers and larger industries, it’s a limited scope.

              I know grant writers who have gone onto being Development Directors and then Executive Directors of organizations. Others who have transitioned into finance positions. Others in institutional fundraising, project management, or copy writing for individual giving materials. Not everyone is interested in all other tracks – but when talking about nonprofit jobs, it makes me cringe a bit when people mention Grant Writing as a career. It’s a job in a number of organization, but not truly representative of potential career tracks.

              1. Mimmy*

                Well this is interesting to see! I’ve told people I love to write and research, and grant writing was often one of the first suggestions people gave. I couldn’t for the life of me find my way in – you either had to have successful experience or wanted to become self-employed. Plus, grant writing was often part of a larger job (as you mentioned). Glad to know it wasn’t just me!

                I’ve since began exploring other avenues because I am not interested in the other aspects of fundraising and development but I have been reviewing grants as a volunteer for the past 4.5 years.

                1. Bwmn*


                  The main chunk of “grant” jobs are either within research – in which case there need to be skills along the lines of the relevant field (i.e. medicine, sciences, etc.) or within the fundraising field. I started on the research side, and really hated all of the medical research parts – especially recruiting participants – so no matter how much I liked the grant side, the medical research side was a bad fit for me.

                  I then did happily move to the fundraising side – but when I was starting out there were lots of people where it was an early job out of undergrad/grad school and they hated the fundraising side. Again – there are grant writing jobs, it’s a niche position that some organizations include and some don’t. Regardless, the fundraising piece is key and if you never want to go beyond the writing piece (whether it’s grants or individual giving copy) – it’s far more of a specialty skill you’re looking to develop. If someone I was working with told me they wanted to only write grants and what kind of development track that would mean – my best suggestion would be to find consulting groups that specialized in that. Because to move up within an organization would likely require movement to the program management/finance piece or fundraising.

              2. Venus Supreme*

                Thanks so much for clarifying, Bwmn! I completely agree with what you’re saying. My overall career goal is to make my own arts company, and I felt that working in fundraising would best give me insight into how a nonprofit operates. I definitely don’t see me being a grant writer for the rest of my career, but I’m able to utilize skills I have while also continue to learn. (I can easily see how someone could become comfortable in this position and literally have just this job for the rest of their life- but that’s not much fun for me!)

                The old grant writer at this job actually moved on to be the Development Director.

                1. Bwmn*

                  You are definitely not the first or last person to be a grant writer as a great early job prior to doing other things. It’s a great job for experience that is very concrete in its tasks and achievements (the grant is due on X date, must include Y information, be written well but more importantly submitted on time, the organization needs to be prepared to do abc things for the funding, etc) – but as a career…..

                  If someone is struggling in one kind of writing job and has never expressed any interest in fundraising or research, grant writing could work as a next job – but as an alternative career track, it’s not quite appropriate. And I also think it’s valuable to say that as a career while it can exist for some, it’s a bit disingenuous to present it as a career track.

                  I’ve been trying to think of a good analogy for another skill/job and have been stumped – but I can say that as a long time AAM reader, I’ve seen far more comments mention Grant Writer as opposed to Grants Manager or Fundraiser – and both of those represent far more accurate career tracks in the nonprofit world than Grant Writer.

          2. LQ*

            I worked in a very small community development org when I was very young (first post college job) and I did a lot of grant writing. I never wrote government grants either, it was all for foundations and such.
            For me while some of the writing was technical, a lot of it had to be sort of passionate-ish (you don’t want to go to far) and plain language rather than highly technical. Not quite speak to the public, but speak to the foundation. I used a lot of facts, numbers, charts, and data but it was about weaving that into a story that people cared enough to throw money at.

            There were also quite a number of freelance grant writers in our area who would work with the local nonprofits and that was all they did. I only really knew the ones in my metro area in my kind of work so maybe it isn’t super common, but they definitely worked hard and did well.

            1. Bwmn*

              My primary reason to push back against the idea of “pursue grant writing” is because it’s far more a skill that some people are able to do full time (either as a consultant or position) than it is a career track. Because of that, unlike speech writing/PR/Comms or other job avenues – you’re recommending that someone cherry pick around jobs rather than going into Development or Research (where a number of primary investigators have research assistants who often contribute at varying degrees to grant writing).

              Not all nonprofits will have Grant Writers – but outside of really small organizations – all will have Development Departments. Additionally, a lot of larger organizations have Communications staff that can involve a mix of social media, traditional media, press releases, and speech writing. If the other aspects of Development don’t appeal to someone, then I’d have a hard time encouraging Grant Writing as a career on its own when a field like nonprofit Communications might make far more sense.

      5. Manders*

        I write blog content for a small company. It requires a writer who can translate the “voice” of the company into text. My current field requires me to stay fairly dry and factual, but a lot of companies are looking for people who can produce engaging content that doesn’t feel sales-y.

        As a young content writer, you crank out A LOT of words. It’s a field that can reward people who are diligent and good at writing for the page rather than the ear.

      6. Karo*

        Maybe she could thrive in a place where speechwriting is part of the job but not the totality of it. I work for a relatively small organization, writing pretty much all public communications for the company. There are definitely pieces of it that I’m better at than others (for instance, I genuinely suck at speechwriting) but our bar isn’t perfection.

      7. Laura (Needs to Change Her Name)*

        I had great success giving difficult feedback like this by framing it in terms of strengths. It sounds like you think she is a strong writer for the page. You might note that and ask if she thinks that speechwriting is where her future lies, given that she is strongest in an area that speechwriting does not require and relatively weak (compared to her strengths) in the most important, key element of speechwriting. (Note: I didn’t get feedback that this had been successful in the moment. In the moment there was crying and it was bad. But a year later I was asked to be a reference for a graduate school application and her personal statement directly referenced that conversation as a career-changing moment.)

      8. Anon Again*

        If you have been a speechwriter your entire career, do you think that you have enough working knowledge about other writing fields to know if she has an aptitude for that type of writing? I ask specifically because I think the worst thing that you could for this employee is to provide false hope about another career path, and that is a real possibility if you tell her that she would be better suited to something like copywriting or PR when you haven’t worked in those fields yourself.

      9. Chalupa Batman*

        A variation on the “read read and read some more” advice if she won’t be dissuaded from the field: maybe she can listen to a variety of speeches, talk radio, debates, etc? I tend to have a very hard time writing in language that’s comfortable spoken aloud, so I never present anything from a written speech. I may go ahead and write one, but I only actually use the outline because it almost always sounds overly formal and jilted as written. I also hate to read aloud, to be read to, and listening to talk radio and podcasts, so I usually read things rather than listen to them (I always wait for the State of the Union transcript to go up the next day, I avoid spoilers like it’s The Walking Dead or something). If she’s similar, she may have poured over transcripts to learn how to write, but never actually listened to them delivered to see how the cadence interacts with the written word. Now she’s trying to emulate something without a huge piece of the puzzle and may not know she’s spinning her wheels if it’s all technically right. She may need more time to get there than you’re able to give her, and may really be better suited to something else, but it sounds like she’d care enough to give it a try if she hasn’t already.

      10. EddieSherbert*

        Hey OP, I think PR is a good suggestion. I agree that a lot of the communications realm could also work… That can involve social media posts/responses, blogging, help documentation, magazines, etc. internally (for staff) or externally (for customers). Some titles can be really specific (social media account coordinator) or really broad (something like communications manager, specialist, associate, etc.).

        One job board I really like for communications-specific-folks is the Big Shoes Network. Could be helpful – for ideas for you or as a suggestion for her if she is open to that conversation… which she may not be! And that’s okay too.

      11. The Strand*

        Technical writing, and grant writing (if she’s passionate about the nonprofit world this can be a great fit)

        Advertising needs people who can strategize big picture plans, not only copywriting; in fact many fields need this.

      12. thehighercommonsense*

        Okay, so this might be out of left field, but….try steering her towards books/ articles on preaching? I realize that’s overtly religious, and maybe there’s a better secular analog, but the best books have a lot of practical tips for writing for the ear, and a general method of approach.

        There are good and bad preachers, but in my experience, the transition from divinity school/ theologian focused to speaking/ congregation focused is one that lots and lots of folks have to make, and some of them do do it successfully.

        1. Nobody*

          Motivational speaking would be the secular version of preaching. Both depend on being able to weave words and charisma to move your audience toward a goal.

        2. Another Actual Speechwriter*

          This is 100% true.

          Tongues of Angels, Tongues of Men is a fantastic book my speechwriting mentor encouraged me to read early in my career. It’s helped shape how I shape words. It’s also made me more cynical of preaching, but them’s the breaks.

          1. Marisol*

            I just googled that and it is sub-titled “a book of sermons,” written by John F. Thornton. Is that the book?

            1. Another Actual Speechwriter*

              It is!

              It’s a gathering of some of the most influential sermons of several different times of Christianity. I’ve marked it up not for the spiritual context, but the way the phrasing works throughout time. That skill – the ability to shape a story in a way that is re-told again and again is what moves people to action.

              1. Marisol*

                thanks, I put it on my Amazon wish list. I’m not a speechwriter but I have an interest in the craft of writing. There’s been a few good book suggestions today!

      13. Michele*

        Also, be mindful of how you deliver your thoughts. It’s hard starting out and I’ve known people who are very competent who left writing because of someone’s opinion.

      14. Sue Wilson*

        but lacks the sophistication speechwriters need to make speeches sound like how people talk.

        I mean, speeches don’t sound like people talk. They have a rhetorical rhythm which is quite unnatural to casual speech patterns, even the ones with unsophisticated vocabulary. Is that the problem? Like she’s not using the right type of vocab (and doesn’t seem to have the instinct for effective word-choice). Or is she actually writing speeches that don’t have the right rhythm? Because both those things can be learned (but I’ve found can’t be taught). Like someone said above, have her listen and read to a bunch of speeches, with context, like homework and see what she can pick up organically. That will sometimes be able to tell you whether it’s worth investing more.

      15. Not the Droid You Are Looking For*

        An old mentor of mine used to say there are two kinds of writers: those who write for the page, and those who write for the ear. Successful speechwriters need to be the latter, but there are plenty of professions where the former is a better fit.

        I write for a living, and I am *definitely* a “for the page” writer. I can craft an alright script or remarks, but it is not where my talent lies.

        1. fposte*

          Yup yup yup. Fortunately, I’m an academic and I sound stilted anyway, so I can speak from my own writing, but I couldn’t really do it for anybody else.

      16. Giggle and Hoot*

        During a journalism internship my manager suggested I was a jack of all trades, but not a serious writer like the employed writer on staff. It turns out I don’t enjoy the interview process, and I much prefer creative writing… But it took a few years of floundering around, trying some of the other roles I had during the internship (admin, data entry, marketing) to acknowledge that while that manager was right, she was also wrong – I’m not a journalist, but writing makes me happy. Business and admin does not.
        I have taken post graduate courses in creative writing since and found some good mentors and friends this way – some are more objective than others, but eventually I’ve learned who to turn to for honest feedback.

      17. zora*

        but even that, from what you’ve said above, she struggles to get writing done quickly and turned in on time. That doesn’t work well for any comms field I know of, because you usually have to get press writing turned around quickly. I’d be worried in the same way you are.

        I think that is a good way to explain it to her, using Alison’s script, and especially talking about the time it takes her to turn things around. She either needs to learn how to change that, or try something else as a career.

        On the flip side, I HATE writing, and I ended up in very writing-heavy jobs a couple of times without intending to. And I’m the same as your employee, turning it around quickly was by far the hardest part! Now I’m super clear in interviews that writing is my biggest weakness, and I really don’t want to have to do a lot of writing on a daily basis, and especially not quickly!

  2. Artemesia*

    It would be a great kindness to follow Alison’s advice here. There are few fields that are more dependent on talent than speechwriting. I gave a lot of speeches in my career and I am pretty good at it, but I am not talented enough to be a professional speech writer. This is one of those fields where workmanlike or pretty good is not enough; it is a gift. You can improve from good to excellent; but the likelihood of improving from not very good to good enough is pretty low.

    1. Katie the Fed*

      I guess I’m confused with this part of the advice though:

      “To succeed in a job like this one, you’d need to do X, Y, and Z”

      Because I don’t know how you even explain specifically what she needs to do that she isn’t doing, because there is some artistry involved.

      1. fposte*

        Artistry is surprisingly quantifiable. “Sentences need fluency, drama, and clarity. You see how I’ve edited here, here, and here to get to those goals?”

        1. BRR*

          I was let go from my last job in large part because I couldn’t get a handle on the writing style my manager wanted. I feel like a lot of the feedback I received was specific and provided guidance (although at times it felt really subjective). I’m not in speech writing though so I could move to a different job in my field and succeed at it because there was a less emphasis on the writing.

          1. fposte*

            There’s a bit of a catch-22 in that if somebody hasn’t developed the ear, the difference between their version and the polished version won’t necessarily be illuminating. But that’s always the best place to start.

            Writing is very like an athletic endeavor, in that a lot of people who are good at it don’t know exactly how they’re making the sausage–they just know what better looks like. I think that’s a big reason for the myth that you can’t quantify what’s needed for writing, when really it’s that that’s a separate skill from the writing itself.

            1. Collarbone High*

              Very true about your first paragraph. I’ve edited a lot of beginning writers who will write, “Jane did X. Then Jane did Y. Next Jane did Z.” I’ll combine that into “Jane did X, then Y and Z.” Someone who looks at that change and says, I see, that flows better and eliminates repetition (or understands when I say that) will likely develop into a good writer. Someone who says “That’s exactly the same as what I wrote” likely will not, because they genuinely don’t hear a difference.

            2. Turanga Leela*

              I really appreciate this discussion. I edit other people’s writing at my organization, but I have trouble explaining to people (including my boss!) why the edits matter. I’ll fix a terrible, ungrammatical sentence, and half the time my boss will change it back. When I protest, his response is always the same: “It doesn’t bother me.” Well, no, because you have a tin ear.

                1. Marisol*

                  Michael Neill, a life coach I follow, links the 4 stages of competence to what he calls the “myth of the expert,” that is, thinking that someone can successfully teach something because they are a master. In reality, the master may not be able to elucidate the steps that the student must take to improve. People who have an effortless mastery of something can in fact be the *worst* teachers because not only are they incapable of breaking something down, they get impatient and frustrated with the student’s inability to pick up the discipline intuitively, when they should really blame themselves for their inability to communicate their understanding. People say, “those that can, do; those that can’t, teach” as a way to insult teachers, but I think the converse is more often true: those that can do, can’t teach.

      2. Anna*

        I have less confidence that truly talented people were just born with that talent since reading Malcolm Gladwell’s Outliers. There will be some people who have that little bit of special flair, but I seriously doubt the only people who are good speechwriters are the ones who have that special flair.

        If the only people who ever did a job were the people who had “natural talent” there would be a lot fewer people doing any job.

        1. Me Too*

          It’s all about practice. I know several admired artists. They will all tell you that natural talent is a myth.

          Hardwork is what matters.

          Even in music, recent studies are showing that almost no one is truly born tone deaf or with perfect pinch. Even as an adult, with practice, anybody can learn to sing competently.

          I get that people don’t understand this as it’s recent discovery.

          1. InfoGeek*

            But singing competently and being an opera star are two different things. They’re looking for an opera star, not someone who can sing in church without hurting the ears of the person next to them.

            1. Liane*

              This. I sing competently as an alto in my church choir, but very definitely have a choral quality voice. No vocal solos for me. And this is after years!

            2. Anna*

              The difference being that the person who sings competently doesn’t put the time in that the opera singer does. There’s this weird idea that the person who practices their instrument does so because they’re naturally talented. It’s not true. They got that good because they were dedicated to the craft and put the time in to become that good.

              1. fposte*

                That’s the difference for a huge percentage of the achievement, but it isn’t ultimately the determinant of the exact ranking–whether it’s a conservatory or a high-school football team, people don’t get the exact same value out of training. I’m absolutely with you on talent (which is not the same thing as aptitude) being largely a myth for workmanlike levels of skill on most things. However, when you get into highly competitive echelons, it’s not simply “who trains most wins,” and other differences–some congenital, some acquired–will affect who makes the cut.

              2. Anion*

                But being successful in the arts isn’t just about technical proficiency. You can hand two people each a cello, and they can both practice the same amount of time and become equally skilled at hitting the right notes, but the one with talent will be able to use those notes to *communicate* with the listener, whereas the one without is simply playing the notes–the music is still lovely and well-played, but the feeling is different. I can coach a new writer on grammar and language, but I can’t teach them how to use those tools to make readers feel (rather than just read) the story if they simply don’t have the ability to do so.

          2. sunny-dee*

            I think the argument, though, is that the OP’s employee needs to be more than competent to be successful in her field.

            1. Anna*

              And I’m saying that’s not true. Every speechwriter who works in the industry is not a star. If everyone is special, then nobody is. It’s the same construct.

              1. fposte*

                It’s not, though. The people who succeed in highly competitive careers are a small percentage of the people who strove to succeed in them. Every NBA player isn’t a star–but every NBA player is light-years closer to stardom than 99% of the kids who wanted to be in the NBA.

                I don’t know how competitive speechwriting is, but it’s certainly plausible to me that you have to be in the top 10%, say, to succeed beyond the entry level. It may be that some people in that top 10% are more special than others, but the other 90% still aren’t special enough.

          3. Panda Bandit*

            Yep, talent is a myth. When I was 12 I tried to learn how to draw seriously, learned a ton of professional techniques when I went to art college, and then spent many more years after that learning and making art. My drawings at the age of 5 looked like everyone else’s drawings at 5.

          4. BRR*

            I do believe hard work matters immensely but I don’t think it can always get people to a level they need to do something. I was on a classical musician career track through a graduate degree and saw many people plateau no matter how much time they put in (myself included). Some may be able to work their way up but not everybody can be good at everything if they just spend time on it. Even if that were true people will need to spend varying amounts of time to increase their skill and in a professional setting there isn’t an indefinite amount of time for someone to improve.

          5. AnotherAlison*

            Hmmm, interesting. In the 1980s, my vocal music teacher at school had my class participate in a study for her master’s thesis. It was some sort of musical aptitude test. My result was “below average.” Through my own hard work and years of piano and clarinet lessons, I was able to stay in 1st section clarinets through high school, but I never felt really skilled or comfortable with music.

            I’m certainly not qualified to dispute the latest research, but I always felt that I had zero natural musical gifts (even before the study results were known to me). I worked with what I had, but I graduated with several friends who successfully pursued music careers, and the difference between us was obvious, even with comparable practice techniques and amount of time spent.

          6. Alienor*

            I think practice has a big impact, but there is such a thing as natural talent. I can’t draw at all – it’s a running joke among people who know me that everything I draw looks like a six-year-old did it. I have nice handwriting, so it’s not a lack of manual dexterity, and I can take good photographs, so it’s not a lack of “eye” or whatever you want to call it. I just can’t draw. On the other hand, my daughter has been able to draw ever since she was old enough to hold a pencil – I remember asking her in amazement “But how do you know what lines to make?” and her saying “I don’t know, I just do.” She’s gotten a lot better with practice (and she’ll be the first to tell you that she’s not as good as she could be, specifically because she doesn’t draw as much as she used to) but there was some level of natural ability in her before she even started that doesn’t exist in me.

            1. Joseph*

              The argument is not that natural talent doesn’t exist at all. Instead, the argument is that the more you practice, the less of a role ‘natural talent’ plays in your success.
              There’s a huge difference now, when you’re both completely green with no real training in sketching. If you both take a year of art classes, the difference will still exist, but it will be smaller. If you both spend ten years practicing/learning/making art, the difference will be even smaller still.

              1. Aurion*

                That’s assuming everything else being equal other than practice time, but natural talent or lack thereof is often a shorthanded way to determine other factors, and determine where one plateaus.

                I can’t draw worth shit. Sure, part of that is that I don’t practice. Another part of that is that I have a mild form of aphantasia, which means my mind’s eye is absolute shit and nearly non-existent. I can recognize things, no problem, but I can barely even hold a mental picture of a face I see everyday in my mind. I can probably sketch competently if I practice really hard and the model is in front of me, but I’m never going to be able to just whip out a drawing out of nowhere because I can’t visualize it.

                All else being equal, yes, the more you practice the less of a role natural talent plays in the process. But talent, lack thereof, and other “natural” factors probably play a part in where your invisible ceiling is before you plateau. And sometimes all the practice in the world can’t fix that.

          7. Clever Name*

            Sorry, talent isn’t a myth. Some people are born being naturally good at things (let’s say bowling). That doesn’t mean that if I want to be a professional bowler I can’t become one if I’m not born with a natural talent. It just means that I’ll have to work really hard and practice a lot. But simply because I can become a good bowler through lots of practice doesn’t mean that talent doesn’t exist.

            1. Anna*

              The person who has the “natural talent” is probably practicing and working at it just as much, so how does that make you different?

              1. Hrovitnir*

                Man, I really disagree with this line of thinking. I do agree that people who are very good generally get there through work – work they’re generally more motivated to do from earlier on than people who were less talented.

                I’m not good at singing due to work. I didn’t even realise I was good until people were shocked by my singing at a camp performance as a child. I haven’t had any training past bits and pieces in high school and only sing to myself very irregularly, and I can still sing extremely well. I would need to work to fully utelise my range etc of course.

                I have never been able to draw. It frustrated me endlessly as my mind couldn’t convert ideas into practicality. I drew far more often as a teenager than I sang, and I basically can only learn to do anything remotely decent by extremely slow and laborious copying and repetition. I could be better with practice, but it’s painful, and I see people with talent *just see* the right angles/shadows etc.

                I think talent is simultaneously over and underappreciated, but the idea there is little to no influence is bizarre to me.

          8. Lindsay J*

            But there is a difference between being adequate or competent and being a high level performer.

            I am an of someone who is unable to progress last the point of adequacy in music.

            I’ve been exposed to music my whole life. I decided my freshman year of high school that I wanted to be a music education major in college, and from that point on busted my was to get there.

            I took lessons with various different people. I practiced hours every day. I took every music theory and performance course offered in my school and my area.

            Music theory I have no problem with.

            I will never be as great performer. I frustrated pretty much every teacher I had because there’s a disconnect between my understanding of things (specifically rhythm and playing in time) and my ability to actually do it. I’ve trued working with different people. I’ve shown my teachers how I practice to see if there was something I was practicing wrong. But at the end of the day I’m a very enthusiastic, not easily discouraged student who is open to and works with constructive criticism who is just never going to be a good musician.

            All my work and hours of practice for me to about the point that more talented people who maybe takes their instrument out once a week. And I’m easily outclassed by an average person who practices an average amount.

            I auditioned for a bunch of music programs. Got into one that had very low admissions standards. And ultimately reached the point where I couldn’t progress any further (somewhere between piano 3 which I failed once, and piano 4 which I failed twice).

            It’s like saying anyone could be an elite runner. It’s just not true. Generally someone who runs is going to be faster and have more stamina than someone who doesn’t. And generally when someone starts running they will see progress in both of those areas for awhile. But there comes a point where the improvement diminishes, and no matter how much most people train they won’t be representing their country in the Olympics.

          9. aeldest*

            I mean, hard work can get you really far, and most of the time if you work hard you’ll do better than someone who is naturally talented but doesn’t work at all, but natural talent is definitely not a myth.

            My mother is a professional violist, and my aunt is a professional violinist. They have both been playing since they were 4 years old; they’ve had the same opportunities, the same teachers for the first 12 years or so, and they practiced the same amount as children. They both went for music in undergrad, and continued on to grad school.

            My mom is a prime example of natural talent–in her early teens she went to a college level master class and the instructor told her not to change a thing. She’s won awards, been invited to play and solo with dozens of orchestras around the world, and was offered enormous scholarships to Juliard and Curtis. She was pretty much on track to be the viola version of Yo Yo Ma. However, she is not particularly ambitious, and decided to be a SAHM instead of continuing her career. Even now, 20+ years since she’s been really “on the scene”, she gets several calls a year from orchestras and chamber music groups to play with them. On the rare occasion she decides to do it, she only has to practice for a few weeks leading up to the performances and she’s good to go.

            My aunt is the perfect example of hard work (and natural talent as well, don’t get me wrong–she’s a great violinist in her own right! Just not as much compared to my mom). She’s put in the practice time and the networking, she went to a very prestigious grad school, etc. She is first violin with a nationally acclaimed orchestra, and also pretty frequently tours abroad as a guest violinist in other orchestras. This is pretty much as far as her career is going to go (which is a lot further than most people go!).

            Even now, when they play together, it’s like night and day. I’m not biased, this is what people have said in reviews and after the concerts. My mom simply has *it*–she really makes the music come alive, whereas my aunt is clearly incredibly skilled, but it’s just not the same.

        2. Joseph*

          I think you’re right that talent is overrated – what OP is calling “natural talent” or the indefinable “ear” for speechwriting probably is really something that’s developed over years (presumably by reading tons of books, hearing lots of formal speeches, listening to politicians/CEO’s, etc). However, that doesn’t mean it’s practical or reasonable for Intern to be able to cram all that years of learning into right now.

          1. BPT*

            Right, but if others at her stage are ahead of where she is, it might not matter if it’s called talent or hard work or whatever. You can’t really expect to wait five years (40 hours a week to get to 10,000 hours – and that’s 40 hours a week of continual writing and work) to get to a point where you’re proficient. I mean yes, an intern starting out is not going to be as good as someone five to ten years in. But there should be some progression – if OP is telling intern specific things she needs to work on but is seeing no progress, that might be a bad sign. It could be that OP isn’t explaining it in a way that intern understands it, or it could be that intern is just not getting it.

            1. Lindsay J*

              And also, during those 5 years her peers would also be working and improving.

              That was one of the walls I hit with music as well. In high school, I was one of very few people that would be practicing my instrument for hours a day, so even though I could not surpass my more naturally talented peers I also was not falling too far behind.

              However, in college everyone who was a music major was practicing hours a day. So I then fell even further behind. I feel like it’s really only in morality plays where you’re going to encounter the dichotomy of the person with no talent but who tries really hard and is a nice person, and the naturally talented person who never practices and is a jerk. In reality there are people who have the talent, put in the work, and are genuinely nice. And those are the people you’re really competing against for scholarships, jobs, etc.

              1. Brogrammer*

                I had a high school music experience that sounds oddly like a morality play, but it’s not unlike your own experience.

                Blonathan, Crangelina, and I were all the same year in school, played the same instrument, and had been playing about the same amount of time. Crangelina was amazingly talented but never practiced. Blonathan practiced diligently, but had no talent. At the beginning of high school, Blonathan and I were pretty close, but Crangelina blew both of us out of the water. By the end of high school, I was the best of the three of us. I wasn’t as talented as Crangelina or as hardworking as Blonathan, but I was more talented than Blonathan and worked harder than Crangelina.

                Of course, none of us became professional musicians and I really do think that given how competitive music is, someone who’s going to make it needs Crangelina’s talent and Blonathan’s work ethic.

              2. Lissa*

                Definitely. I think there’s this idea that if you just want something enough and work hard enough “anyone can do anything” and oh I wish that were true…but it can also be kind of damaging because then it’s like “oh, you failed/weren’t a superstar? guess you just didn’t try hard enough or want it enough!”

        3. Bwmn*

          In addition to this, I think there are a lot of jobs that people have as young people where it’s not an amazing environment to build that experience.

          Numerous young professionals who have all the talent and capacity in the world just don’t necessarily find that place in their first place of employment. And maybe in another environment a lot of that necessary practice to address weaknesses can be had more positively. This isn’t to say that the OP or the OP’s place of employment isn’t supportive – it’s just that place may not work for this young person.

  3. Leishycat*

    I work in IT and have done so for several years. At my most recent position, the department head fired me after about six months, telling me that it was obvious to him that I am not cut out for working in IT. I was pretty crushed, and spent nearly a year out of work because my confidence in my career choice was so shattered. I finally got a new job with more responsibilities, better pay, and better management, and have been thriving here for two years.

    1. Me Too*

      When I started out as a lawyer I interned at a big public service organization. I was told there that I wasn’t cut out to be a little earlier and should look for other work. My spouse and friends told me these people were crazy and it was a bad culture fit. Guess who is now a judge? Guess you still slaving away at that org with no hope of promotion?

    2. RVA Cat*

      This. You need to make it about this specific job, and nothing about her competence in general or her worth as a person. In this case, it wasn’t even that you were not cut out for IT – you just didn’t fit into the particular niche that that manager was filling (or, maybe he’s just a jerk who wanted to kick you while you were down).

      I think the tricky thing the OP needs to look at is to see where she excels and nudge her towards something in that sort of field. Maybe her style is more suited to something like ad copy? Or fundraising for a cause she is passionate about?

      There really need to be more stories in our culture about people who fail to achieve their big dreams, but go on and have a great life anyway. That might literally save lives…. (Heck if she’s a good writer, maybe striking out as a speechwriter is material for a great memoir?)

    3. the_scientist*

      Yeah, I had a high school teacher tell me that I wasn’t “that great of a student” and had “no special aptitude” for science. That was more than a decade ago and I still can remember how much it hurt (although she was accurate in the sense that I have no aptitude at all for physics!) However, I’m now the owner of an advanced degree (in a technical scientific field) and working in a scientific role, so I guess the joke is on that high school teacher?

      I think the OP needs to tread very carefully here. Many people over-estimate their ability to judge the talent/skill of others, and there’s a certain degree of subjectivity in what makes a piece of writing outstanding, vs. serviceable. I think Alison’s suggested phrasing is good, but I’d tread extremely carefully around any discussion of whether the employee has considered if this is the right field for her.

    4. Jaguar*

      So, “I was told I’d never made it and look at me now” stories are obviously very inspirational and do happen, but I think this is a matter of odds than it is a matter of judgement. I don’t know how competitive speechwriting is or how much can be learned versus how much is natural ability, but I think a better framework to look at whether or not someone “will ever make it” is to look at it as a matter of odds than a matter of correct or incorrect. If we assume everyone has certain odds of becoming a successful speechwriter, regardless of how low, and telling people that have really low odds that they’ll never make it is analogous to telling them that the that the chances they’ll make it are extremely slim, I think this becomes a clearer issue. To look at a more transparent industry, there are pro athletes that are told they’ll never make it and then they do, but we know the vast majority that are told that really don’t make it. It’s possible to both “make it” and correctly be told at some point that you would never make it.

      I’m not trying to be a buzzkill, but pragmatism is often the correct perscription for people, not idealism.

      1. Jaguar*

        Re-reading this, I’d also like to say that I think the language is the problem here (ironically). “You’ll never make it” is a pretty lousy thing to say to anyone. “The chances you’ll succeed are very slim” frames things a lot better, in my opinion. Still a tough thing to say to someone and an even tougher thing to have someone say to you, but at least it’s more accurate.

        1. Marisol*

          Yes but this presumes that the OP is able to accurately gauge her employee’s chances of success, which I am not convinced she can do. How many writers has she mentored? How many career trajectories has she *successfully* predicted? How many years has she herself devoted to teaching her craft? I don’t doubt that she can assess the quality of the employee’s work *today,* but that’s a far cry from evaluating the employees chances for success in the future. I’m not saying it’s impossible to predict, but the person making that call would have to be an enlightened master in their field.

      2. BRR*

        Very well put. And it sounds like from the LW’s comments that this person could thrive in a different position not too far off from speech writing.

      3. Muriel Heslop*

        As I tell my students who think they don’t need their eighth-grade educations because they are going to make it big in the NFL/NBA/MLB, “That’s a great plan. Statistically, it’s unlikely. I’d like you to have a backup plan. Plus, don’t you want to have the language and math skills you need so that your agent and accountant don’t steal all of your money?”

        Teaching writing isn’t easy, and it’s especially challenging to teach people with wildly different writing styles and abilities After several months I would trust an employer to know if I wasn’t cutting it in the workplace and I couldn’t expect them to spend tons of time training me. Also, we can assume the aspiring speechwriter is motivated and trying her best. If she has so many mentors encouraging her to follow her dream, maybe one or more of them can read and listen to some of her work and give her some feedback that might help both her and the OP.

      4. BPT*

        Exactly – it’s sort of like confirmation bias. You hear about the stories that defied odds, but you don’t hear the stories where “I was told I wouldn’t make it and guess what, I didn’t. They were right.”

        Sure, there is some self-fulfilling prophecy in there (if you’re constantly told you’re bad at something, you probably will work less at it). But it’s also just numbers – literally there is no way that everyone who wants to be an NBA player/opera singer/rich can be, even if they worked to their absolute full potential. There just aren’t enough slots. If everyone was given the best training and opportunities, that would mean that the bar would just rise more.

        1. Not the Droid You Are Looking For*

          Growing up in LA and living there through my 20s, I knew a *lot* of people who were told they would never make it as an actor/musician…and most of them didn’t.

          I know people who had every professor or teacher back home telling them they would be a huge success, who are now back in their home towns because they couldn’t make it.

          It’s the “not everyone gets to be an astronaut” adage.

        2. Jaguar*

          This sort of selection bias actually has a name: survivorship bias. You don’t hear about the people who didn’t make it, so you’re only analyzing the data of the cases that worked.

          It’s mentioned on the Wikipedia page, but it’s a story I like to relate, so I’m going to do it anyway. In WWII, the allies wanted to add armour to bomber planes to reduce the number being shot down, but they could only add it to a limited number of places without making the planes too heavy. To figure out where to add it, they looked at their planes to see where they were taking the most hits and wanted to reinforce those areas. They were going to proceed until a mathematician pointed out that survivorship bias was in effect: these planes all made it back to safety, and therefore they didn’t need armour reinforcement in those areas. The ones that took fire to critical areas didn’t make it back to be surveyed. Therefore, the planes should be reinforced where, counter-intuitively, the army couldn’t find any damage.

      5. Dot Warner*

        Sadly, I agree. I had one student in my field who I was tempted to kindly but firmly tell that this field wasn’t for him. I didn’t. He graduated by the skin of his teeth but never passed his licensing exam; now he’s 6 figures in debt with no way to pay it off. :(

  4. anonykins*

    This brings to mind an episode of Louie – an up-and-coming comic asks Louis CK for brutal advice and gets told he should quit immediately and will never make it. End of the episode, Louis CK is watching the young comic on a late night show, killing it with the very material he was excoriated for. You never know…

    1. Gandalf the Nude*

      This is a good point. I imagine speechwriting can be quite different for different environments. Is it possible she could thrive in a different industry?

      1. Chrissie*

        Assuming there is more than one way to craft a good speech – does junior coworker have a personal style that is different from the LW’s, but maybe not objectively worse? I was always fascinated with (political) speech writing, and wondered how much personal style of the politician vs the writer goes into it.

        1. Marillenbaum*

          In my experience, the good ones are able to take the politician’s natural style and just make it sound more fluent and clear. I used to work with one of Corey Booker’s former speechwriters–his style is naturally quite flowy, dramatic, and oratorial. The speechwriter then moved on to work for a different politicians, whose style is a lot more meat-and-potatoes; he hated anything that felt frilly or unnecessary. She told me she saw her job as helping the politician speak in a way that felt natural to them, but with more polish.

        2. Another Actual Speechwriter*

          If I do my job correctly, it shouldn’t be evident that I existed. Especially in political speechwriting, I am always and ever cognizant that I was not on the ballot. My ideas are not on the table. To insert myself into the words of the elected official is an uneasy place for me. My job, if done well, takes the words the elected official is going to use and help them into a clear message and story that can be re-told.

    2. Me Too*

      I can have that life experience. Was told I’d never make it as a lawyer. By people who are doing the same jobs now. I’m a judge.

      The OP may be correct….but she may also be incorrect.

      Rather than say “you’ll never make it in this field” the OP should say “you don’t have a future here unless X, Y, and Z”.

      OP should not speak for the whole field. Who knows? Maybe there’s a place for the employee where they would be successful.

    3. NonProfit Nancy*

      I agree, I’m surprised the OP is so confident that they know exactly what will be required of future success. People have surprised me with how they’ve developed and the niches they’ve found that suit their particular skills (although I admit I don’t know much about the field of speechwriting). It’s fine for OP to not want this person working for them any longer and not want to keep mentoring them, but I don’t know if anyone can say someone else doesn’t have what it takes overall in the field at all. Tell them where you see their skills are deficient, fire them if you want, maybe even suggest an adjacent field that you think suits better, but nobody is omniscient – maybe they will click perfectly with the style of a some future key speaker, who knows.

      1. AnotherAlison*

        People have surprised me with how they’ve developed and the niches they’ve found that suit their particular skills

        I think that you’re right about this, but that’s why I came to the conclusion that the OP should provide this feedback. I don’t think it’s a matter of telling the employee that she should give it up and do a 180 career change, but the OP can guide her into her niche, or at least encourage her to research some other adjacent options. Example: One of the proposal writers I work with started at the company as a structural engineer. People in the structural department encouraged her to talk to marketing people and other groups that had a writing focus rather than leave the company and industry completely. (I don’t know that she was a bad engineer–I didn’t know her in that capacity, but she hated it.)

        1. leslie knope*

          he really was. he was a jackass, but he was totally right. rory has never shown the initiative required to be a journalist.

        2. Jen S. 2.0*

          Ha, I totally agree! I am firmly in the camp of Rory was reasonably smart, but she was mostly a hard worker and big reader. She was not the most brilliant person ever to walk the planet, or the most perfectest perfecter ever to perfect, which too many of the people around her seemed invested in believing.

          And she CERTAINLY wasn’t ever going to be, like, crawling through barbed wire in the Middle East to get a major story. Writer, maybe…killer journalist, nope. (I haven’t watched the reboot yet, but have read several reviews and a lot of spoilers.)

          Also…I love that show, but Lorelai and Rory are two of the most narcissistic characters ever to grace a TV screen, which is saying something.

          1. Kate*

            I agree about the people around her. Rory was basically a decent person, and smart, but she wasn’t Mother Teresa, and she wasn’t a genius. The way the same Rory-adoring townspeople treated Jess always made me mad, especially the way Jess was treated after he started trying to be better. I always felt it was very true to (my experience of) small-town life in that way. I wasn’t Rory, but I wasn’t a Jess either.

        1. designbot*

          so did I! I think OP needs to watch that episode in the spirit of what not to do. Because even if he was maybe sorta right, the aftermath of that conversation actually felt pretty realistic in terms of it really derailing her for a while but ultimately not sinking in or being helpful in any way.

  5. Annie*

    Do you think its possible its just the company? Or the aspect of the field that shes in? We’ve had interns struggle in our office only to thrive elsewhere. It definitely makes us reflect on our office culture but sometimes my boss says ‘skilled people aren’t always a good fit. That doesn’t make them any less skilled.’

    1. Me Too*


      Or maybe even in a different market or job within the field.

      there are lots of people who couldn’t make it is a speech writer in DC we would do just fine in a state capital.

      there are lots of people who can’t be writers that can be great editors

      All OP can say for sure is it’s not working there!

    2. OP*

      I definitely think that’s part of it. But I probably should’ve included this in my original question: my employee has been applying for other speechwriting jobs and has been open about the process wihth me. For most of those positions, employers will ask all applicants to take a writing test before they start interviewing. They review the writing tests blind and then bring in the top X applicants. So far, she hasn’t made it past 3 separate blind writing test reviews.

      1. Anon Again*

        Hmmm…in that case it sounds like perhaps this isn’t a good fit for her. Is there a way you can help her find out why she wants to be a speechwriter? What is it about speechwriting that appeals so much to her? Perhaps if you can find out the reasons for why this has been her goal for so long, you may be able to help her find other opportunities that she would be better suited.

      2. animaniactoo*

        Q: Prior to this had you talked about her skills not having improved as much as you would have expected to see over the past year? Have you talked to her about whether she can see what she’s writing coming out of a particular person’s mouth?

        I’m asking because you say that you’ve been working with her to improve, and I’m trying to get a sense of what kind of feedback you’ve been giving her along the way here. Is it a “she can’t hear it” or is it possible that “she hasn’t heard it firmly enough”?

        1. OP*

          I haven’t had a big picture conversation, but what I’ve started doing over the last couple months is sitting down with her and explaining my edits to every single speech she writes. I explain why I changed something, why what she wrote didn’t work, why this section isn’t written for the ear, etc.

          1. animaniactoo*

            My advice as a sometime tutor – don’t show her edits and explain them to her. Hand the thing back to her and say “this portion isn’t written for the ear. please revise it.” and see what *she* comes back with. She needs to work on finding the words within herself and having to revise what’s not working is the strongest fastest way to work towards that.

            1. Troutwaxer*

              This right here! You’re doing her work for her and then you don’t understand what why she doesn’t succeed! You should be telling her “this doesn’t flow.” You should also be telling her “this doesn’t flow because __________.” But must let her do the rewrites herself so she does the thinking.

              Also, before she brings you a speech, have her record it and listen to it herself.

              1. OP*

                This is where I struggle with helping her grow vs. being her boss. We often don’t the luxury of enough time to go through another round of her rewriting and me editing before my boss gives the speech. Would love any advice on how to balance that!

                1. animaniactoo*

                  2 suggestions:

                  1) Have her write the first 3 paragraphs or so and give them to you while she works on the next ones, that will give you time to edit and send back for revisions on that portion. Let her hand the revisions back to you with the rest of it, and then you edit it all as a whole from there to hand off to your boss.

                  2) Mark it up and hand it back to her for her to work on as practice, *without* showing her your edits. It won’t be what gets used, but it will be work towards needing to do fewer edits on future projects and you can review the results of her revisions with her as part of that.

                  Okay, found a 3rd – have her sit *with* you as you’re doing the editing, so you can work with her “this isn’t flowing, what can you give me that will work better here” and work through it for as much time as you have until you just need to stop there and do final edits and hand it off.

                2. Meg Murry*

                  So perhaps the issue isn’t that she isn’t cutout to be a speechwriter, but rather than she isn’t cut out for a fast paced field with quick turnaround on speeches? Or does she spend too much time on the research and details and not enough on self editing? Or perhaps she gets bogged down trying to perfect a small point and then rushes the rest?

                  There are people who thrive under deadlines and it’s possible she isn’t one of them. Or perhaps shed do better where speechwriting is only part of the job, not the whole job.

                3. designbot*

                  I’m struggling with this too in a different field, but I’m thinking maybe it’s a matter of identifying the times when we do actually have a little breathing room and letting them take another go at it. So even if we make the markups 90% of the time, we’re using the 10% we can to foster more growth.

            2. Meg Murry*

              Or as someone else pointed out upthread, have her read it out loud to you and encourage her to stop herself and revise as she goes. If she reads back something she’s written, can she heard that it sounds awkward? If she can learn to catch what needs to be revised herself, that could be part of the battle.

              That said, it is possible that even if she learns to hear the awkward spots, she won’t learn to revise them well. Or that she’ll never really hear them as anything other than “it sounds fine”. Or that she will learn to hear it and revise it, but the process will always take too long for her to really be able to do it as a living (especially if the writing tests you mention are timed and to succeed she really needs to be able to spit out a fairly polished first draft quickly). But teaching her better self editing could be a step in the right direction.

          2. Anion*

            Have you had her read through other speeches–like, famous speeches, successful speeches–to analyze what makes them so great, and why they work so well?

            Sometimes it’s helpful for people to look at work they’re not as emotionally attached to; distance can be a good thing.

      3. fposte*

        I still wouldn’t frame it as “You’ll never get anywhere,” just because people do get all kinds of places and I hate being wrong. (And also because I have ringing in my head Anne Lamott’s “Who the hell are you, God’s dean of admissions?”)

        But I think you can use those failures as an opportunity to discuss the hills she’d need to climb to be at the level she wants and be frank about how many people you’ve known who can make that climb. I think you can even say “This is a tough enough climb that I’m really encouraging you to consider other options, such as [whatever]; it’s also worth thinking about how long it might take to get to that skill level if you do manage it and where that would put you on a career timeline.” (Because my second concern is that even if she does get there, she’ll get there too late to have a good career trajectory.)

      4. Gov Worker*

        Speechwriting OP, recommend that your employee join Toastmasters. It works communications miracles.

    3. SJ*

      Not saying this is the case with the OP’s intern, but it was definitely the case at my last job. I was a speechwriter for the Big Boss, and though I’m admittedly a talented writer and speechwriter, writing for him was sooooooo difficult because he had such a narrow idea (and often not a good idea) of what he should say and how he should say it — and then 70% of the time, after I’d made tons of revisions due to his ever-changing mind, he’d get to the actual speech and make a joke about “not wanting to be scripted,” and he’d toss the speaking cards or pages to the side and just say whatever the hell he wanted. Usually just rambling. But he was the boss and wouldn’t listen to my advice, so what could I do? I spent 3 years in that job and frequently thought I’d thrive writing for someone different in a different organization, because I have a great ear for conversational speech, and instead I was just okay.

    4. anonny*

      Yup, this is important. I was canned from my first job out of college. It was horribly demoralizing, in large part because I was failing at that job, despite working very hard.

      I went on to take exactly the same position at a different, better organized company and thrived. 10 years later I’m still in the same industry and doing quite well. Just this morning my boss told me that I’ll be a company president one day.

      So the OP might be right: the employee might not have what it takes at this precise moment, so OP should provide solid, productive feedback. But the employee’s current shortcomings don’t determine the future, so I’d steer away from directly telling the employee that they won’t make it.

  6. AnotherAlison*

    Oh no. This is a tough situation, but I am definitely on the side of a conversation like Alison proposes.

    I’m 16 years into a career that has always felt not-quite-right. I can tell who the people who should be in the field are, and who the people are who are more like me (I feel bad for those ones). In my field, you don’t necessarily have to be top talent to do well, but I have always felt like I could have done really well in a better-fitting career. In speech writing, I’m betting you do have to be top talent to be successful.

    If you do have thoughts on what she could be doing instead, that would be really helpful. What I have found is that my managers and colleagues really only know their own jobs and have never offered any advice on what else could be available that would fit better.

  7. Trout 'Waver*

    I don’t know much about speechwriting, but there’s got to be different camps and styles like every other profession, right? Could it just be your style of speechwriting that she doesn’t fit in with?

    1. SJ*

      I posted my experience with this a few comments up! Not saying that’s the case here, but it was the case with me.

  8. Not Karen*

    I’m conflicted because while I agree that it would overly harsh to go out of your way to tell her you don’t think she’s good at this, from personal experience I also think it’s important not to lie to someone and tell them they are good at something when they really aren’t (for instance, if she explicitly asked you). When I was younger, I had people tell me I would be good at X, Y, and Z when in retrospect they were in no position to know whether or not I would be good at those things, and lo and behold it turns out I’m not, so now I can’t tell whether or not I’m actually good at something, and it leaves me directionless and insecure.

    1. NonProfit Nancy*

      Yeah, give them an honest appraisal of their skills, sure – but don’t you think it’s a little over the top to say “you’ll never make it as a speechwriter”? That just seems – beyond what the OP can possibly know.

      1. Not Karen*

        Yes, I agree, “you’ll never make it” is too strong, but something like “I think you would need to improve in X and Y in order to be successful” could be honest yet open for challenge.

      2. Me Too*

        The converse of that is that she knows who will be successful. Life is rarely that simple.

        Also, a lot of famous singers really can’t carry a tune.

        Technical proficiency and success are not always congruent.

        1. NonProfit Nancy*

          Haha yeah, like, is this intern very attractive? I’m surprised how successful very attractive people can be sometimes! [This is a joke, please don’t kill me commentariat!]

          1. Me Too*

            My husband will tell you his greatest career failure was one of mentoring. He had an ACE employee (IT), but she was an overweight POC woman. She had more talent and managerial skill than people who were top level. She was never able to advance in spite of several people going to bat for her.

            Also, what’s “success” to OP may not be to the employee.

            1. Data Lady*

              What could he have done there, though? Mentored her out of her career? Told her to make an effort to present as more conventionally attractive to get ahead?

              1. fposte*

                I read Me Too as saying that all the mentoring in the world doesn’t necessarily get people past the rest of the world.

            2. Gov Worker*

              As an overweight woman of color, I find this so sad. So much for bootstraps. Do you think it was being overweight or being the wrong color that hurt the most?

              1. Gov Worker*

                There was a blonde, blue eyed contracting specialist in my office that was confrontational, argumentative, and domineering. She received plum projects, won awards, and even was a shoo-in for a job in DC.

                For my part, I was excoriated for having these same qualities! Despite my contributions, there were no step increases or plum projects, just criticism and rejection, coupled with performance review admonition to have a better attitude. This dysfunctional environment messed me up, but I came to see it for what it is, institutional racism. Which is why no matter how educated, competent, talented, and hard working managers are, minorities can only go so far. Obese people are minorities too.

                Managers should work harder against this kind of thing, which is not in the best interest of any organization. As the merit system principles say, best person for the job. Ha.

  9. animaniactoo*

    Could you start this first as a development convo?

    “I had expected to see more progress from you in the quality of your writing, but from what I’ve seen you’re still pretty close to where you were when you started in this position. Talk to me about what you’re doing to try and improve your skills. Where do you think you’re struggling?”

    I think the result of that conversation would lead towards either “Hmmmm… I know that you want to be a speechwriter, but I think your skills lead you more naturally to (research position, strategist, etc.). Are those things that you might be interested in?” or “You never stop working to get better, but particularly at the beginning of your career you should be working very hard at it and actively seeking ways to improve if you’re going to pursue this as a career.” in a way that would be a much more natural “where do you go from here” and pushing choices in front of her rather than a rejection of her skills. In part because she may be focused so much on research or some other portion of her job, that she’s been feeling her writing skills are “good enough” and don’t need the kind of dedicated improvement that you’re looking for. It may be a missed opportunity vs a not-likely-to-happen.

    1. NonProfit Nancy*

      Agree with the language of the first paragraph especially here, I think this is honest and fair.

    2. Jess1216*

      I like this idea a lot — more of approaching it as a conversation about where the employee is going as opposed to “you’re not good at this.” I was told I wasn’t good at my former career….as I was being fired. My boss wasn’t wrong and I’ve since found a much better fit for my skills, but I could have really used some help identifying what I *was* good at and what career would lend itself to my skill set. It would be great if the boss was in a position to help the employee with networking, skill development, advice, etc.

  10. PK*

    I think it would be a bit cruel to tell her flat out that you don’t think she can succeed in the field, particularly in a field that is a dream of hers. I think framing it as ‘I’ve noticed that you’re particularly strong at X…have you thought about Y career?” Saying flat out that you don’t think she’ll be successful could deal a real blow to her self esteem and I don’t think a single opinion can really make that call regardless.

  11. Jialis*

    As a writing instructor, I cringe at the thought of telling someone they cannot achieve a certain level of writing ability. If a student or employee is unable to thrive under me, I feel it is important for them to try other avenues of education, mentorship, or employment. I’m sure the OP is probably accurate in their perception, but we’re talking about a young person who is underdeveloped. It’s far too soon to write them off (sorry for the phrasing, but I feel it is appropriate here).

    1. NonProfit Nancy*

      I know I’m generalizing from creative writing to speechwriting here – which may be very different, I have no idea – but in my writing group the people whose writing is the “best” objectively (most beautiful sentences, strongest ideas, etc) have not been the most successful. People whose writing I thought was not quite up to par have actually been more successful by telling engaging, workmanlike stories, improving their craft, and roughly quadrupling their production relative to others. They’ve sent out hundreds of pieces and eventually found agents and publishers – and it was never the people I would have picked. YMMV.

        1. NonProfit Nancy*

          [This is digressing from the point of OPs question, so I apologize and Alison may choose to delete, but -] 1. In my example I’m using ‘sold books’ as successful, which is not the only metric, but 2. the successful people wrote some good solid genre pieces (romance, and young adult mystery) where the market is stronger, even if to be honest the ideas were not entirely new or inspired. They just did a good, solid job with them, and kept up the volume. Others in the group had more unique ideas that were interesting, but were way outmatched in volume and follow through. I don’t know if there’s any comparable market in speechwriting, perhaps not at all.

          1. Ask a Manager* Post author

            I think that’s a very different thing though. With speechwriting, flow and rhythm and the way the words hit the ear are incredibly important. If you don’t have the ear for that, it’s a pretty major deficiency.

            1. Leatherwings*

              I’ve done quite a bit of speech writing AND coaching in my career, and I sort of disagree that it can’t be taught though.

              It’s certainly harder to teach, and it might be harder for the junior speechwriter to move up in her field than it would be if she were a natural, you CAN learn the flow thing. I used to teach people by having them sit through real-life speeches twice a day for a month or so an d listen for the principles we’d worked on. Most of them improved drastically. And i’m not talking about listening to MLK or Obama, which is much harder to mimic because the tone is so specific, but rather really good industry speeches and TED talks.

              1. fposte*

                I think there are two different questions here, really. One is can somebody behind current expectations learn to be a better speechwriter? I think the answer is absolutely yes. The other is can this person learn to be a professional quality speechwriter with only the mentoring time her managers have to spare for this and in time to get a workable career? That is where I think the answer might be no.

                I regularly bring writers along professionally, and I also regularly turn down writers who would need more time from me than I can give in order to improve. That doesn’t mean they could never get better, but if it takes more than most managers can give to get them there, it’s not that likely to happen.

    2. AndersonDarling*

      I was also thinking that the employee may just be young and underdeveloped. She may have the skills, but not enough exposure/experience to currently write brilliantly. It may take a few more years of life and study to get to success. So I don’t like saying that the employee will never make it, she just doesn’t have the ability right now.
      Along with the discussion Alison suggested, I’d give the opportunity to review future submissions form the employee. Her skills may come together in a few years and she will be ready for the speechwriter position.

    3. Me Too*

      I have known one man who had a 3rd grade education and could not read or write. Local church taught him how. He was over 50. Started writing for a local paper. People loved his work.

      I’ve know more examples of experts telling someone they’ll never make it who were wrong than those who were correct.

      1. Ask a Manager* Post author

        But there are also loads of examples of people who wouldn’t thrive in field X or field Y. This isn’t exactly a rare thing; it’s something most people deal with throughout life.

        1. self employed*

          I think people are slightly hung up on the fact that this is the person’s life-long dream career and are trying to avoid abject dream-crushing (even if warranted).

          1. Troutwaxer*

            This is certainly true, but I also think that the OP isn’t doing everything she could be doing as a teacher/mentor. There have been numerous suggestions here, some of which are pretty good about how the OP could improve his/her game, and I’d like to see the OP try to implement some of those before having the tough conversation.

            1. fposte*

              But the OP isn’t a teacher/mentor; she’s just a manager and she has her own work to complete. The ability to coach one’s employees is finite, and sometimes it stops short of moving an employee from below standard to top level. In reality, it usually makes more sense for the organization to get somebody more skilled in to replace the underperforming employee.

              1. Meg Murry*

                Yes, I think this is similar to how some of the very best coaches were only above average athletes, not superstars, or how some teachers and professors can be amazingly brilliant people but not good teachers. People that struggled to learn a skill often can coach others better than those who haven’t had to struggle but have had a skill generally come fairly easily to them.

                I think it would also be fair for OP to admit that in her current job OP doesn’t have the time/capacity/ability to coach her junior employee to get her to the place she needs to be. So it’s not that OP is hopeless or unteachable – but that she needs more coaching than OP has to give. Unfortunately, that’s a tough situation to be in, since it sounds like this employee *is* trying to move on but doesn’t have the skills yet to get there.

                1. fposte*

                  Yeah, I think that’s common–with extensive coaching, this employee could improve to a significant degree, but that would entail coaching that a manager doesn’t have time to give, and that would cost externally more than an employer is prepared to spend.

              2. Marisol*

                I think this is an argument for why the OP should not opine on the employee’s ultimate chance of success in this field. She doesn’t have the mindshare to properly evaluate her ability, let alone the…emotional provenance (if that expression even makes sense?) to do so.

                If she can’t or won’t mentor, I don’t see that as a problem. Nor is it a problem to evaluate the employee’s work and give honest feedback. Evaluating her entire career trajectory, however, is a big overstep, and totally inappropriate.

          2. Clever Name*

            I agree. Growing up, I assumed I would be a professor and do research. I even applied to Ph.D. programs. Luckily, by the time the rejections came pouring in, my mentor at the time had helped me realize that I’m just not that into research, and now I’m working in my field in a different capacity. There’s nothing wrong with not realizing one’s childhood dreams. Most people don’t. I’m very happy in my career, and I’m pretty damn good at it.

      2. Kate*

        Someone up above mentioned this as well, but there is a bit of a fallacy there. People don’t generally go around saying “I wanted to be a concert violinist, but I failed the entrance audition 10 times!” or “I wanted to be a doctor, but I failed organic chemistry class 5 times!” People generally talk about their successes, not their heart-rending failed dreams.

  12. Christian Troy*

    I don’t think you should tell your employee she isn’t cut out for speechwriting. If you don’t think she’s doing well at the job you hired her for, then I think you need to deal with that in whatever way you see fit. But as others pointed out (and even in my own experience), sometimes a person just doesn’t mesh with the job/culture at a particular place but is able to work well elsewhere.

  13. Recent College Grad*

    OP: Please, please, please don’t tell the intern that they’ll never make it. I had an internship boss (in publishing) tell me “You bake and sew — you’ll make a good wife!” Not sure if she was trying to tell me I’d never make it…

    1. NonProfit Nancy*

      Yeah I do worry about OP becoming the cigar-chewing guy in the movie snarling, “you ain’t cut out for this business, kid – you’ll never make it!”

    2. Janice in Accounting*

      WHAT. I bake and sew and all that but I’m a terrible wife. There are many of us that also have, you know, professional jobs and PhDs and stuff like that too.

      1. OP*

        Yes! I don’t want to tell her she’ll never be a speechwriter, and I really do hope she proves me wrong and finds success. But I want to make sure she has realistic expectations for her career and is at least open to considering other options in case speechwriting doesn’t work out.

        1. Ask a Manager* Post author

          I think your immediate issue is that she’s not thriving in the role you have her in, and you don’t believe she will … so you need to figure out whether and how to transition her out?

        2. Recent College Grad*

          Yes I know! I still think it’s really funny that she *actually* said that. For context, it was my last day and I had baked cream puffs for the office. My boss was pregnant at the time, and I had sewn a little baby outfit.(in hindsight, not the greatest idea because gifts flow down, not up, etc. But it was really cute.)

    3. Marillenbaum*

      That sounds like my former art history professor, who told me I would make an excellent housewife. To be fair, I probably would, but I was studying international politics…

  14. Fluke Skywalker*

    Are there any associations or professional development opportunities you could steer her towards? You could frame it as, “I’ve been impressed with your work ethic this year, and I was thinking that it would be really beneficial for you to (attend workshop/conference/class + join professional group). I see your strengths in (positive skill), but since you’re new to speech writing as a full-time career, it’s helpful to get in continuing education where you can.” And if possible, have the organization pay for at least one professional development opportunity.

    She’s only nine months into this, after all. Don’t squash her dreams just yet. It’s possible she recognizes her need to develop more skills and is already putting pressure on herself, in which case, she doesn’t need to feel it from you as well.

    1. NonProfit Nancy*

      +1 this is a good approach if OP is sympathetic and is still willing to invest time in this employee.

  15. Stephanie*

    I’d definitely talk to her, but I’m unsure if you should just flat out tell her she won’t make it in the industry. Unless she’s already considering leaving, telling her she won’t cut it and just convince her to dig in her heels. (“OP is just trying to quash my dreams! I’m going to make it!”) I wouldn’t do a compliment sandwich, but definitely be sure to talk about her strengths.

    Instead, tell her where she’s deficient and what she’d need to do to make up the gap. Be honest and specific. I’d liken this to something like music, where being willing to practice all the time helps a ton, but can only get you so far without natural talent. When I was younger and playing cello, I was glad people gave me a realistic take on where I was and what it’d need to take for me to be able to pursue music professionally (and the realities of the market).

  16. Em too*

    I’ve been praised for my writing in various styles, but I would be *dreadful* at speechwriting. I can read a speech see what they’ve done , but I just would not think of it. Now I’ve no idea whether that’s the same issue with your employee, but government needs press releases, statements, reports in a variety of styles, dealing with political correspondance… all need people who write well and clearly without the rhetoric needed for a good speech.

  17. Green Tea Pot*

    I worked for 40 years as a writer. When I read my early writing, I cringe. I learned as I wrote, and wrote everything from news releases to feature stories to ads to position papers. And speeches. My writing won awards.

    Agree with Fluke Skywalker.

    Give her more time.

    1. Anonhippopotamus*

      Exactly. I’ve been working as a scientific/technical/marketing writer for a few years now, and I cannot believe how much my writing has improved from when I first started. There are so many skills to be honed. In my last position, I totally clashed with my manager and he was trying to coach me but it wasn’t getting through. Now in my new position, I can totally see what he was trying to tell me, but we just didn’t click.

  18. The Crusher*

    I’ve been in this position before, twice. At the risk of identifying myself….

    (1) I was exceedingly interested in the Learning Science department at my old company. I reached out to multiple people about skill-building; my boss said she’d help, and my grandboss said while I wasn’t there yet he’d reach out and make sure I received some opportunities. I reached out to his contact again after a few months. I eventually realized that I was being ghosted. I wish someone had told me that there wasn’t a development path for me.

    (2) I had applied for a few management openings. My manager sat me down and said, “Crusher, I talked to my boss. You are not going to be a manager here. I want you to know that.” We talked about why, and I was able to accept it, let it go, and move on. Rather than throw myself into trying to develop the skills to move up, I focused on being very, very good at what I was doing and finding a position in a different company that would allow me to experience some professional growth.

    2 was painful. 1 was cruel.

    I strongly encourage you to use Allison’s language and be honest with this person.

  19. Shawna*

    Is it possible that the staffer would find this input (gently delivered) to be a relief? I had a similar conversation with a student who was pursuing an animation career, despite his lack of creativity and lack of drawing ability. He was working really hard, yet not getting good grades or internship offers. I pressed his professors to talk honestly with him about his prospects (they had avoided doing so for fear of being harsh), and he expressed relief. He told me that he could see how the work didn’t come to him as easily as it did to his peers, and that it was demoralizing to work so hard for something that clearly wasn’t panning out. He is now majoring in computer science (MUCH better job prospects!) and doing great. I believe that innate talent DOES play a role in many careers, and that while we can all improve with practice and hard work, people tend to be happier in roles that don’t generate consistent frustration.

    1. Robert Bobby*

      I wish all professors, not just in the creative fields, would be more honest like this with their students about this kind of thing. My brother majored in mechanical engineering and struggled all through college just to get C’s and pass and ended up with a pretty low GPA. He is now struggling in his first job post-graduation. We (his family) tried and tried to get him to find another field in which he could excel, but he decided to ride it out under the assumption that college is harder than the real world.

      “it is demoralizing to work so hard for something that clearly wasn’t panning out.” This is what my brother is experiencing, but sadly, he doesn’t clearly see that he’s on the wrong path and has been for a long time. He wouldn’t listen to his family, but maybe if he heard it from a professor early on, it would have stuck.

      1. AnotherAlison*

        There may be hope for him yet. I was at the top of my ME class (#3), but I was never the best engineer of my peer group in my company. This is just my opinion, but in ME school, I think it’s more important to be good at math than understanding how mechanical things work. In engineering practice, understanding how mechanical things work is more important. (You do a lot of by-hand math or programming that you can use an off-the-shelf software package for in the real world.)

  20. Anon Again*

    I would ask the OP when she decided that the employee didn’t have the talent necessary to become a speechwriter? Has it been in the last few weeks? Was it months ago? Are you sure that you didn’t decide this employee wasn’t capable and then have only viewed this person through that lens?

    Perhaps this person is not going to be cut out to be a speechwriter. And he or she may already know it. But, at the same time, is it possible it’s only this type of speech writing? Or is it possible that you decided months ago that this employee didn’t have the talent and so you aren’t seeing small signs of improvement?

    And there have been far too many people who have been told that they are not cut out for a field or who aren’t talented enough who succeed through hard work.

  21. Marzipan*

    You say “I’ve devoted a lot of time trying to help her become a better writer” – is this the only way she’s currently getting help to improve her writing skills? I don’t mean to imply that you aren’t a good teacher, but even if you’re very accustomed to teaching writing, I would imagine that it’s hard to do so in a structured way within the workplace. Equally, it’s not necessarily the sort of dynamic which necessarily helps people spread their creative wings. If your concern is that her writing skills aren’t at the level they need to be, I think giving her this feedback is fair enough, if it’s coupled with suggestions on courses or resources to help her improve (although, if these things will involve any significant costs to her personally and aren’t ones your organisation can put in place for her, then I’d accompany that with a health warning). If you have concerns about her skills, tell her that, but I’m less keen on blanket pronouncements that she’ll never be successful in the field – you can’t know that for sure.

    1. Me Too*

      In law school many moons ago I learned that the profs who wrote well could not teach writing. The ones who taught writing well were not necessarily the best writers.

      Those the best ad judging talent may not be in either group.

      Before I’d write this employee off, I’d sent her to a professional writing coach.

      You’d be surprised the improvement that can be made w the proper teacher.

      Most people would tell you I wrote well before law school. The difference after 3 years in school was shocking. I cringe reading my pre-law school work.

      1. Ask a Manager* Post author

        I disagree with the suggestion to send her to a professional writing coach (or outside classes, as has been mentioned elsewhere). If she’s not writing at the level needed to succeed in a writing-centric role, outside training isn’t going to get her there in the amount of time that’s reasonable for an employer to invest.

        Sometimes you need to acknowledge that this isn’t the right role right now, and that’s okay. The OP owes the employee candor, respect, and dignity; she does not owe her the right to stay in the job itself long-term if the OP can see it’s not the right match. (And fixing someone’s writing is not a short-term endeavor.)

        1. Troutwaxer*

          This is sensible. “Work on your writing, and come back in a couple years” is a reasonable way to handle this.

    2. Sunshine on a cloudy day*

      I wanted to comment similarly. If this is the only way she’s currently getting help, is there someone else in your company/department/group who could try working with her or are there other outside resources she could try. Its possible (though I realize, somewhat unlikely) that your teaching/coaching style and her learning style are just a mismatch. That is not in any way saying that you are a poor teacher, just that some people are fundamentally mismatched and there’s no shame in that.

      At my previous position I experienced something similar. My training was conducted by someone who was an absolute mismatch in terms of style (in addition to being an objectively poor trainer). I repeatedly requested to “diversify” my training, but was told that the rest of the team was too busy. Also my trainer really was gifted at the job, but nobody understood that does not necessarily make one a good trainer. I was struggling but thought I was doing extremely well for basically teaching myself the role, but I was not catching on quickly enough. Eventually I was told I didn’t have the critical thinking skills necessary for this type of role (something else that I think would be somewhat hard to teach if it doesn’t came naturally to you). I was essentially fired (forced to resign), and was told in no uncertain terms that this field is not for me and that I should take a step back in my career.

      I’m now in the exact same role, but within a different company and am thriving.

      I think it’s absolutely fine to talk about what skills she lacks in terms of what you are expecting from her in this role. I think it would also be fine to generalize in terms of your experience in the industry (EG: “in my experience, this sort of role in this field requires stronger skills in x,y,and z than I am seeing from you”). I just think it would be rather cruel and unfair to generalize about her ability to make it as a speechwriter anywhere. She might be a fit within a different culture or with different tools or with different training or with different subjects or any number of variables.

  22. Jesmlet*

    While it’s a kindness for her to give her the feedback, if this is really her first speech writing job, I would not say that she’ll never make it. Sometimes it takes the right environment and management to bring out the talent. Not that you’re doing anything wrong but maybe there’s an approach someone would think of that you haven’t.

    Alison compared it to musical talent. There are people who are born with perfect pitch and there are people who with a lot of hard work and practice who can develop pseudo perfect pitch. It just takes the right methods. Tell her what she needs to work on and maybe give her some strong examples to watch and listen to. Have her practice out loud with a tape recorder, no pen, paper or computer, and then play it back. The real issue would be if she couldn’t distinguish a good speech from a bad one, not if she can’t create a good one. She can still work towards that if she wants it badly enough.

    1. Me Too*

      Have you seen the recent studies that almost no one is “tone deaf”? People maybe can be born w perfect pitch, but most of the time those w natural perfect pitch had a lot of early childhood exposure to great music.

      It’s like ability to dance – it can be taught. It’s much more difficult as you get older, but not impossible.

      1. Ask a Manager* Post author

        But it’s very unlikely to be taught in the amount of time a manager has available to invest in someone.

        This is just the reality of how many jobs work — not everyone is going to be good enough to do everything.

        1. Me Too*

          I don’t disagree with that. There’s a huge difference between what OP needs to do for her company and the position and what the former intern needs to do for her career.

          Everyone here is just giving feedback to frame what is said. Disagreement on the context and framework does not equate to disagreement on your advice.

          One question no one has asked the OP yet: what is her goal in the conversation?

          Is it to preface letting the employee go? To help her set realistic career goals? To tell OP what she needs to do to succeed in this field? To tell her to get another field?

        2. Leatherwings*

          I think this is the real issue – that OP doesn’t have the ability or time (and shouldn’t have to) to invest in the junior speech writers’ skills the way she needs. But I think that’s a different conversation than talking a bout natural ability, you know?

          1. Marisol*

            Yes, it’s totally different, and I would say, the less time the OP has to invest in mentoring, the less standing she has to opine on the employee’s chances of success.

        3. Jesmlet*

          While OP has every right to cut her losses and not invest any more time in the employee, I think it would be going too far to just outright say she should quit trying to be a speech writer. If she’s not working out where she is, she should be let go, but it’s all about how to frame the discussion for what she can do moving forward.

      2. Jesmlet*

        Yes! My mother used to be an opera singer and my dad plays jazz trombone as his second job/hobby. I was definitely exposed to a lot of music growing up so my ear is better than most but I still can’t pull a random note out of nowhere if someone asked me to sing a C# for example with 100% accuracy. I think anyone can learn anything if they work hard enough at it.

      3. Turanga Leela*

        I come from a family of musicians, and we all suspect that perfect pitch is genetic. There’s one person in each of the last three generations who has it. The rest of us listen to music, love music, and play music, but we’re just never going to get there. If you play a piece on the piano, my uncle can play it back to you. He’s been like this his entire life. I took 10 years of piano lessons and music theory, and if someone told me to sing an F#, I’d be totally unable to do it. (I can identify types of chords and intervals, though. That’s teachable.)

        1. Brogrammer*

          I’d say it’s more of a spectrum than something where either you have it or you don’t. My family runs the gamut from perfect pitch to tone deaf.

          There are people who can sing an F# perfectly just from being asked, no additional input needed.

          There are people who couldn’t sing an F# just from being asked, but can match pitch when you play an F# on the piano.

          And there are the people who sing an F# when you played a C on the piano and genuinely can’t hear the difference.

      4. LN*

        I happen to believe that almost everything can be taught, but yeah, this is not the time or place. Also, it takes two to tango – and not everyone is good at learning. That, in itself, can be a learned skill – but it usually requires a change of mindset that has to be self-directed, and can be very difficult. If this is already the employee’s dream job, it might be very hard for her to truly internalize that she wasn’t born with the talent to be great at it. At the end of the day, none of this is really the OP’s responsibility.

  23. Jessesgirl72*

    The thing is, speechwriting is somewhat subjective. They are all trying to get to similar end goals, but not every successful speechwriter does so in the same way. I know that it does sometimes happen that mentors and teachers lead someone to believe they have more talent at something than they have, but it’s just as likely that the many people who encouraged this Jr Speechwriter weren’t wrong, and her writing simply isn’t to the OP’s tastes. I have a friend who teaches this at a well-known University (and has taught communications/speechwriting/etc at other very famous universities) and he loves to watch public speeches and criticized what the writers did wrong- but these speechwriters are as high in their fields as they can go!

    So while I think it’s perfectly appropriate to tell the Jr writer that she doesn’t seem to be a good fit for the OP’s company in that position, I don’t think the OP should tell her to give up on her dreams entirely. If the OP is correct, the young woman will figure this out eventually, on her own.

  24. Geneva*

    I think you should keep your opinion to yourself. It’s condescending, arrogant and hurtful. I still remember overhearing a woman question my mental competence at my first internship. That was a DECADE ago. But guess what? I’m still in the same field and kicking butt. I actually work for this woman’s competitor.

    Words are powerful. Use them wisely.

    1. Ask a Manager* Post author

      Someone questioning your mental competence is a very different thing from an experienced mentor saying “here’s what I see as your strengths, and here’s where I see you struggling in this role.”

      It’s easy to project your own experience on stuff like this, but what the OP is proposing is not what the person in your past did to you.

      1. Geneva*

        Obviously the person I dealt with was way out of line. However, I still think telling someone that they’re not cut out for a certain job – especially if that person is in a position of authority – is not ok. The employee could take her opinion as fact, when it’s just that, an opinion. If she’s really that bad, take her aside and encourage her. But don’t tell her she’s incapable of doing something.

        1. NaoNao*

          Well…what if the person in authority has hard evidence that this person is not a good match for the job? The OP has spelled out why she’s not a good match: her writing hasn’t improved significantly in 9 months, and she’s been extensively coached and trained.
          Opinions backed up with objective evidence are as close as one can get to “facts”. If the stumbling block is the exact language, AAM already had advised that be softened to “here’s what you need to do to succeed in this job” rather than “you’ll never make it”.
          Also, “not having the mental competence” is a global and subjective statement, that it sounds like wasn’t backed up with any evidence.
          “Not being cut out for a very specific skill set /career in a competitive arts-based industry” (I’d include writing with painting, sculpture, and other fine arts-based careers–they’re so, so competitive) is a completely other statement.
          Finally, who better than a person of authority? This person sees you at work and sees your work every day. Some well meaning relative or grade school teacher or friend who may have some hidden agenda really isn’t a great source of career advice either.

        2. Anion*

          But the OP is this person’s boss. It’s her job to evaluate the employee and determine whether or not she’s capable of doing this work. How long is she supposed to keep this person employed in a job she cannot do? It’s not fair to the employee to give her false hope, and it’s not fair to the people who potentially can do the job to deny them the opportunity in order to continue “encouraging” someone who’s not getting it?

  25. Mental Health Day*

    Has she really “dreamed of being a speech writer since she was a little kid”? I mean, OK maybe, but that seems oddly specific and not at all the kind of thing that little kids dream of being. Maybe it was something she said in an interview, and has kept saying, to try to demonstrate her dedication to the field and, more specifically, your organization?

    It sounds like this person is very, very fresh out of school and probably pretty naïve about the work world in general, and the writing industry as a whole. Sure, there are those occasional people that “know” at a very young age that they want to be a doctor when they grow up. I would argue that those people are actually very few and very far in between. Of those that do, how many know at a young age that they want to be something as specific as a pediatric cardiologist? Probably none. At least until they have gone to medical school and have a broader base of knowledge about the doctor business as a whole.

    My point is simply that perhaps framing the discussion in a different way is the best approach. Not “you aren’t cut out for this”, but “wow, you are really great at writing these types of things and oh by the way have you ever considered doing this other type of writing”? She may not be nearly as upset by this if you can build up her confidence in other areas, and show her other opportunities, rather than just closing the only door she seems to know…

    1. NonProfit Nancy*

      I did notice that and think, huh. I guess every field has someone who always, always dreamed of being a traffic engineer / systems analyst / HR manager! :D Personally I believed I wanted to be a princess who also fights crime and is a fireman, but I was perhaps not the most practical of children.

      1. Jessesgirl72*

        I have a friend whose son always wanted to be a funeral director! Ever since he was a little kid, and she doesn’t know where it came from. And he did enjoy the work as an adult, but then transitioned to other science based jobs to raise a family, since funeral directors are expected to be with the grieving families 24/7 if that is what it takes.

    2. OP*

      Ha, she really did! And I did, too, to be fair. I think we both watched too much West Wing when we were younger. :) You’d be surprised how many people want to be political speechwriters…

      But I think you’re spot on on everything else!

      1. Marillenbaum*

        Seconding the “watched too much West Wing as a child”! I would binge-watch episodes over summer vacation, and it’s 80% of why I majored in Political Science and Middle East Studies.

      2. Mental Health Day*

        OK, makes sense. I’ve never watched West Wing so I’m not familiar, but yeah I guess I can see that…

  26. Mockingjay*

    I’m wondering whether the position is a mismatch, not the career.

    The speechwriter is very, very junior in experience – less than a year. It sounds like the level of speechwriting required is at a much higher level.

    As a technical writer, I wouldn’t expect anyone with less than 2 or 3 years of experience to be able to produce an engineering document on their own. They have to learn the industry, the products, the engineering phases (design, test, production), the specs, and so on. It takes time and mentoring.

    The junior speechwriter may have been an outstanding intern, but the role of an intern is limited by design. As a full-time employee, she now has to learn the organization, its mission, its public role, the personalities whom she writing for, and produce polished final products. It’s a lot to expect in an employee’s first year.

    1. Me Too*

      I think part of the disconnect people are having this conversation and why people are talking past each other is that no one knows what all the issues are actually are.

      Is that she can’t form complete and coherent sentences? Is that she lacks style and panache?

      Is it that she’d be a great writer of press releases but can’t “punch it up” for speechwriting?

      If she’s graduated college and she can’t form a complete sentence that’s a very different problem then if she’s got basic competency, but not enough X-factor to do the job.

      I have known people who were great technical writers who couldn’t write a legal brief. I’ve known eloquent lawyers who cannot write.

      I think we would all concurr that the advice should be tailored to the specific problem(s).

      Also, unless the OP is particularly close to the employee, delivering long-term career advice may seem like overstepping. It would be very different if the employee had asked OP about her career prospects.

      If OP discusses the problems in the current job situation in the employee raises her career prospects, then it’s fine for OP to interject her opinion.

      Again, what’s her motivation? Whatever she says should be tailored to that purpose.

      If the purpose is sparing the employee pain after failing in the chosen career, then people here after and counterpoints is actually useful advice.

      1. OP*

        I’m very close with the employee. As I mentioned before, she was my intern while she was in college, and I was of her mentors before I hired her. My motivation here is purely altrustic: I want to see this person succeed in her career.

        One piece of information that I deliberately left out in the original post to avoid identifying my employer (although it’s hugely important for context) is that both my employee and I are work in political speechwriting, and our current positions end in January. We’re both actively looking for jobs, and she’s been having trouble making it past the writing test phase of job interviews.

        Her problems are more in the style and panache realm. She’s a decent technical writer, but that’s the problem: her speeches read like memos. In particular, she struggles with flow and transitions. What she writes looks okay on the page, but it sounds robotic coming out of someone’s mouth.

        1. Z*

          It sounds like she might be great as a policy or grant writer, if she wants to stay in politics or that realm, or a technical/knowledge base/content writer if she wants to branch out. I work in tech and my company employees a decent number of people whose sole job is to clearly and concisely explain our product to people.

        2. Troutwaxer*

          So there’s a two-month time limit involved, in which case “get a job you can do and practice your speech-writing during your spare time” is probably the best advice by a long shot. If you wish to continue mentoring her, then you can meet with her every couple months and evaluate, guiding her towards some of the methods discussed above.

          1. Alton*

            I agree. It sounds like the immediate issue here is that she’s not qualified for the jobs she’s applying for right now, which may not be a permanent problem. I’m not convinced she can’t learn style with time, but maybe she’s not ready yet.

          2. Meg Murry*

            Yes, I agree with this. With that context (it’s not “shape up or your fired” but rather “you need to be realistic about your current skills while you are looking for a new job because your old one is ending”) I think telling her the truth – that she isn’t ready for full-time speechwriting job *yet* but that she should look into other jobs as well to pay the bills while she hones she overall skills with things like Toastmasters or other classes/mentoring/etc.

            Do you know anyone in your field that came to be a speechwriter by a circuitous route? Or anyone that started out doing speechwriting with you but has transitioned to another field? To (loosely) paraphrase from Sheryl Sandberg – careers are a jungle gym, not a straight up ladder.

            I think it would be a kindness to tell her that she isn’t going to become Sam from the West Wing in the next 2 months and that it’s ok to shoot for a job she’s currently qualified for rather than to keep pounding the pavement over her childhood dream. Not that she’ll never achieve that dream – but rather that she’s young (I’m assuming early 20s) and careers are long, and doing something tangential now may be better for her career in the long run.

            1. Meg Murry*

              ugh, and that was a total writing/editing fail on my part – I didn’t properly finish my first paragraph. That should have ended with telling her the truth would be a kindness.

        3. CM*

          I think saying this would be great, without the “are you sure you’re cut out for this” angle. “I want to give you some feedback that may be hard to hear. The technical aspects of your writing are fine, but sometimes your speeches come across more like written memos because the flow and transitions are more like written than spoken speech. I think that may be way you’re having trouble making it past the writing test phase of job interviews. And I wonder if you’re limiting yourself by just looking at speechwriting jobs, since I think that copyediting and other communications jobs like PR may be an even better match for your skills.”

        4. Another Actual Speechwriter*

          Hey OP –

          If your job ends at 11:59 on the 20th, I was in your place a good 8 years ago. I completely understand your concern.

          I wonder if she might work better for a principal where she has greater access? My longest stint -and I’d say the place I wrote the most successful speeches (which is different than good speeches, right?)- in my career was one where I had instant access and face time with the boss. You learned to pick up the flow and transitions by diving into the principal’s head.

          Good luck with the transition.

    2. Fluke Skywalker*

      Yup, I just thought of that too. How long was she an intern for? Is it fair to assume she has some sort of degree or background in writing that made her a fit for the internship, but maybe not for this particular position? At least not without more experience either as an intern or some other entry-level writing/editing/what have you.

      Writing is really subjective, as well. I mean, I know OP says she doesn’t have ‘talent’, but I’m a firm believer that talent is bunk and skills can be learned. I understand if OP doesn’t want to invest the time/effort in her employee, but I wouldn’t tell her she doesn’t have talent.

      1. Fluke Skywalker*

        Actually, the more I think about this, the more it bugs me. OP says she hired the intern because of her “work ethic and positive attitude”. Surely you knew already that her writing skills weren’t what you were looking for?

        1. OP*

          She was my intern for a semester. She studied politics in school but took several speechwriting classes.

          When she was my intern, she did a fair amount of writing for me, and the writing was good for an intern. I hired her for a junior position, because I thought she would work hard to improve beyond how she was an intern. She has indeed work hard, but her writing hasn’t progressed beyond what I saw from as a college student.

          I’m not saying by any means that she’s not talented — she is! I’m just not sure her talents are best suited to career in speechwriting.

          1. Fluke Skywalker*

            I mean… I get where you’re coming from, but I can’t help feeling that you offered her the job before she was really ready for it, and now you’re surprised that she’s not ready for it.

            1. Meg Murry*

              Given what OP posted above (their jobs are both ending in January and they both need to find new work) I think this is a different situation than OP hiring her for a job she isn’t qualified for and then letting her go because she can’t do it. In this case, I think the issue is that very few people with less than one year of work experience are going to have an easy job finding a new position – that is always a hard position to be in, sometimes almost harder than being completely entry level.

  27. Catherine from Canada*

    I’m curious as to why this intern has dreamed about being a speechwriter for years. What is it about speech writing that fired her ambition? The writing? The teaching/information sharing aspect of speeches? The passion of speeches? The opportunity to possibly work with famous people? Something else?
    Perhaps if you encouraged her to explore what it was that attracted her to this field, she might be able to fine-tune or redirect her ambitions.

  28. Moonsaults*

    The devilish side of me says to go ahead and tell her. I only say this because people telling me I’d never succeed in what I was planning on doing made me go after it more than ever. Now they’re all like “Damn, you did it. I never knew you had it in you.” >_>

  29. Jules*

    Please concentrate on her current performance with relevance to her current job. I am not a fan of telling someone they’d never make it to >>insert your pick<<. I wasn't the brightest, the smartest, the wittiest or the prettiest, but I have gotten far through hard work in my chosen field. This person is an intern. She might not be one of the gifted writers but she is still new. Writing requires nuances. Experiences you need to be able to incorporate into what you write. She still has so far to go. Help her find resources and expend her horizons. Support her exploration of her ambition. Who knows, she might meet someone or see something out there that fits her better.

    I'm not saying, keep her in fantasy land about being able to make it big in speech writing. But help her explore the writing world. Expose her to more great speechwriter. Encourage her to join workshops.

  30. The Strand*

    I had an assigned college advisor who wasn’t interested in my passions and spent a year trying to destroy my self-esteem, even publicly embarrassing me at an event in front of a celebrated artist. She told me I’d never get accepted to grad school. I also had an arts teacher in high school who was furious that I didn’t apply to a studio arts program like she had, even though in that case, I doubted I had the right mindset to be a professional artist. My advisor and my teacher were both projecting a very specific idea of what I was supposed to accomplish, and who I was supposed to be, and how I would get there. They demanded a “mini me”, and in a way, because these are still not fields where women are represented appropriately, I think they really felt I needed to follow their path, or else fail. (I would argue that trailblazing sometimes has to be an incredibly personal thing.) It sounds like this young woman is surrounded by people who may see themselves in her, and may, as you say, not be giving her a more honest read on her talents, and also her opportunities.

    So, my college advisor had a different student who followed her path more carefully, even slavishly. Over 20 years later, she recently won an award for artists that is earmarked to those who are impoverished, and I believe it is partly because the advisor expected her to repeat the strategies that worked for the advisor, rather than helping this student explore new opportunities. (Namely, it is a completely different atmosphere for arts funding than it was for boomers, just keeps getting worse, and many arts centers are profoundly more expensive places to live today.) I’m glad I was mentored by other women and men, who liked that I was an oddball, not traditional. I accomplished many of the same things as the “dutiful” student. My advisor only saw that I wasn’t the type of person who could go into a traditional program and then apply for an national arts grant, so to her, I was a failure.

    Instead of telling her she’s not good enough – be the voice that gets her to build on what she has, to really explore. Help her discover herself, not just that she fails in one arena. What is she possibly right for that involves communications or PR? For instance, maybe she’s great at public speaking, or social media, or communications strategy. Task her to build new things using the skills that impressed you – her attitude, her work ethic. Introduce her to people who are doing things differently, doing oddball, unusual things in your field. Let her figure out how to integrate who she is and what she wants to do with the reality of what’s needed, skills-wise. Refer her to opportunities that are out of the box; suggest that she try another job. You never know – she might go work in another job, discover something she loves more than speechwriting – or even become a better speechwriter because she got some more life experience.

  31. drpuma*

    Lots of folks are focussing on the employee’s feelings and her ability to change – and I get that. But, this also reminds me with a conversation I had with a friend of mine our freshman year of undergrad. He thought he wanted to be a doctor and was all set to go pre-med. He was struggling in his classes albeit making the grades. Toward the end of our first year we were talking late one night, and he told me about an epiphany he had: Sure, he could push himself and know he would eventually succeed. But he was going up against people who *loved* the sciences. No matter how hard he worked, he realized he could never succeed on their level because he just didn’t love it as much. He took himself out of the premed game because it wasn’t only about his own achievement, but also who he was competing against to succeed.

    Not everything in life is an absolute competition – but this young employee will be applying for jobs where she will be compared with people who *love* to write and who can so with a fluency she must struggle to gain. Tell her where she can redirect her strengths, so that she can compete on a playing field that is tipped in her advantage.

    1. Alton*

      I had a similar epiphany about engineering. Not only was I struggling, and not only did I lack the natural aptitude that some of my classmates had, but I just wasn’t that into it. While my classmates were excitedly putting together presentations with videos of propulsion jets and race cars, I was thinking “Ugh, I don’t care. I just want to play with calculus. Is that too much to ask?” I realized I had so much against me because not only did I kind of suck, but I didn’t have the motivation to cut it as a so-so engineer.

      But it sounds like the OP’s employee might be really passionate about speechwriting, which I think is a little different. If I’d been passionate about any aspect of engineering, maybe I could have found a way to make a go at it, even if I wasn’t destined to be an aerospace engineer with NASA or something. I don’t know a lot about speechwriting as a field, so I don’t know what types of jobs exist. But with some fields, it’s still very possible to have a career if you’re content with not being the best.

      1. AnotherAlison*

        Heh. I made a similar comment above. I was actually a good engineering student, thanks to my math strength, but when it came to how something actually worked, I was like, “Blah, blah, don’t care.” I scored high on my spatial aptitudes too, so it’s not even an issue that I can’t figure out how things work, I just don’t have a huge interest.

    2. fposte*

      Yes, I think it’s fine to say in isolation that she could over time improve to the desired level, but it’s another thing to say that she could improve enough with only reasonable levels of management to a degree that allows her to win jobs over highly competent writers. Improving in the abstract is all well and good, but she has to improve enough to win the zero-sum game and to do with with real-world resources.

  32. chickaletta*

    Definitely give her some feedback and guidance! There’s no need to be cruel about it, but, for the last couple generations we’ve been sending the message to young people that they can “be whatever they want to be”, which frankly, is a load of crap and we all know it. Not everyone has the mental agility, or personality, or physical aptitude, or whatever to just be anything they wanna be. There are ways to guide individuals towards Option B, or C or D, without being rude. Telling someone that their talents lay elsewhere isn’t rude, as long as you don’t use rude language.

    1. Kate*

      Yes! Thank you! What I dislike about that and the “10,000 hours” thing (which has been debunked by the way) is the way it implies: “if you are failing, it’s because you aren’t trying hard enough”. Sometimes trying just isn’t enough.

  33. The Engineer's Wife*

    My husband had a similar experience with an Masters level intern.

    The guy was great on paper, had interned previously at two other prestigious companies in the field, was friendly to coworkers, and worked really, really hard. Unfortunately, his work product showed that he just didn’t have the knack of engineering at all. He’d be asked to engineer a teapot spout and it would look like a crazy straw.

    The company frequently hires interns after they graduate, but they weren’t interested in hiring the intern, based on his work product.

    My husband agonized for weeks about what to tell this guy, and ended up suggesting he look at companies that were geographically closer to his girlfriend and family, particularly those who have a really defined junior engineering program, unlike the smaller companies that need people to hit the ground running.

  34. Pennilyn Lott*

    I can’t help but wonder if this is a real question or someone else who just watched the new Gilmore Girls episodes and wished that someone would have stopped Rory before she became a mediocre at best journalist…

    1. Jesmlet*

      This is actually the first thing I thought of and what I was thinking the whole time I was watching the episodes. I’ll stop there or else this’ll turn into a very lengthy diatribe….

    2. Emily, admin extraordinaire*

      I’m hoping that now that she’s pregnant, she’ll take Headmaster Charleston’s advice, get her masters, and teach. She did a great job in her alumni speech, she loves learning and reading. I bet she’d be great.

  35. Gaara*

    I disagree with the OP and AAM. This “natural talent” idea is a myth or at least taken way too far — in writing, or virtually any field. There’s no telling how good someone can become in time if they work hard and keep at it. Current skill levels are just that: current skill levels.

    I think the right conversation to have with the employee is “you haven’t developed the skills I need to keep you in this position.” But “I wouldn’t urge you to stick with it” is absolutely the wrong conversation.

    1. animaniactoo*

      Disagree – I have a really strong eye for color. I’ve been a color corrector/photo manipulator/graphic designer.

      In general, I’m also a really good teacher. If you have any sort of color sense, I can show you how to color correct and color balance. I can explain the theories, the dynamics, tools that will help, and all sorts of things. I can work with you as you develop your own eye and refine it. If you don’t have it – you don’t have it. And the best I can do is show you how to technically measure and get close, but if you don’t have the eye, that technical measurement method will always be at least a little bit flat and need to be revised to hit the target.

      I say that with 20 years (htf did that happen?) worth of experience mentoring and teaching color correctors and designers. There are some that continuing to work with them was always an exercise in frustration because they were trying to develop and meet the standard – but they just couldn’t do it. But they were the person in the job and I had to continue to have some of my work to them and go back and forth on edits repeatedly.

    2. Kate*

      It isn’t a myth actually, many, many studies have shown that both talent and practice, nature and nurture matter. And talent matters a great deal more than we like to think, unfortunately. The first article I linked to, above, does a great job of explaining some of the body of research that has been done.

  36. Alton*

    I think honest feedback is important, but I agree with everyone who has said not to frame it as a “you’re not cut out for this field” thing. Not only can the the OP not be totally certain, but I also think that’s something the intern has to weigh out for herself to a degree. If she’s not cut out, there will probably be a natural limit to how far she can go, and she’ll have to decide when to move on if the jobs she’s qualified for aren’t enough for career satisfaction, or if the amount of work she has to do to get up to par isn’t worth it. She’s still pretty new in her career, and unless she has a really bad case of the Dunning-Kruger effect, she can hopefully decide this for herself.

    I think you should definitely give her honest feedback about what skills you think a successful speechwriter needs to have and where you think she currently is. I also like the idea of pointing her in the direction of professional development opportunities. Giving her some feedback on where you think her strengths lie could also be appropriate, but I’d frame it more like “I know you’re very passionate about speechwriting, but I was wondering if you’d thought much about PR. I was really impressed with that piece you wrote last month,” without framing it as her being unable to cut it as a speechwriter.

    Also, the fact that she has multiple mentors hopefully means that some people are seeing genuine potential in her. That doesn’t guarantee that speechwriting is actually a good fit for her, but it does suggest that this could be a subjective thing.

  37. Geekster*

    “the level of writing skill that you need for speech-writing is really hard to teach if someone isn’t starting out with natural talent”

    If the person has the desire and capability to learn, I believe it absolutely can be taught. Great writers aren’t born in a vacuum. Writing is not a natural skill.

    I’d make this more about not meeting expectations than about not being fit to write. Can the OP articulate what he’s wanting? If that’s too hard, maybe show examples of good vs mediocre speeches?

    1. Ask a Manager* Post author

      To be a professional-quality speechwriter? It’s just not true that anyone could attain that if they work hard enough.

      I strongly disagree with the idea (which we’ve liked to teach kids in recent generations) that anyone can do anything they set their mind to. It’s not borne out by reality, and it can be pretty cruel to encourage people to believe that in the face of evidence to the contrary.

      1. Rosa*

        I remember reading an article a long time ago about a study that said white American students tend to believe you’ll only ever be good at certain things, while Asian American students believe that all you have to do is try hard enough. (They also have the highest median household income, so) AAM fits, obviously I have no idea about anyone else.

      2. Muriel Heslop*

        Can you please start a campaign to end: You Can Be Anything You Want to Be! It’s not true, and it’s strangling our public schools.

        1. Jesmlet*

          I disagree that it’s not true… I think the issue is more with people saying: You should try to be whatever you want to be and if you work at it hard enough, it’ll work out. I still think anyone can become pretty much anything they want (within reason), it’s just questionable whether or not they will and if they should take that chance. As long as the line between ‘can’ and ‘will’ are clear enough, I don’t see the problem with people having a goal and trying their hardest to reach it.

      3. animaniactoo*

        I worked really hard to give the message to my kids that yes, some people are naturally bad (or worse) at some things, and that means they had to work *harder* to be competent at it when it was required of them. Find workarounds for what you can (I have no problems with using a travel mug if you’re a klutz who knocks things over regularly), but sometimes there isn’t a workaround and the dig in is to be better than you are, not as great as everybody or somebody else.

      4. Collarbone High*

        Agreed. The analogy I like to use is, I’m five feet tall. No matter how hard I work, no matter how much I might want it, I’m never going to play in the WNBA.

      5. Alton*

        I think the problem is the oversimplification of the message, and the fact that people tend to focus on the most glamorous possibilities rather that the broader range of what a field has to offer (like being president vs. being a member of the city council or winning an Olympic medal vs. competing in lower-level competitions).

        I don’t like the idea that we shouldn’t encourage kids to follow their dreams, because in practice, people often take that to mean telling kids that they shouldn’t major in an artistic field or pursue jobs in fields that are challenging to break into or don’t make as much money. There’s a middle ground. I believe in giving kids realistic information about what a field entails, what it takes to succeed, and what options exist. I really believe that someone who’s passionate about art, for example, can find a way to build their career around that without becoming a famous artist. Or maybe they’ll realize that what they like about art doesn’t translate into a career, which is also cool.

        There’s such a complex interplay between aptitude, hard work, expectations, and opportunity when it comes to doing something, and kids have to learn to balance that out. A lot of times, it’s not that something can’t be done so much as the reality might not be worth it. I love law, and if I really wanted to pursue it, I think I could do it. But do I want $100,000 in student loans? Do I want to struggle with paying off those loans while practicing the type of law I care about? Do I want the stress of knowing that I might have my client’s lives or livelihoods in my hands? No, not really.

      6. Clever Name*

        This. I think we all like to kid ourselves that talent is meaningless and all it takes to succeed is hard work (also see “gumption” and “bootstraps”). I was raised with the belief that I could be anything I wanted to be, and while it sounds like a wonderful thing to teach children, the sad fact is not everyone is cut out to be a doctor or firefighter or speech writer. Luckily, we live in a society where people don’t have to go into the family business and do exactly what their parents did. People can find their own path that is based on their own strengths. It’s kinder to help someone find their path than watch them struggle silently.

        OP, since you are close with your employee, and you are both looking for other employment, you have a really good opportunity to have a big-picture conversation with her. Help her to see what her strengths are, and see if you can connect her to people in careers/industries better suited to her talents.

  38. KimberlyR*

    I think we have the attitude that anyone can do or be anything they want, if they only try hard enough. I don’t truly believe that. I do believe that hard work and dedication can take you very far in most fields, but some will just always be out of reach.

    I could never have been a professional singer-my voice is very very average and I don’t think training would have improved it enough. I don’t have the looks or the body type of most female professional singers. I don’t have the mental fortitude to be told No over and over, and to keep trying until I get that Yes from a music producer. It just wasn’t ever going to be in the cards for me. However, with hard work and dedication, I could have worked in many other parts of the music industry, even if I wasn’t the starlet on the stage.

    This young speechwriter may never have what it takes to be a truly good speechwriter. She can work hard and be technically proficient, but she might not get to the level she needs to be to succeed up to her own expectations. (As I don’t know her, I don’t know if she expects to write speeches for the President someday, or if she is fine writing speeches for local politicians. Her own ambitions will also factor in to this.) I think it would be a kindness to tell her now that her current position is not working out. It may drive her to up her game and she may improve to the point where is succeeding in the industry, or she may determine that speechwriting isn’t for her but another form of writing is. But telling her to follow her dreams despite her current lack of talent is doing her a disserrvice. She will continue to struggle in this job, in this industry, and without honest feedback, she will never know how to improve (or if its even possible!)

  39. Tomato Frog*

    I’m generally an adept writer, and I had an eye-opening experience trying to write a piece for an experienced radio editor. She suggested changes, I could hear that they were improvements, but I was completely unable to bridge that gap myself. I just don’t have the ear for radio. (Weirdly, I’m pretty good at speeches and presentations — there’s more to it than just spoken vs. not spoken.) What helped me see that I wasn’t cut out for it was her talking me through the piece I wrote, showing me how it worked on paper but not read in radio voice, and then reading me her rewrites which were just clearly better even to my ear. Obviously this kind of feedback won’t have any effect if the employee can’t hear the difference at all, but at the very least it would establish that the OP has concerns about her work.

    1. Emily, admin extraordinaire*

      I had a similar experience writing SEO copy for my cousin’s company. I have an MA in English. I write a lot of technical assistance-types documents. I’m a good writer! But that kind of writing was utterly foreign to me, and I was terrible at it.

  40. StephThePM*

    It really sounds like you’re framing this up that your employee is a quality worker who may not be in the “right seat on the bus,” is not hearing your message/coaching, or just plain doesn’t have what it takes.

    I sort of wonder whether, given that you also can’t generally teach strong work ethic and positive attitude, if it’s worth both having the conversation that’s been suggested – but also possibly putting her to work under someone else’s direction for a while to see if your colleague comes to the same conclusion. Maybe it’s a matter of pairing her with someone else for a while to see if that person can assist with developing her as well?

    Just thinking out loud here. I really commend you for trying to do right by your employee – sounds like you’re a great mentor.

  41. Penelope Pitstop*

    Different field and application, but I also work with fresh-from-school writers and have been/am in a similar boat to you.

    Don’t let the childhood goal thing become a red herring (it’s easy to).

    What’s worked for me is establishing reviews and ongoing check-ins/feedback so that there’s a clear bank of what’s working well and where development is needed. The key is that even though she might not like what she hears, the reviewee shouldn’t be surprised by your message. Not saying she is/will be, just reiterating how important that is (in any mentoring role, just this job role/field).

    With that opennness and comfort established and a development plan to talk to, you can say what you need to say and steer, maybe give her opportunities channeled to her strong suits. She may not even know those other avenues exist. Sometimes goals are formed based on a limited purview of the range of opportunities and avenues available.

    Instead of looking at it as closing a door on a dream, think of it as potentially opening up windows to other opportunities she may not even know are there. Sounds like you’ve built a solid relationship from which to have a conversation like this. Good luck!

  42. Anon for this*

    I am reading all of the replies here with fascination, because I feel like I’m in a similar situation but from the other side.

    I have a sneaking hunch that I am a B+ in my field. Basically pretty good, but never going to be your number one pick.

    I would LOVE it if *someone I trusted* *in this field* would sit down me down and say “look, you’re pretty good at this but not great. You might be able to get there by doing X, Y, and Z, but you might not. Are you okay with that? Have you thought about fields A, B, or C instead?”

    Desire and willingness to work hard can get you to “good” in almost any field. But having natural talent and loving it are what help propel you to “great”.

  43. the_scientist*

    Ok, so I have been thinking about this one a bit more. In general, I think that most things *can* absolutely be learned, and everyone can improve with hard work. I’m a classically trained pianist and I really struggled with ear training. But you know what? I’ve worked and worked and worked at it, and I’ve gotten a lot better. On the other hand, I’m a classically trained pianist, but I’m never going to be world-renowned virtuoso or a professional of any kind, no matter how much time and effort I dedicate to it. (Or maybe I didn’t have the willingness to put the rest of my life on hold to dedicate to it when I was younger, and now it’s too late?) What I’m saying is for a lot of things, there is a point at which you “top out” which is different for everyone.

    I guess it depends on what it takes to be a speechwriter- for national politics, you probably have to be a superstar; the 1 in 1,000 who is a true virtuoso. But maybe this employee would be a completely competent speechwriter for a regional or municipal politician? Maybe she’d do well in grant-writing or corporate communications? I still don’t think “you don’t have what it takes to make it in this field” is going to result in anything helpful or productive–and truly, the OP can’t know that. Framing the conversation around “what are your future plans/goals?” may be helpful- the OP knows that this individual is having trouble making it past the screening assignment phase of interviews, so maybe OP could offer to review some of her submissions and point out where she is lacking, and also gently point out that it may be hard for her to make it to interviews with her current skill level, especially if she’s applying for roles where they are looking for a superstar. In that case, the message is not “I think you should give up” but “I think you need to be realistic about your limitations, and maybe consider alternate options.”

  44. Anonon*

    I don’t have anything to add to the excellent discussion above, but I would LOVE to see one of Alison’s Q&As with OP about being a professional speechwriter. I’m so intrigued!

  45. Caity*

    I see a lot of people saying it’s extremely difficult to explain “good” writing or “good” speechwriting, but presumably her internship was partially meant to expose her to that? And there are books and courses that do just that, often quite clearly. The struggling speechwriter didn’t write to us, so my ideas (a course at a college or a MOOC, books of speeches, watching effective speeches, reading your local government’s list of speeches, just reading what your colleagues are doing, putting your speeches and “better” speeches into language analysis programs to see statistics on how they vary etc. etc.) might not be useful, but if this person is motivated to improve there are certainly ways for her to try to do that, even if the LW doesn’t have time to lead her through an intensive one-on-one course.

  46. PoniezRUs*

    This letter hits home for me. I work in a completely different field. In my first internship in college my boss basically told me I was not good enough for what I was hired to do. Fast forward I land a role in a prestigious organization due to my work ethic and attitude. I don’t think I did awful there but it was not my best. Next job chewed me up and spit me up in so many ways. I expected my work to be accepted as it was because I work so hard and what not. That was not enough. I questioned my career choice and considered switching fields. Then something happened where I took responsibility for my progress. Worth ethic and attitude only got me 70% of the way I needed to get to. When I embraced my role and understood what was expected of me, became more engaged with my team, and went above and beyond to understand the more technical aspects of my role, I skyrocketed. Fast forward I am in a new city with a new job and I am doing fantastic. It has taken me quite a few tries to find the right fit and also to take responsibility for my success. This person is very young in her career and while this may not be the right fit for her, I highly encourage OP to steer her towards something she will excel at and flat out tell her what needs to change if she wants to succeed. I also want to say that OP is awesome for thinking about her employee enough to worry about her success.

  47. KB*

    I definitely wouldn’t discourage her from speechwriting just yet. You don’t want to be that person who crushes dreams and 9 months in seems especially early to do so. I definitely would tell her she needs to develop her ear, perhaps giving suggestions of ways to improve her ear on her own time. Would listening to more speeches (good and bad) help? Or observing talented spoken word artists?

    I would bring up the idea of a gear-switch career-wise. I know a lot of people who have focused since childhood on one career path see any deviation as failure. It’s helpful for a mentor to make clear they aren’t failing, just more successful at something else. I would phrase it along the lines, “I would hate to see you struggling to tread water in this field for years when there’s potentially another field where you’d flourish that you haven’t even considered.”

  48. James*

    No details are given in the letter regarding the types of mentoring provided. I do a lot of writing in my field, and mentorship along the lines of “This is wrong, fix it” or “This doesn’t flow well, fix it” are common but not helpful at all. WHY is this wrong? WHY does this not flow well? These questions don’t get answered.

    Bear in mind, a lot of this has to do with the audience more than the writer. What works for one group of people won’t work for another. Can you assume the audience has a deep knowledge base in the subject? Or are they day-laborers who have no clue that this field exists prior to the speech? This changes what the definition of “flow” is, as well as everything else.

    In other words: Are you focusing on the actual mechanics of drafting a speech? And if you think you are, does your employee agree?

  49. Macedon*

    OP: keep it to if/how she meets her current targets, and approach this purely from the perspective of her fit in her current position. Jobs that need artistic juice are self-culling: you might think she wants telling, but it’s likely that she’s already aware that when the axe comes down, she’s not making the cut.

    You can’t fake talent — and yeah, some gigs need a little bit of genius to go far pro. But it’s not for you to tell her when to call it quits universally. And you shouldn’t want that burden, either.

  50. toomanybooks*

    Did Mitchum Huntzberger write in about Rory Gilmore?? Better not tell her she hasn’t got it…

    1. Julia*

      I was about to ask the same question. “Mitchum Huntzberger, is that you?” Then again, I don’t think he’d read Ask A Manager.

  51. Pay no attention to the man behind the curtain*

    I imagine that speech writing is very much like being in advertising — you aren’t usually hired to have your personal voice and style shine through, your hired to make the client shine. She could have all of the skills and talent to write, but not understand that speech writing needs to reflect the speakers voice, not her own.

    I knew a young graphic designer who went to work for a large national company that had a very specific brand identity. Graphic designer was a good designer, but was too attached to her own aesthetic and very often submitted projects that weren’t in keeping with the brand at all. It was pointed out to her often and her work was always heavily edited by her manager. And yet, she didn’t change. As a friend I pointed out all of the things that her employer was “known” for and then pointed out all of the ways that her work deviated from their brand. Her reasoning was that they hired her — so they must like her style; she just refused to get that HER voice is not what they wanted. Eventually her manager removed her from creative work completely and into production and project management (they had to actually create a new position for her and, in my opinion, they really went above and beyond not to just fire her). She had skills and talent, but no sense that she was working for someone else. She eventually changed career paths out of graphic design because every client she got wanted her to follow their vision (go figure [sarcasm]).

  52. Caffeinated*

    So I have a couple of years of work experience under my belt now and am pursuing a career path that, only a few years ago, I didn’t even know existed/that I could do. Given that you’ve said she has a great work ethic, I’m assuming she’s in some way taking stock of her own performance. If you’ve spent a lot of time working on developing her writing skills, is is possible that she’s already coming to terms with the fact that her “dream” career is not feasible? I think it would be kinder and more effective to direct her awareness to other writing-related careers without stating outright that you’re doing it because you don’t think she’s cut out for this industry. Perhaps you can do this by sending her to some writing conferences? Have her write for your organization’s other teams e.g. PR teams? With luck she’ll have realized it all on her own sparing you a difficult conversation.

    Also in principle I think it’s overstepping for anyone to make that kind of judgement. Without weighing in on whether OP is qualified or not, I just think it’s an unkind move.

  53. Amanda*

    From personal experience, being told that I should not follow my dream because I would not succeed was very devastating. And flat out wrong. It was a different circumstance but the message was the same. I had moved across country, left my field to pursue nursing. A counselor who was assessing me for learning disabilities essentially told me to give up and that because of my test results I should put my dream to rest. I don’t think I have ever cried harder in my life. Fast forward to now – I’m working as a school nurse and applying to Masters in Nursing to Nurse Practitioner programs.

    I also want to be clear that this person did not “fuel my fire”, thank goodness I have a amazing mother with similar learning disabilities (that became a nurse at 54!) to encourage me.

    Alison’s advice is on point, and kind.

  54. Office Plant*

    I think it’s too early in her career to make this kind of judgment. Writing doesn’t exist in a vacuum. It ties in to life experiences, what you’ve been reading or listening to, and things that influence any kind of work such as health, stress, and practice. Someone could seem untalented at 22 and be a great writer at 26.

    Here’s another thing to think about. Sometimes mentors give bad advice. Sometimes, consciously or not, they see their mentees as competition. She could be getting bad advice from someone.

    And think about the actual effect a, “You’re not cut out for this,” conversation would have on her. It could be devastating.

    I would confine your feedback to the role you hired her for, but maybe look at the bigger picture. Ask what she’s reading, what others in the field are telling her, how life is outside of work, etc. Point out the areas that need improvement, and be honest. But don’t hurt her feelings with assumptions that aren’t necessarily founded. She could go elsewhere and find a mentor she has a different rapport with and become a better writer, a bridge you wouldn’t want to burn.

  55. Marisol*

    I would think of it this way OP: you can assess, but you cannot predict.

    It’s appropriate to assess an employee’s performance and give honest feedback. However, it is really not possible to predict the future. Unless she asks you directly what you think her chances of success are, I would not offer an opinion.

    I suppose you could make a few soft suggestions like, “I think you might do better in xyz field instead, have you considered that?” but to make an absolute pronouncement on someone’s chances of success is presumptuous.

  56. Mazzy*

    Probably too late to ask, but where do you even get a job as a speech writer? Is it a full time job? How do you keep a steady stream of work? I’ve never heard of it as a thing. I would think maybe Hillary Clinton had one, but that not enough people actually had them for it to be a career path.

    This whole thread is kind of throwing me off, because people are saying speech writing is this or that, but I’ve never ever heard of an actual speech writer.

    Thanks for any info (if its not too late)

    1. Susan*

      I think most people in a position of power have a speech writer (politicians except maybe local if they can’t afford it, CEOs, etc). When I graduated college (for writing, no less), I know some of my peers took a position as a speech writer for the president of the school. I think it’s not a terribly uncommon job, but I think it usually takes a little subject matter expertise (in the organization/brand you’re representing), so the postings are probably not super obvious to people outside of whatever field it’s in (government, education, etc.).

  57. Hiring Mgr*

    Going forward, when hiring new speechwriters is there some sort of writing test you could administer that would give you at least a basic idea of the candidate’s speechwriting skill?

  58. Student*

    Couldn’t you tell her, more accurately, that she’s not putting out the kind of speeches that you need, so she should try elsewhere?

    Speeches vary substantially based on speaker, audience, and subject matter. Somebody who’s great at writing speeches for, say, the presidential candidate of one party might be terrible at writing speeches for the opposing presidential candidate.

    It could be she’s not got the talent at all to write speeches. Maybe she’s having difficulty relating to the audience you target, or the speakers you write for, or the subject matter being delivered. It’s her problem to figure out which of those it is. However, it’s your problem to give her some direct feedback that what she writes isn’t working for your needs.

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