Avoiding the Plague of Plagiarism

Melania Trump at RNC

I feel bad for Melania Trump. During the opening night of the 2016 Republican National Convention, she delivered a speech that in part had been delivered 7.5 years before by another candidate’s wife at a presidential convention. Today, Meredith McIver took the blame for lifting two passages from a 2008 speech by Michelle Obama. Now, that’s the only thing people will recall about Trump’s speech — the perception that she lied.

Political candidates — and their spouses — rarely write their own speeches, although Trump claims otherwise. At that level, they rely on professional speechwriters like us to take their ideas and messages and craft an accurate, original address. For Trump, she’s publicly paying the price for a professional speechwriter(s)’ mistake — plagiarism.

With the advent of online sources to help teachers and professors catch students submitting unoriginal work, it is now easier than ever to uncover plagiarism faux paus. This is how Jarrett Hill confirmed the similarities between Trump’s speech and Michelle Obama’s 2008 Democratic National Convention.

Of course we assume that if you’re a high-profile figure like Trump, you should be more cautious and avoid plagiarism. You definitely shouldn’t become known for it.

When developing speeches or blog posts or any content that will be publicly available, communicators should be wary and overcautious to avoid the embarrassment of plagiarism. The trustworthiness of a speaker, author or organization can be compromised when plagiarism is uncovered, and it’s hard to repair that kind of damage to a reputation.

Similarity in language can be hard to avoid, but there are three basic rules to keep in mind when developing speeches and articles to avoid plagiarizing existing content.

  1. Attribute, Attribute, Attribute. Weaving others’ thoughts into our writing is a common communicator tactic. It’s OK to repeat an amazing quote or phrase — as long as you indicate who said it first and make it clear to your audience that you are not claiming the quote as your own. Even if you need to attribute a quote or phrase to someone unknown to your audience, like a pearl of wisdom from your mother, it’s better to be transparent than get caught being dishonest and misrepresenting your content.
  2. Cite, Cite, Cite. Statistics and data are helpful in supporting your message or argument, but you need to tell audiences where that information came from. Citations, even as simple as “according to this organization in their important study last year,” tell listeners or readers — or reporters — where they can find the information you’ve referenced. The last thing you want is a site like PolitiFact telling your audiences that your “pants are on fire.”
  3. Be Original, Be Original, Be Original. At times, we’ve all looked to other writers for inspiration when facing our own writing assignments. It’s smart for communicators to know what is already out there on a topic or position. At a certain point, though, you need to put the inspiration aside and try to write an original draft of your speech or article. As we’ve seen, borrowing language or phrases from other public content opens the door for plagiarism issues. Swapping out words to make it seem different from its original source still can be perceived as plagiarism. The safest approach for your organization or the person for whom you are ghostwriting is to keep the ideas and their presentation as original as possible. This also will ensure your content is in the voice of your author or speaker and not anyone else’s.

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