Ghostwriters are paid to write in someone else’s voice. To do that well requires knowing how to listen.
Listening is not something that comes naturally to most of us (I discussed a huge mistake I made early in my career here). Usually, when the mouth of the person in front of us is moving, we’re still focused mainly on ourselves.
We’re thinking of a clever reply, or wondering if they really meant to wear that blouse with that jacket, or making a mental note to add dental floss to the list of things we need to pick up on the way home.
We can adopt techniques that make us better listeners. We learn to pay attention to body language and nonverbal cues. We put ourselves in the speaker’s shoes, imagining our own lungs burning and our eyes nearly searing shut as we go back inside the burning house to get that fat, blind dachshund out of there. We make eye contact and don't interrupt. And we nod, showing that we not only understand the speaker, but that we’re also right there with him.
But there’s more to it than that.
I was with a client on the back porch of her country home, which overlooked a river. She was talking about what it was like to have to do her own algebra homework and braid her own hair after her identical twin sister died of pneumonia at fifteen.
Her story was bittersweet and compelling. I asked questions, took notes on my laptop and made sure my audio recorder was working.
All the sudden, she jumped up. “Did you hear that?” she said.
She grabbed a pair of binoculars and leaned over the porch railing, searching.
“A painted bunting,” she said. “The females are light green and the males look like something from my grandson’s coloring book.”
I heard a delicate chirping.
“They’re not very big and they’re always on the move, so they’re hard to spot.”
After a minute or so, she gave up her search and sat back down. She showed me an image of a painted bunting from a website, and we continued our conversation.
Later, I realized that there was more to listening than being ever mindful of the speaker and yourself while also absorbing what is being said, difficult as that can be.
Listening is almost a form therapy. The ghostwriter's job is to get in sync with the subject using all five senses, to develop a level of trust that will result in true collaboration.
That doesn’t mean pointing out every time the dog barks or the teakettle whistles, but it does mean being aware of everything going on around you and thinking about how it pertains to the subject.
If I had truly heard the birds chirping that morning, I might have asked about why she chose to live in the country, how often she used the binoculars, or if she sat on her back porch every day. I would have been more in sync with her.
There’s a third player in the ghostwriting relationship: the people who will ultimately hear the speech or read the blog post or memoir. The ghostwriter must do everything possible to build a seamless and trusting relationship with the client, because those people can spot a phony a mile away. Listening is the heart of this relationship.