The Perilous Life Cycle of the Freelance Speechwriter

If the stock market is crashing and you have no idea of what the American election will do to your bank balance you best give it a little thought. A national election can have unsettling affects on your personal economy, and you just may have to kiss your heretofore established contacts and contracts good bye. Yikes!What we should all be asking ourselves – on a regular basis I might add – is this. How do we avoid becoming road kill on the freelance highway every time a government changes – a multi-national collapses – the Dow Jones dives – or the US dollar takes a beating? Since it is unlikely Lou Dobbs will ever bemoan the outsourcing of speech writing work to India I give you a quick marketing 101 refresher.

Our first dilemma is this. We’ve got a ton of writing samples to show the world as we push our wares anew. But if you have been reading the last few issues of SN, you know the case that has been made for speech writer discretion. In return for good pay, we promise good words and good faith. Faith that we won’t “out” our clients, past or present. So, now what?

If you are not sure if you are crossing the line by sharing a speech, Plan ‘A’ is to ask. It’s interesting. My best and most confident speakers invariably say “yes”. As long as I am not selling state secrets, they are happy to let me market away to my heart’s content. My less secure speakers tend to want to hold to the pretence that they wrote every word delivered. Go figure.

But be warned, if you do ask, and you get a “no”, that’s it. You can’t unring the bell. That speech is now dead to you, forever and ever amen.

Plan ‘B ‘ is to invoke a “don’t ask, don’t tell” policy. If you can reasonably mask the name of the speaker, and the name and date of the event, then you can judiciously share some speech work with a prospective client, especially if the speech is over two years old, or the speaker has long since retired. Time can often render confidentiality a moot point. Sometimes it’s just a matter of cutting off the cover sheet and perhaps the opening identifying paragraphs of the event that will do the trick. Remember, it’s not the content that is confidential, just the client.

There is a category of speeches where client confidentiality is rarely an issue. That is if you are openly bidding on speech work in the public sector. If you write for government officials – elected or otherwise – then providing speech samples is expected. What you can’t do is share speeches you write for politicians in their “vote for me” mode. Unless of course you are prepared to fall on your sword the minute they get turfed from office.

Look, I have landed very few speech contracts on the basis of old speech samples. There is a better way to go about the task of marketing yourself. The cliché about people doing business with people they like and trust is no cliché for the freelance speech writer. When potential clients are considering you, they need to see the whites of your eyes, literally and metaphorically. On more than one occasion – I kid you not – I have flown three thousand miles for a twenty minute coffee interview with a Director of Public Affairs so they could see the cut of my jib first hand. And six months later the phone rings and I am asked if I am available.

That’s the thing about our trade. When they need you, they really need you. Like now! That gives you great leverage and great staying power over the long haul. If they like your first speech, you likely have them for a very long time. You become their path of least resistance. I tell my long term clients that I am so much part of their corporate memory and history that they can’t possibly get rid of me. I know where all the old policies are buried.

It helps too to have a little passion for your craft. Unlike sincerity, passion is not something you can fake. I once beat out two screen writers for a job on this very notion. After I started working with the CEO for a while, I asked him why he picked me. He said “You showed you were passionate about what you did. The script writers made me feel that they were taking this “gig” between movie scripts. And they were not going to make my passion, their passion”. Show the passion and they will be eating out of your hands.