Here's the introduction to my new column collection, downloadable for free at the website of Vital Speeches of the Day and the Professional Speechwriters Association. —DM
My first journalism assignment straight out of college was as the “Speechwriters’ Worst Nightmares” columnist for a weekly eight-page publication called Speechwriter’s Newsletter. My process for generating this column was simple enough. I went down the Speechwriter’s Newsletter subscriber rolls—about 600 souls, if I remember right—and called people up and asked them if they could think of any professional “nightmares” that they wished to share with the readership.
I was surprised and impressed by three things:
First, no speechwriter was ever stumped for a nightmare. The speechwriter’s job—with its simultaneous anonymity requirement and proximity to power (so close but so far away)—is inherently absurd, and lends itself to unpredictable circumstances and moments of madness. The question was always: Which horror story would the speechwriter tell? (Many speechwriters were good for several columns each, and some might have been able to write a weekly nightmare column of their own.)
Secondly, speechwriters are good storytellers, so as for crafting their troubles into compelling narratives—they’d done it for me, probably debuting the yarn at the family dinner table. It was a doable assignment for a green journalist. I just had to press “record.”
Finally, speechwriters wanted a chance to tell their stories to someone, anyone, who might actually understand. Knowing my column would be read by other speechwriters, they confessed so willingly and at such length that the problem was editing the column down. (And dealing with the occasional call-backs on deadline day. “Scratch that! I thought of a better one!”)
I’ve traveled far afield journalistically since those days—covered politics and art, travel and sports and ballet and murder. But I’ve always stayed in touch with speechwriters. I like speechwriters for the same reason I like all kinds of abnormal people: They can’t pretend that they’ve got everything figured out, that life has unfolded as they’d planned. They’re improvisers, economically, ethically, morally and intellectually. And improvisers are more fun to write about—and to drink with.
I hope their eccentric subject justifies the eclectic nature of these short essays about the few things I think I know for sure about speechwriting. From columns at Vital Speeches’ website and posts on my personal blog Writing Boots, these pieces are lashed together exactly the way all speechwriting wisdom is: Client by client. Assignment by assignment. Dilemma by dilemma. And nightmare by nightmare.