My novelist mother once wrote in a journal, “Am a writer. Get to call myself that because I write.”
That’s kind of true of speechwriters, who get to call themselves that because they write speeches.
As the head of the Professional Speechwriters Association, once a month I talk to a writer who wants to become a speechwriter, and wants to know how. I had a call like that just yesterday, in fact.
Does the head of the National Manufacturing Association take calls from people wanting to one day own a factory? But I like sharing my wisdom with strangers, because strangers are the only people who listen to me anymore. And besides, it feels like a good business move. After all, if I could convert every writer to a speechwriter, I’d be rich! So I happily oblige, and I usually enjoy the chat. Mostly.
But not completely. Because these calls do usually force me to say disagreeable things to the writer, knowing I’ll never get a second chance to make a favorable impression.
If the writer is young, I’m obligated to say that generally, people who can afford a speechwriter are much older than you, and generally would prefer someone older than you to write the wise words that they have been invited to say.
It seems so rude to tell a young person that. I would so much prefer the young person learn the unfairnesses of life from someone else. Why do I always have to be the bad guy?
And my message is even more discouraging if the person is older!
Because then, I have to tell a mid-career professional that they have to start at the bottom, like a kid.
Because no one should really pay a writer money to write a speech—not speechwriter money, anyway, which can be like $10K for a 20-minute yak—unless that person is actually a speechwriter. Am I right?
I could tell the person they ought to join the Professional Speechwriters Association. And I could tell them they should attend our twice-annual Speechwriting School—or if they’re in a hurry, even our Speechwriting School On Demand.
And they should do both of those things. But only if they’re serious enough to be willing to do the next thing:
Which is to find a leader who they admire who gives speeches or who wants to, but who can’t afford to pay a speechwriter. Someone running for office, the head of a local nonprofit or a small company, who would give you permission to divulge your ghostwriting relationship to prospective speechwriting clients.
As I’m mouthing the words into the telephone, it always seems like such a long shot that the writer will put in the effort and have the luck required to land such pro bono client who will speak the writer’s inspired words. Let alone, that the speech clips that result will actually land the newbie a speechwriting gig.
Yes, I’ve seen it happen, where someone wants to be a speechwriter badly enough that they take our courses, earn their PSA badge, find those pro bono clients and work their way into an independent speechwriting practice. But I can count those success stories on one hand.
The best and most common way to get into speechwriting is on your back and kicking—usually, when you’re working in another communications position inside the organization. Hey the boss needs a speech by Friday, can you write something? I’ll give it a shot! And of course, speechwriting not being Mandarin, a good writer figures out how to be a good enough speechwriter mostly by doing it under the gun. (And often subsequently learns foundational principles, finer points and a rhetorical vocabulary by joining the PSA and attending Speechwriting School and other training sessions.)
I love talking to writers who want to be speechwriters. I just hate what I know I’m going to have to tell them.
Anyway, I’ve got another call on the books next week. I think I’ll send her this column, just to get the hard part of the conversation out of the way upfront.
Speechwriter, what would you tell her? Put your advice in the Comments section, so she gets the benefit from your wisdom, too.