By Tim Hayes


Speechwriters, political pundits, and columnists have been hard at work combing over such recent high-profile events as President Obama’s State of the Union address, the acceptance remarks made by Senator-elect Scott Brown of Massachusetts, and even Robert Downey Jr.’s sarcastic quips at the Golden Globes.


But I’ve been more interested in another piece of writing that may have had a more immediate impact on a lot more people – namely, Conan O’Brien’s statement rejecting NBC’s proposal to move his “Tonight Show” to after midnight to make room for a 30-minute show featuring Jay Leno.


When you stop and read this letter, it truly is a well-crafted statement of pride, defiance, and guts, with a healthy dose of thumb-in-the-eye, pie-in-the-face, good-guy vs. bad-guy, show-biz humor and spunk.  Here’s what I mean.


First, O’Brien frames the issue in its proper perspective: In the last few days, I’ve been getting a lot of sympathy calls, and I want to start by making it clear that no one should waste a second feeling sorry for me. For 17 years, I’ve been getting paid to do what I love most and, in a world with real problems, I’ve been absurdly lucky.”


He then moves into a chronological recitation of facts leading up to the source of the conflict, NBC’s need to unfairly scapegoat his show for the network’s overall poor ratings: “After only seven months, with my Tonight Show in its infancy, NBC has decided to react to their terrible difficulties in prime-time by making a change in their long-established late night schedule.”


Next, O’Brien defends the history and legacy of the Tonight Show against the network’s untenable short-term solution: “I sincerely believe that delaying the Tonight Show into the next day to accommodate another comedy program will seriously damage what I consider to be the greatest franchise in the history of broadcasting. The Tonight Show at 12:05 simply isn’t the Tonight Show. Also, if I accept this move I will be knocking the Late Night show, which I inherited from David Letterman and passed on to Jimmy Fallon, out of its long-held time slot. That would hurt the other NBC franchise that I love, and it would be unfair to Jimmy.”


And lastly he fires a final parting shot to solidify the villain in this skirmish and to express pride in his team’s performance, even though he acknowledges that their ship will sink: “My hope is that NBC and I can resolve this quickly so that my staff, crew, and I can do a show we can be proud of, for a company that values our work.”


So from an opening couched in humility to a clear depiction of who’s to blame, and from a bold denunciation of an unacceptable proposal to a proud defense of his production’s record, O’Brien’s statement to the network stands as a solidly crafted, well-reasoned piece of writing.  And even though he lost his show and went through a very public embarrassment, a $40 million-plus check to just go away ain’t all bad.


Just goes to show what a well-written letter can accomplish.


Copyright 2010 Tim Hayes Consulting