When I was in second grade, my mother passed away. That year, my homeroom teacher assigned an essay as homework to celebrate Mother’s Day. The topic was “Mother’s Grace”. I wrote a fictional story about being too ashamed to admit I didn’t have a mother when my teacher asked me to bring her to an event.
On Mother’s Day itself, we had a morning assembly in the schoolyard. But my teacher told me to stay in the classroom. When the principal’s voice rang through the PA system I realized that he was reading my “composition”. He got choked up as he read my story. That was my first taste of the pleasure of writing.
In third grade, I participated in an essay-writing contest. It was quite a large contest, hosted by a local newspaper. I wrote a story titled “Home, Sweet Home”. I won the grand prize, to my surprise. They also told me my essay would be published in the newspaper the next day. I was terrified because I’d made up this story too. But my father gave me a huge pat on the back. He hadn’t seen it as a lie but as “creativity”. That was how I came to realize that things you write don’t have to be real.
After graduating from college, I took the exam to become a journalist but didn’t pass. So I joined Daewoo Securities and chose to work in the public relations department, thinking that I’d be able to read newspapers as much as I liked. The year I joined the company was the 20th anniversary of its founding, and I was tasked with writing a book on the company’s history. My job was to assist a retired journalist in writing it. But he was caught plagiarizing a book on the history of another company and I had to write it myself. I wrote this mess of a record but I bound it all nicely and put in a lot of color pictures. Everyone told me I’d done a good job. I don’t think they actually read what I wrote. But overnight I’d become a “writer”.
When the president of Daewoo Securities, Kim Woo-joong, became the chairman of the Federation of Korean Industries, I left with him. I assisted with his speeches from his secretary’s office. That eventually led me to a position at the office of the director of speechwriting during the Kim Dae-jung administration. After three years there, I worked as the director of speechwriting under President Roh Moo-hyun for five years. When that was over, I helped write speeches for Cho Seok Rae, the president of Hyosung who was then chairman of FKI.
from Writing for Presidents,
by Kang Won-guk (Medici Media; Korean only)
This man spent 90 percent of the 25 years of his career as a “speechwriter for powerful men”. He certainly deserves the title “master of writing”. A 52-year-old writer and current editor-in-chief of a publishing company, Kang Won-guk writes and lectures and has published two books about people at the peak of power: Writing for Presidents and Writing for CEOs (Medici Media, 2015; Korean only). Both tables of contents read like lists of writing tips. Included are detailed stories about the two presidents, each known for their eloquence, and personal anecdotes from Kang’s time under company CEOs. The books themselves are a showcase on the art of writing well.
This reporter sat with Kang at a coffee shop next to Gyeongbokgung Palace. He was busy with lectures following the publication of his second book. The shabby but cozy atmosphere of the coffee shop suited him. Unlike the well-organized sentences of his books, he used a lot of asyntactic sentences. But he was very easy to understand.
— JEON Byung-geun
Before Cheong Wa Dae
You have a unique career history. You were not a “professional” writer but you wrote speeches for powerful men for 20 years. And you majored in international relations in college.
I was raised by my maternal grandmother, and she often said I should become a diplomat. So I think that somehow compelled me to study international relations. But I grew up in the countryside in Jeonju, and when I started college I learned that most of my classmates had completely different backgrounds from mine. So I didn’t hang out with them. Instead I spent most of my four years in college with my high school friends. We drank in broad daylight every day. We discussed a lot of homespun philosophy, and this was a great help later when I started writing speeches at Cheong Wa Dae. I bought books but never read them. And somehow I got married early, in my senior year in college. My mother-in-law advised me that it would be better to be affiliated with a company, so I joined one. I still had vague dreams of becoming a journalist. But since I hadn’t studied to become a journalist in college, I planned on studying for those exams while working at the company. I worked at the public relations department in Daewoo Securities and ended up settling there.
When Kim Woo-jung, the CEO of Daewoo, became the chairman of KFI, I worked in his secretary’s office as his speechwriter for about three years. Then Daewoo closed down, and I returned to Daewoo Securities. Right around then I was summoned to Cheong Wa Dae, and I worked there for about three years, and for another five under President Roh Moo-hyun. After my time at Cheong Wa Dae, I received a call from Cho Seok-rae, CEO of Hyosung, and went to work for him as the director of speechwriting. Mr. Cho was very interested in my writing, but we had certain differences. So I quit after a couple of months and was unemployed for a while. And I was worried about my career coming to a complete end.
You didn’t get a lot of job proposals after working at Cheong Wa Dae?
No. When the administration changed, a lot of people actually avoided me. The next president, Lee Myung-bak, even did background checks on me. I had no idea. I only found out when the Supreme Prosecutor’s Office called afterwards about checking my phone records. They told me they tapped my phone between such and such dates. Since public offices and even private companies were trying to stay on the new administration’s good side, it was hard for me to get a job. I was willing to work at small or medium-sized companies, but no one wanted me. Around that time, I saw a news report about unemployment on TV, about how the unemployment was rising due to the economic decline. That was the first time I watched that kind of news with interest. It was winter, and the news terrified me. I thought, “Gosh, I might be unemployed for the rest of my life.” I submitted my resume to a few job search places, but I didn’t get any calls back. Some time later, someone introduced me to a startup company that had just listed on KOSDAQ and was making enough profit to expand the business. And they were looking for a technical writer who could write about the company’s products and technologies. The company had ten different technologies, but only seven of them were known to the public. They hired me and even provided me with five other people to work with. I worked there for three years.
That’s one unique writing job.
That was the first I heard about it, but there are actually a lot of people who make a living from it. It’s writing that goes in brochures or manuals. Regular employees can’t write it; ad companies can’t write it; developers can’t write it. You need other people to write it. There are one or two people doing it in each company, and they’re similar to speechwriters. The characteristic of this kind of writing is that there is no “I”—no writer’s personality. Speechwriting is similar, because you try to read the speaker’s mind and write what he wants to say in his style. You don’t have to know a lot, and you don’t have to write with personality. You can’t write what you think in your own style. With manuals, you only need the information from developers or technicians and to write what they tell you. You write for the consumer rather than the speaker.
I think that was why it worked for me. You can’t be in this business if you have your own thoughts. You’re like a dry sponge: you absorb all the information and write according to the purpose of the writing. This isn’t literature or art. You simply need to read their thoughts and write what they want, in line with their goals.
President Kim Dae-jung
You spent a total of eight years—three years and five years respectively—as a speechwriter under two presidents. What are some of the similarities and differences between the two presidents?
Whether it’s political authority or economic authority, anyone who has power is, to a certain extent, immersed in Machiavellianism. That’s what I studied in international politics for all of my four years in college. I think Presidents Kim Dae-jung and Roh Moo-hyun were different from previous presidents because they could only exercise their power through words and writing. They had no other means. And because they’d spent years in the opposition party, persuasive speech had become really important for them. They had to use words to rally and persuade people and win them over to their side to realize their policies or ideologies, so they were both deeply contemplative about their words and writing.
My job was to assist them in precisely that regard. The two presidents were different in that President Roh spoke about what he wanted to speak about, while President Kim focused on identifying and speaking about what the people wanted to hear. At every speaking opportunity he had outside of Seoul, President Kim sent people out in advance to learn about the public sentiment in those regions. He met with local journalists and government officials, asked them about the issues that were popular in the region, and made sure to include those issues in his speeches. In contrast, President Roh didn’t do that. Nor did he deliver prepared speeches verbatim. He talked about the issues and agendas that interested him. As a result, he sometimes said things that audiences didn’t want to hear, and that created misunderstandings at times. But President Roh believed a president was someone who did just that—someone who proposed new issues and agendas and made people think. He thought that was the role of a leader. The people decided whether or not to accept a proposal, but the leader was the one who first thought about ideas and spoke about them. President Kim, on the other hand, said, “Be only half a step ahead of the people, and hold tight to their hands.” I think that’s where all the differences between them arose.
Another difference was that President Kim always spoke and wrote with history in mind. He always thought about how everything he said and wrote would remain as records. So he put a huge emphasis on repetition. He believed he needed to say the same things about the same issues. Since everything he said and wrote was recorded, if he didn’t maintain the same position regarding the issues, people could be confused about the president’s position. So he repeated the same things ad nauseum. And he emphasized achievement.
President Roh, however, tried to deliver his thoughts on the same issue in different ways depending on the audience. For instance, when he spoke at groundbreaking ceremonies in Innovation Cities, he attempted to differentiate the contents of each speech. He believed that if he repeated the same speech he’d delivered at Wonju in Jeonju the next day, people might think him insincere. He tried to speak considerately to the audience. But that sometimes brought about confusion. Some people wondered about the president’s opinions. That was a telling difference between the two presidents.
Also, President Kim didn’t engage in any private conversations. As a veteran politician there was much he could have said, but there were very few who talked in private with him. President Roh was easy to approach though. A person like me or even lower-ranking administrative officials were able to go see him without difficulty at anytime. So a lot of people went to see him. As a result, many people recorded what they knew about him in writing. There are a lot more records about President Roh than President Kim.
During President Kim’s term, there was still an atmosphere of authoritarianism. He was kept at a distance from the public, so it was hard for anyone else to approach him. It’s been over five years since both presidents passed away. Just this year, there have been over forty books published on President Roh, yet nothing at all on President Kim. It’s because there’s no one who talked privately with President Kim. I think men of power should be required to leave stories about themselves from now on. To do that, they have to keep people close and let them watch. Then people will write for sure. In times past, disciples or others around Jesus or Confucius would write about them.
President Roh Moo-hyun
And I think President Roh made a wise choice in this regard. For all five years, he let people watch him and write about him, even about the things he said privately at meals.
There were three reasons for that. First, he wanted the next administration to learn from his administration. Second, he wanted to keep records for himself because he wanted to write books after he retired. He wanted to record his thoughts systematically and ultimately become a thinker. So his goal was to read, write, and publish books. To that end, he needed records. Because he developed ideas as he talked, he wasn’t able to make notes about his speeches personally. And lastly, he said the main reason he wanted records of his own words was to control himself. He said if he thought about the fact that everything he said would go down in history, he would filter his thoughts and speech with everyone he talked with.
I feel like I’m talking a lot more about President Roh, but it’s because I don’t know President Kim as well. I never talked with him privately, and since I didn’t know him well I can’t really talk about him. That’s why there are a lot of anecdotes about President Roh in my books, and I maintain a warm perspective of him for the most part.
You spent a total of three years under President Kim Dae-jung, but you worked under Roh Moo-hyun for the entirety of his administration.
That’s right. I was the speechwriter for President Roh, but under President Kim, I worked as an administrator under Ko Do-won, his director of speechwriting.
How is the Office of Speechwriting organized in Cheong Wa Dae?
During the Kim administration, the director of speechwriting was supervised by the senior secretary of press. The president was at the top, and under him was the senior secretary of press, then the director of speechwriting, and then administrators of speechwriting. There were four administrators of speechwriting at the time, including me. We were in charge of politics, economics, foreign affairs and security, and society and budgets. When we were under the senior secretary of press, we wrote all the press-related materials as well: written objections to newspaper columns or editorials, materials for speeches, and responses the president needed for press conferences.
When President Roh took office, I became the director of speechwriting and he told me to report to him directly. From then on, the presidential secretary and the senior secretary of press were no longer above me. My office was also moved to the Main Office Hall of Cheong Wa Dae. The speechwriters‘ office had previously been in the Secretary’s Building. On the second floor of the Main Office Hall, the president’s office was next to the Cabinet Conference Room, and my office was next to that. The only secretaries at the Main Office Hall were the director of speechwriting and the chief of protocol on the first floor. And the chief presidential secretary’s office was attached to the president’s office. Other than those three people, all the other secretary-level officials were in the Secretary’s Building. There are about 40 secretaries working at the Secretary‘s Office, and they are all under the chief presidential secretary and senior secretaries.
It’s like the president is the chairman of a company; the chief presidential secretary is the president; senior secretaries are directors, with four or five secretaries under them. For example, under the senior secretary to the president for economic policy are the secretary for finance and the secretary for industry. The secretaries are like department heads, and under them are administrative officials, who are like regular employees.
What were the styles of the previous presidents?
President Kim Young-sam had a great knack for reading situations and a great ability to summarize in one sentence. So his speeches were generally concise. In terms of speeches, President Roh Tae-woo’s had the highest degree of execution. I think Lee Su-jeong, the senior press secretary, and other speechwriters put all their writing skills into writing speeches for the president. At the time, the senior secretary of political affairs handled all the work involving the media, and the senior secretary of press was in charge of writing everything. I heard that the director of speechwriting gathered all the materials for the senior press secretary, and the senior press secretary would write everything out on paper. And when the senior press secretary had to revise the speech, the director of speechwriting cut out the revised part with scissors and pasted it on top. This changed during the Kim Dae-jung administration with Senior Secretary of Press Park Ji-won. Press Secretary Park focused on public information affairs, and speeches had to be written by the director of speechwriting.
Which speech would you say is the best speech by any president?
President Roh Moo-hyun made a speech to the Korean citizens related to South Korea-Japan relations. It wasn’t triggered by anything in particular, but he personally wrote the speech because Japan was constantly distorting history and he’d been insisting on territorial rights over Dokdo Island since Japanese Prime Minister Koizumi’s term in office. The speech began with the sentence “Dokdo Island is our territory”, and I think it was beautifully written. The president gave me the speech and told me to review it and bring it over to the Chunchugwan, which is Cheong Wa Dae’s press center. I looked at it, and I was awed. I realized that the reason he’d been very hard on us speechwriters was that he was great at it.
President Roh made a lot of slip-of-the-tongue mistakes.
As I mentioned earlier, one of the reasons was his style of laying importance on the audience on site. Another reason is, if the president speaks in the language of the president, it sounds elegant and sophisticated. But President Roh believed that speeches written that way do not get through to the listeners or stick in people’s minds.
Do you mean that it was because he didn’t like speeches that were too formal?
Right. President Roh mulled over each speech and thought about the phrases or words for people to remember. So he had to choose more provocative words or expressions. He worked hard preparing for speeches, but if the atmosphere didn’t feel right at the site, he didn’t deliver the prepared speech. That’s why people talked about his slips. Some of them were made intentionally to get through to the listeners.
You also mentioned in your book that President Roh wrote “I can’t read books, nor can I write” in his will. What do you think he meant by that?
Basically, I think what he wrote in his will was the reason he chose death. The only thing he wanted to do after his retirement was writing, but that became difficult.
But couldn’t he have explained himself in a book or in writing?
It seems that he believed that moral trust in him had been damaged.
You mean, he thought that the foundation of his writing had been destroyed?
Right. At the time, he probably thought that people wouldn’t read or be interested in reading anything he wrote. He always said, “The only thing I have is the moral trust of the people. What else is there than that?” But that had been somewhat damaged at the time. Regardless of the truth, he must have agonized over that.
President Park Geun-hye
People criticize President Park for her lack of communication. What do you think about the style of her speeches? And are there objective differences from previous presidents?
Apart from everything else, do you feel warmth in her speeches? At one of my lectures, someone asked me about President Park’s speeches. I said I didn’t know because I never heard her speak. When she gives speeches, like the congratulatory speech on Korean Liberation Day, journalists call me to ask me about her speech, but I tell them that I don’t know because I don’t watch her speeches. People say that she reads prewritten notes even in meetings. But if you’re just reading what you’ve written in advance, that means you’re not planning on having a discussion. That runs counter to the purpose of having a meeting or a discussion. But if she’s doing that to deliver what she wants to say in a clear fashion, then I don’t think it’s necessarily a problem. When I said all of this at a lecture, the library that hosted the lecture called me one day. They told me that someone threatened to sue me for some kind of crime against the president, so I better make an apology. If I don’t make the apology, he said that he would also involve the director of the organization who invited me to give the lecture. When I asked what I did wrong, he told me that saying “I changed the channel when the president came on the screen” was equivalent to “contempt for the president”. So I asked if I really needed to apologize for changing the channel on my TV, and they pleaded with me, saying that the situation was complicated. I wanted to appease the situation since the person from the library was caught in the middle, but I really had nothing to say. So that was that. I’ve since vowed to not answer questions like that in the future.
At Cheong Wa Dae
For people who worked at Cheong Wa Dae, are there constraints on writing about what they’d heard or seen there?
I’ve never heard of anything like that.
I thought there might be some constraints because of security reasons.
I’ve never heard that there were constraints, but I can’t say for sure that there aren’t any. In fact, we’re quite vulnerable in that respect. We didn’t even think that it would be a problem to have copies of all the records from Cheong Wa Dae on e-Jiwon after the Roh Moo-hyun administration ended. Former presidents have the right to view all the materials and documents at Cheong Wa Dae. That way they can write memoirs based on the records.
But aren’t there procedures for copying the records?
President Roh moved to Bonghwa after his presidency, so he couldn’t come up to Seoul every time he needed to see a document. It’s possible that he made copies of the documents, seeing as he had the viewing rights as well.
In foreign countries, people who have held official positions write books. It brings in money, but it is also meaningful in that they share unique experiences and leave records about those experiences. In that regard, I wish that more retired officials in Korea would publish their experiences. But I was also concerned that there may be some kind of constraints on revealing such information.
I don’t know of constraints that may or may not exist. But what I wrote isn’t a huge secret, and it’s not as if I have any highly classified information that I need to keep quiet about or reveal. There’s mostly information that the president wanted to talk about publicly, not anything he discussed with me in private.
After you left Cheong Wa Dae, did you miss working there or experience any “withdrawal symptoms”?
I actually thought about that a couple of months before I left. It was somewhat heartrending to think that I woudn’t ever be there again. And I also worried about people looking down on me or treating me differently. But when I left, I also completely forgot about the time I spent working at Cheong Wa Dae. Really. So I didn’t feel any “withdrawal symptoms” or nostalgia. I was too busy trying to get used to Hyosung—I started there soon after I left Cheong Wa Dae.
Do you think it was because you worked behind the scenes at Cheong Wa Dae?
That’s correct. It wasn’t like I was in a position to wield any power or authority over someone. Every day, all I did was write and be berated by the president. Up until the day of the event where the president had to make a speech, it was a continuous process of writing and receiving criticism from the president. Since that was my work life, there wasn’t much to be nostalgic about. Rather, I shouted “hurray for freedom” after I left. I did worry about certain things, like at class reunions, my former classmates might treat me differently. I thought maybe some of them might look at me in a different way. But I felt that was something I needed to bear.
Looking back, what did it feel like to work at Cheong Wa Dae when you started working there?
When I first started working there, of course, there was a certain anticipation, and I was excited. I wrote in my book about how I got into a cab because I didn’t know where Cheong Wa Dae was, but I couldn’t say, “To Cheong Wa Dae, please”. Working at the center of the government seemed exciting. But when I actually began to work at Cheong Wa Dae, I lost all that feeling as I was mired in everyday life there. And after a year, I didn’t even have time to think of other people looking at me and thinking that I worked in the center of power.
There is one thing that people don’t know. People believe that Cheong Wa Dae has some fancy decision making process, that all the work is handled systematically. But that’s a complete myth. Regular companies are more organized than Cheong Wa Dae. Since administrations change every five years, the management system isn’t continuous, and it’s impossible to accumulate know-how regarding the work at Cheong Wa Dae. You have to start with a clean slate every time. And usually the administration is in confusion for the first year. Then they work for three years, and the last year simply fizzles out without people doing much. Generally, each staff member works for about three years. So it may be Cheong Wa Dae, but the system is riddled with holes.
To avoid that that kind of trial-and-error situations, shouldn’t there be some kind of system to secure continuity between administrations?
A major example is the Secretary’s Building built in the 70s, during the Park Chung-hee administration. It needs to be reconstructed, to be honest. It’s a huge mess. But none of the presidents can do it, because their term would end during the reconstruction. Are they going to let their staff work outside of Cheong Wa Dae? Nope. That’s how it is. You can’t think in the long-term. Even if they can’t finish something during their term, presidents ought to think five or ten years in advance and do things, but this system doesn’t have any room for that.
About what percentage of Blue House personnel changes from administration to administration?
About 98 percent of the people change, because the newly elected presidents need to look after those who helped them. There are over ten times more people waiting to be called to work at Cheong Wa Dae than the number of people working at Cheong Wa Dae. So they have to give some kind of benefits to those people.
Wouldn’t it be better for people who run the system to remain at Cheong Wa Dae?
About five percent of the staff members from the former administration remains at Cheong Wa Dae for the first year of the new administration. That’s the bare minimum necessary to maintain the operation of Cheong Wa Dae. For minimum continuity between administrations. I think less than one percent stays on till the end, because of the pressure from the people of the new administration. They thin out the people from the previous administration.
I would’ve thought at least 20 or 30 percent of the people would remain from the previous administration.
Career public officials are the ones who maintain the system. For instance, the Ministry of Foreign Affairs dispatches the Chief of Protocol, and the Secretary to the President for Economy comes from the government’s economics department. Like that, one or two people from each department are sent to work at Cheong Wa Dae. Their work retains some kind of continuity, but they have a time limit on their speaking rights. So they only stay for two years.
That means there are no permanent staff members.
Correct. Only about one or two building managers work as full-time employees at the presidential administrative secretary’s office.
Comparisons to America
In the American political TV show, West Wing, the speechwriters play a great role. They are the key to changing history.
In the US, speechwriters really do play such a role. They play a key role from the campaigns on. They make the slogans, and they all go and work with the president at the White House.
Is it different in Cheong Wa Dae?
For one thing, I didn’t have the ability to do so. In the US, the advising staff leads the president, but we followed the president’s lead. No one could lead Presidents Kim Dae-jung and Roh Moo-hyun. Chief of Staff Ryu Woo-ik probably did something like that for President Lee Myung-bak.
The New York Times prints complete transcripts of the speeches US presidents make, sometimes with annotations. Compared to that, Koreans seem less interested in speeches.
Most people don’t think much of speeches. People aren’t interested in them, not even journalists. Korean people have never valued the words of presidents. Speeches used to be considered a formality. One of the qualities of a president in the past was “Demonstrating through action rather than words”. People believed that a leader is supposed to be reserved, even during President Kim Young-sam’s administration. So how could speeches have been important? During those times, presidents had other means to exercise their authority. It was generally thought that presidents needed to be feared by people.
The writing process
When you have to write speeches about certain issues, what does the working process involve specifically?
The office of the relevant secretary sent us the facts. Those facts were all we had to rely on when writing a speech. Cheong Wa Dae doesn’t wait for reports to be out in the news before it deals with issues. The Sewol Ferry tragedy was handled very late. But, for the most part, you can’t search for related information. Writing based on the given facts and using the same tone the president used in previous similar circumstances is very important. Usually, the president gave us a couple of phrases to work on. Mainly his position or views on the issue. That was what we started with. When we go and search for this and that, usually the important things get buried under all the information. So, rather than searching for information, we concentrated on the president’s past speeches. And we made conjectures based on what we felt and experienced as we worked with him. It is extremely important to have that context. Once I know that, I can write as if I’m the president.
I heard that when you write a speech, you let it stew for a while after writing it and come back to revise it later on.
That’s how I wrote every speech. Immediately after writing a speech, I don’t see anything that needs to be revised. But when I come back after taking a walk or something, there are parts that make me wonder, “Why did I write it like that?” So I used to revise the speeches in intervals, taking breaks and doing other things in between. That’s really important.
from Writing for Presidents,
by Kang Won-guk (Medici Media; Korean only)
I was in a continuous state of tension for the eight years I spent at Cheong Wa Dae. I even developed irritable bowel syndrome. That was the day I was to be promoted and appointed as the director of speechwriting in 2002. I used to commute by subway from my home in Gwacheon to Gyeongbokgung, so I left my house that day with enough time to get to Cheong Wa Dae. But my bowels started to move, perhaps because I was nervous. I was unable to hold it and got off at Sinyongsan Station. The station restroom was full. I waited in line. I was running out of time, so I knocked on the door of each stall and pleaded. But, unfortunately, I didn’t hear anyone flushing the toilet. I couldn’t hold it any longer. As a last resort, I dropped my pants and sat on the urinal. People gasped in shock, and some people walked into that public restroom only to walk out right away. That was how I found out that urinals can be used that way.
I was also terribly worried at the second Inter-Korean summit in 2007. I had to accompany the president to Pyongyang on land, and the bathroom was once again an issue. Just thinking about it would make my hair stand on end. I’d had an enema the day before we left for Pyongyang. And I didn’t eat at all. After about thirty hours of traveling, we finally arrived at Pyongyang, and I had a meal there. Even now, I know which buildings between Gwacheon to Cheong Wa Dae have open restrooms, and which subway stations have clean restrooms.
Somewhere in your book, you wrote, “Today’s power comes from words and writings”. Do you believe that the pen is mightier than the sword?
Swords have disappeared in this world. In all things, even in ordinary companies, words and writing are important. Ideas come before words and writings but these ideas are expressed in words and writing. All work is performed with words and writing, whether it’s an order or a report. What we do at companies involves words and writing. People these days talk a lot about communication, and the means of communication are words and writing. I believe utopias are possible at companies through communication. I have this dream of utopia because I’m really vulnerable to stress. Even when I was young and had just started working. So I’ve always thought about ways to avoid stress. And I’ve come to the conclusion that it’s only achievable through words and writing.
In reality, however, there is a huge gap. If the CEO is unable to deliver his thoughts, it becomes a disaster for the organization. It creates isolation and walls. Employees don’t want to come into work; the working environment becomes suffocating. All problems stem from that. That’s the first thing that needs to be resolved, and I first realized it when I worked as the director of speechwriting at Cheong Wa Dae. I believe it’s possible at ordinary companies as well. The most important thing is the will of the CEO, and everything is down to his disposition.
Although we say that words and writings carry power, people still put authority and money first. It seems that writing serves the purpose of supporting them.
I mean that you need words and writing to acquire power, and once you are in power, there is nothing more important than words and writing to exercise power. Today, persuasion is the only power, and it’s possible through words and writing. You can see it in Korean Air’s “nut rage incident”. The CEO and his family stood at the top of authority after working so hard to build everything, but no one believes what they are saying. Imagine what that might be like. Unlike my generation, young people these days don’t do anything unless they are moved. Back in my day, we obeyed orders from the top and sacrificed ourselves for the company, but these days people act when they are moved. And in order to move people, you have no choice but to wrestle with words and writing.
These days in the US, speeches made by innovative business people become big issues, not speeches made by politicians. For instance, Steve Jobs’s commencement speech at Stanford University.
How many business people do you think write their own speeches? I don’t think there are any. They’re probably all busy, but more importantly, Korean business people don’t think much of the importance of words and writing. In the US, people believe from early on that reading what other people wrote isn’t speaking in your own words. So they’re likely to believe that you have to write your own speeches. That’s a big difference. When the CEO of a company makes a speech, Korean people believe that the public relations office wrote the speech for him. Such speeches don’t get to the listener’s heart. It’s not genuine and it’s also a waste of time. So they should stop making speeches at monthly meetings or printing them in company magazines. If they’re going to say something, they should say it in their own words. No matter how busy they may be, Korean business people need to spend time thinking about that. I expect that there will be many young business people who focus on that.
Watching the “nut rage” incident involving Korean Air, if you’d had to write the apology letter, how would you have done it?
Making the apology on the first day is very important. The problem is that the CEO of a company is different from the president of a country. Votes are important for politicians, so they are always conscious of their listeners. That’s how they lived all their lives, and how they will live for the rest of their lives. They think about responses. But CEOs are insensitive to such things. Even if they are blameless and have no fault in terms of the facts, they need to understand public sentiment. If they don’t, they end up saying something emotionally irrelevant. The safe way is to apologize even more seriously than the people expect. But most business people are reticent about making apologies. They tend to avoid making apologies and try to focus on wrapping everything up and getting out of the situation. Korean Air did that. That’s a huge mistake. The advisers at Korean Air pushed their boss into a grave.
Have you experienced a crisis like that yourself?
There was something the president of the KG Group said. In construction, sometimes there are serious injuries or casualties. And he said the best way to manage such crises is to be slapped by the victims’ families. He was pointing to the importance of connecting emotionally. If the advisers only use their heads, and think only about their leader, they end up digging their own graves.
Do you mean that “honesty is the best policy” isn’t enough?
Right. You can’t simply be honest. Even if you think that you are completely honest, if you don’t fulfill the other’s expectations, then you’ve failed. If you can’t evoke any favorable responses, what’s the point of talking? For instance, if you write your personal statement honestly, then you have no chance of getting a job. The purpose of writing a personal statement is not to talk about your personal history but to get a job. So you have to know what the employers are looking for and know how to meet their expectations. It’s the same, whether you’re trying to deliver a message to the general public or your employees.
That sounds like risky advice. I thought the maxim about “honesty” came from the fact that lack of it might bring about more rage. Couldn’t adjusting what you say for the people who will hear it lead to even more rage?
“Honesty” here refers to confirming the facts and basing your words on facts. Of course, that’s the most important thing. But what I’m saying is, it is very difficult to calm people down with facts. When the public is angry, and delivering the facts isn’t enough to quell their rage, I think you have to take a step further. If you wish to put the situation to bed, you need to investigate the situation even more wisely.
You must have done a lot of that at Cheong Wa Dae.
In the last year of President Kim Dae-jung’s term, his son, Hong-il, was involved in a venture investment scandal. At the time, we agonized over the wording of the president’s apology. From “regret” to “apologetic” and “tragic”. We even searched the thesaurus. Using toned-down words could have added fuel to fire. But considering the president’s position, we couldn’t use overtly apologetic words. And we had to take the public sentiment into account. So we tried to appease the situation by finding balance among all the factors. But we didn’t really have any amazing ideas.
Writing for CEOs
In Writing for CEOs, you wrote about know-how for conducting oneself or handling situations that arise in organizations. It was like Machiavelli’s The Prince for companies or Sun Tzu’s Art of War for companies.
It’s everything that I saw and experienced personally. The examples I cited are so realistic that they seem unreal. In companies, CEOs are like gods. But they want to seem like they are easygoing. So everyone below them is left walking on egg shells. One wrong decision can get you fired. So knowing how to conduct oneself in a company is extremely difficult. Unless you are sure of what you’re doing, you should stay away from the CEOs. I used to be under a lot of stress because of that. Once, I made a suggestion to the CEO of the company I worked at, and I was dismissed right away. I was the chief secretary to the CEO at the time. I gave him advice on something after a drink, and I was dismissed the next day.
Even lower-level employees need to know about such principles of life in companies. Ultimately, all the employees are the CEO’s staff. You’re mistaken if you think that there are people who are under your command because you’re a director or a department head. You can only do your work well when you keep your eye on the CEO and try to do your best. You have to constantly think about what the CEO would think and what kind of decisions he or she would make. The moment you think you’re the boss, you’re heading down the wrong path.
The best reports are the ones that portray the thoughts of your superiors. The CEO might not be confident about his ideas either. If you write a report supporting his idea with facts, saying “you are right” then they come to think “that’s right” and give you an “okay”. I believe it’s impossible to change the thoughts of your superiors. I tried and never succeeded. It’s important to polish your boss’s ideas, make them logical and persuasive, and embellish them with a number of examples and details. All attempts to change a CEO’s thoughts fail in the end, and they only leave scars on the CEO too. That’s what I’ve learned from my experiences.
Don’t you think that’s too organization-oriented? Solely bent on surviving in companies?
This isn’t simply for my survival. Pushing a different opinion at the CEO who has no possibility of changing only ends up creating discord in the organization and destroys the CEO’s morale. Morale is extremely important, especially to people who have a lot of money. On the outside, CEOs may seem completely open minded, and they might say, “Give me your opinions, both good and bad”. But if you take their words at face value and list your complaints, they get hurt. People like that get hurt easily. They take small incidents as something much bigger. So it’s much better to think about how to polish the CEO’s ideas. That’s more productive, and it’s better for your career as well.
You were a master of speeches, but is there anything else you want to write? Literature or non-fiction, journalism, etc.?
Even now, I envy journalists. And I don’t think I have the talent to go into pure literature. I don’t dare think about trying that out. I always worry that such writers might listen to me describing writing as a functional technique and come slap me for saying such a thing.
Even technical writing could help you reach a certain level in literary writing too though…
But literature is a completely different genre of writing. It’s close to art. The kind of writing I’m talking about is technical. In that respect, writing by journalists is closer to technical writing, since it’s all related to facts. It doesn’t require a high degree of imagination or creativity.
Your books contain a ton of helpful tips for writing at companies. I think you’ve covered almost everything. But, specifically, what kind of process do you go through when you write?
There are many books on writing project proposals or reports, but a lot of these books were written by people who never worked at a company. Since writing at a company was how I made a living, I wrote about the skills I accumulated at work.
For me, the most important point in writing is writing what I’m thinking rather than trying to write great sentences from the outset. Secondly, it’s important to revise your writing. Writing what you are thinking and revising what you wrote are the basics of writing. If I may, I’d like to add that writing involves 10 percent of your own ideas and 90 percent of other people’s ideas. Someone who is good at finding information and summarizing is good at writing. That’s what decides good writing. But the technique of summarizing isn’t very easy. You have to have your own framework or standards. Once you have that, you can write well.
It’s the same for speeches. When you are introducing yourself, first you say your name, how you came to work at this company, and express your hope that you’ll get along with your colleagues. If you know that you need those three things, even if you are put on the spot, you can easily introduce yourself. When you keep a journal, you know that you just need to write about what you did that day and how you felt about it, so no one’s scared of writing journal entries. In the same way, if you have certain standards of how to summarize all the materials you have, you’re able to write well. Anyone can get their hands on information these days. All you have to do to write well is find what you need and summarize it well.
Before you do all of that, it’s important to write out your thoughts first, and to keep revising as you add more information. In the revision process, the information you are writing about has to become yours. Otherwise, it ends up being someone else’s thoughts, pasted onto your own writing. Presidential speeches are the same way. First, you write a draft of the speech and start revising from there. And after a while, only the major idea from your first draft remains in the completely transformed speech.
It’s better if you have plenty of your own ideas and thoughts. Sometimes it comes from your experiences or your realizations. How thoughtful your writing is depends on how much time you spend thinking, reading, learning, discussing, observing, and making notes. Writing seems like a technical occupation, but when you actually look into it, it’s a process of forming your own thoughts. So it’s difficult, and it can’t transcend your standard of living. If your life is a mess, your writing can’t be great. In short, you can write well when you live well.
Gandhi’s epitaph says, “My life is my message”. When writing reaches that point, it becomes meaningful. There is a limit to writing only with technical skills, and it doesn’t touch people’s hearts.
Earlier, you said the work of speechwriters is functional and therefore different from pure literature. But from what you’ve just said, it seems that they’re related. Writer Kim Yeon-su recently wrote a book titled The Work of a Novelist, in which he said that he is reborn as a new human being in the process of writing.
That’s right. What I mean is that in the working levels of a company, you don’t need to go so far, because writing is possible on a technical level.
History moved on from oral to written tradition. But it seems that words have made a comeback. Lectures and video clips are popular these days.
That seems very natural. I think it’s best to write as if you’re talking. There are many advantages of writing. But in the process, we tend to get stuck in the frameworks of writing formats. Sometimes when people bring reports they’ve written, the reports don’t make sense. When you ask them to talk about what they wrote, it’s much easier to understand. That’s how you need to write. If you attempt to write more elegantly and start including all kinds of stuff, your point gets distorted. It becomes harder to understand. Speeches are written to be spoken. Sometimes, I would make a speech, record it, and try writing that down. When you ask one person to write down their thoughts on paper and tell it to the person next to him, and ask the person who heard the idea to write it down, the latter’s writing is much more vivid. It is much easier and clearer to talk about a certain topic than to write about it. However, free speech tends to be less polished and has many more holes in logic. So in the process of revision, you have to polish your writing.
What book would you say is “the book” in your life?
Thomas More’s Utopia. I’ll be studying it forever. When I worked at Daewoo Securities, I was completely fascinated with the company culture, so I thought about spending the rest of my life as an expert on company culture. I believed it was possible for a company to be productive, efficient, and full of happy employees. To that end, company culture and communication are both important. And by communication, I don’t just mean words and writings, but also communication of emotions and information. The highest level of communication is sharing. Through the sharing of information and emotions, people begin to participate and take charge of their jobs, and when they take charge, their work life becomes enjoyable.
You’ve published Writing for Presidents and Writing for CEOs. What’s your next project?
When I was doing lecture tours, I discovered that a lot of college students are concerned about writing. So if I do end up writing another book, I want to do something on writing for college students.
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