Scriptwriting for Authenticity


Scriptwriting is a key piece of my job. I absolutely love it.

Vanguard is privileged to support a government client’s annual event designed to showcase positive stories about behavioral health. Two years ago, the event was scheduled just three days after the world lost Robin Williams. And the event host — actor James Wolk — had worked closely with Robin on the show “The Crazy Ones.”

Knowing that we couldn’t possibly hold this event in L.A. and not address the loss of this industry icon, I searched for the right words for James to say.

Most important of all, these words had to be authentic.

At the time, we were still learning the circumstances of Robin’s death. Based on news reports, we believed that behavioral health issues were likely a factor, but with all of the experience we have communicating about these issues, we were careful not to make assumptions.

I struggled with what to say and how to say it. I thought about the event’s audience of entertainment professionals and behavioral health leaders. What were they ready to hear? What would be palatable when this loss was still so raw and full of questions? What was the right way to honor this man in a room full of people who were gathered to discuss the very issues he may have been experiencing?

What saved the day and the integrity of the script was this: I put myself in the shoes of Robin’s daughter. What words would touch her, but not offend or exploit? I also put myself in James’ shoes: What words would be meaningful and compassionate to deliver in a room full of Robin’s friends and colleagues?

In scriptwriting, there’s always content that is considered mandatory. All clients have agendas, and messaging to support those agendas. But in times of crisis or grieving, or just in the absence of information, considering the receiver of those messages is so important. It’s a key tenet of social marketing: Know your audience and what they need.

In this experience, a hard-hitting narrative about those in emotional crisis asking for help would have been inappropriate and blameful. Drawing conclusions that weren’t there may have made the front pages, but that was never our goal. I guess it goes back to reporting 101: Even in scriptwriting, report only what you know to be true.

In the end, with the help of James’ stories about Robin, we followed our own authentic emotions — and a good set of guidelines for talking about behavioral health issues in any circumstance. Scripts, when delivered with heart, can be excellent teachers.

Here is how James opened the 2014 Voice Awards talking about his friend Robin Williams.

Also read
When It Comes to Mental Health, Words Really Can Hurt