A Singular Profession: The Strange Life Of A Freelance Speechwriter

A Singular Profession: The Strange Life Of A Freelance Speechwriter

A little over two decades ago, when I flung my medically insured/index pensioned/well-paid government job to the winds, and hung up my “speechwriter” shingle, my colleagues emailed their congratulations, always mentioning how “brave” I was. I took that to be code for how “stupid” I was.

“What makes him think he can write speeches and who hires freelance speechwriters anyway?” I could hear them asking. The answer to the first question was simple: I had worked in communications in one form or another for many years. Had I taken any speechwriting courses? Well no, there weren’t any back then (there are now, by the way).

But I had written many speeches, vetted others, and read enough of them that I knew I could do a better job. Seems a trifle arrogant in retrospect, but such was my thinking at the time.

Yet there was still the question of whether a market existed for a freelance writer whose niche would consist solely of speech writing. I had no hard evidence. I remember reading at the time a startling statistic (which I can no longer source) suggesting that every
 24 hours in the United States alone, 100,000 speeches are given.

It seemed an unlikely number. Surely not that many. Not every day.

Yet, when you think about it — in every town, city, and village, in every office and government building, and in thousands of hotel conference rooms – speeches and presentations are being given. Seven days a week. 365 days a year. From that perspective, perhaps 100,000 is on the low side.

But I knew something else important about the speech game: very few people wrote their own. In fact, I knew no one in either business or politics that did so. They didn’t have the time, the inclination, or the talent. They turned to professionals, either in-house or through PR agencies.

And I hoped to convince them to turn to me, the freelance speechwriter, as well.

Fast forward some 20 years. I have now been hired to write speeches for CEOs, Cabinet Ministers, and heads of NGOs, at major venues all over the world.

Does that mean I hob knob with all these very important people, travelling the world and staying in five star hotels?

Sad to say, not even once. Heck, in most cases I don’t even get to meet the speaker, and in many cases they don’t even know I am writing their speech.

So remember: don’t get in this game for the glamour or the power. There ain’t none. The only thing that travels the world is our speech copy as we press the Send button.

Not to discourage anyone, but sometimes the writing process can be just a bloody grind – where you grit your teeth a little at cranking out a speech for a disinterested client to be delivered to a cynical audience.  As Barton Swaim, former speechwriter to then Governor of South Carolina Mark Sanford put it – in his memoir The Speechwriter -“Sometimes I felt no more attachment to the words I was writing than a dog has to its vomit.”

On the other hand, like a journalist, I get to write about every subject under the sun. And, I can be interested in just about anything — at least for the two to three to four days it takes me to complete a speech. This incidentally has a side benefit of making me a hit at cocktail parties. I can pontificate on just about anything — for a little while at least.

And with those clients I get to talk to in person, well they become professional intimates as I get to share their concerns and metaphorically hold their hands. And, if they like the first speech I write for them, I have them for life. (Just remember that this, in corporate time, is somewhat akin to dog time – about seven years.)

Speechwriters can’t really lay claim to making policy, but sometimes a speech is its first public articulation – and as a result certainly “nuances” the policy process. And, you take a certain perverse pride when on the very rare occasion you hear “your” words being repeated in a 15-second clip on the 10 o’clock television news. Unless, of course, your carefully chosen prose, full of cadence and care, gets mangled by the speaker who only looked at the text a few minutes before the camera lights came on.

But all in all, when the words are humming, and the topic is really interesting, and the client is motivated, speech writing can be the coolest gig in town.

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