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Do You Confess?

When I was at the Speechwriter’s Conference in Washington DC some years ago I was struck by how many speechwriters were able to proclaim loudly and proudly that they were “so-and-so’s” speechwriter. Well not quite so ostentatiously as that perhaps. That might not have been their title on the org chart. But if they were called something else – it was clear that was their function.Some of the University types had to concede that the speechwriting job was cloaked under other titles like “Executive Assistant”. Not out of any embarrassment that they used speechwriters to help them with their remarks, but rather more for internal political reasons. “What do you mean you spend scarce university dollars on the services of a speechwriter?”- that sort of thing.

Freelancers run into a similar problem. I can’t count the number of times I have been told in slightly hushed tones that when I interview internal staff for research purposes I shouldn’t actually say that I was working on the boss’ speech. This is passing strange of course. If I was working on the annual report – or a quarterly report to stockholders – or a Memorandum to Cabinet for that matter – all for the signature for the person in charge – no one would bat an eyelash. But say you are writing their speech and you get the “you mean he doesn’t write his own?” look.

I find this to be the case most especially in the public sector. Private Sector clients seem to have no such hang-ups. Paradoxically perhaps, those who are most articulate, the most engaging on the stage – the ones who don’t really need a speechwriter – are the ones most likely to use one. And why wouldn’t they? Speech writing is very labour intensive and their hourly rate is far higher than they would ever have to pay even the priciest of contract writers. So in most cases it makes no sense for them to write their own from scratch.

So we freelancers tend to be the “elephant in the room”. Our clients love us, but they don’t necessarily want to acknowledge our existence. That gives us a major marketing headache. Although I can say I have written speeches for a particular government agency or a corporate client – in most instances I am constrained from identifying my speakers by name or event. It is an unwritten rule that you don’t “out” your clients. At least it is my unwritten rule.

So how to you sell your services if you can’t share with prospective clients specific speeches you have written or worked on? Well there is good news on two fronts.

First, you can simply ask for permission of an existing client. Notwithstanding my comments above, some are happy for you to do so. One client – private sector of course – urged me to share because he felt it gave his speeches a second life after they were first given.

The other piece of good news is that – except for jobs I am bidding on – I am very rarely asked to produce speech writing samples to prove my bona fides. Potential customers just aren’t interested and they don’t have time to read speeches you have written for others. They have likely checked out your credentials from other sources and you seal the deal (here comes Colin’s standard harangue) by letting them know you will make their project your passion for the life of the speech assignment. And of course, get the first one under your belt, and you become the CEO’s path of least resistance for speech work. Why would he/she go anywhere else if they liked what you did for them last time? As a result speechwriters tend to have their clients for the long haul. You tend to lose them only if they die – in the corporate sense – and sometimes in the literal sense!