I’ve focused almost my entire career on speechwriting for senior government officials. When I left the public sector to launch my own speechwriting firm last year, I almost immediately started receiving inquiries from journalists and freelance writers interested in learning more about speechwriting. In this article, I’ll tell you about how I became a professional speechwriter and share some tips for dipping your toe into the profession.
I was fresh out of college and living with two roommates in a tiny old walkup apartment in Manhattan’s Lower East Side. I hadn’t taken my first step in the professional world, but was reaching out for advice and job leads.
One morning, I got an email from a friend of a friend. He informed me that the new governor of a very large state had already cycled through a handful of speechwriters in his first few months and desperately needed someone for the job. I had some political experience from summers growing up in New York and took quite a few writing-intensive courses during college. I knew a little bit about politics and a little bit about writing, but I had never written a major speech for myself or anyone else.
I figured I didn’t have a shot at the job. I was 22 years old and had virtually no relevant experience. But since email is free, I figured there was no downside to sending in my resume. I emailed it along with a cover letter that put a brave spin on my inexperience, and then promptly forgot all about it.
A couple of weeks later, I got a phone call from the governor’s communications director. She received my resume and liked it enough to request a writing sample. Three days later, I was on a flight to meet with the governor and was offered the job on the spot. I didn’t even have enough time to fly home and pack up before moving and diving headfirst into my new job.
Like that, I was a professional speechwriter. It took a stroke of good luck, an employer desperate to fill a slot, and a little bit of a knack for decent writing. And aside from a few detours, it’s pretty much all I’ve done since then.
After spending several years writing on Capitol Hill and the U.S. Department of Justice, I’m now president of Inkwell Strategies, a Washington, DC-based firm that specializes in speechwriting and message development. Frequently I’ll get an email from someone looking for advice on how to break into speechwriting. Here are some of the things I usually tell them:
– The first speech is the hardest. As is the case for many niche professions, most speechwriting jobs require significant previous experience. This creates a classic chicken and egg conundrum: how do you get that previous experience if there aren’t many entry level opportunities? Your best bet is to write a few speeches for free or on spec to build a small portfolio. When I’m hiring a writer, it doesn’t make much difference to me whether they previously wrote for a Fortune 500 CEO or a town councilman. If the writing is good, I’ll take notice.
– Great writing for speech is different than great writing for paper. I’ve heard from a number of journalists who have tried to make the leap to speechwriting and found it surprisingly difficult. The longer, more complex phrases and sentence construction you might find in literature doesn’t translate when spoken. If you’re new to speechwriting, the most important thing you can do is stand up and read your draft aloud. If you stumble on it, your boss will, too.
– Simple is always better. TV shows like The West Wing might give the impression that speechwriting is all about sweeping, grand phrases. Yes, there are rare instances when big words are appropriate. But the number one trap for novice speechwriters is writing “too big.” If you’re writing the president’s next State of the Union address, by all means break out the thesaurus. Otherwise, stick to clear, simple language, expressed in short sentences that are easy for the speaker to deliver and the audience to follow. You’ll notice that even history’s most famous rhetorical flourishes are usually comprised of concise language artfully composed.
– Read first. Write second. Whether you write for an elected official, corporate CEO or as a freelancer, you’ll be called on to write speeches on a wide variety of topics. No speechwriter can be an expert on everything. When an assignment comes in, give yourself at least a day or two to gather and read as much material as you can put your hands on. The depth of your research will depend on the scope of the project. If you feel that the amount of research required will leave you with little time for writing, consider working with a researcher or asking your client for assistance with research.
– Beware of burnout. A colleague who wrote for President Clinton once described speechwriting to me as “the best dead-end job in the world.” It can be extremely exhilarating and rewarding, but at a certain point, most professional speechwriters hit a wall. Churning out constant content is emotionally – and even physically – exhausting. I once calculated that during my career as a U.S. Senate staffer, I wrote more than 1 million words in the Congressional Record. That meant staying constantly wired to the news and issues of the day, developing an in-depth knowledge of major policy initiatives, and burning through quite a few keyboards. It’s a great ride, but few can stay on it for long.
Some have raised concerns that the modern media, which can value sound bites and 140-character Tweets over thoughtful prose, could prove fatal to the speechwriting industry. But legendary speechwriter Peggy Noonan recently opined that on the contrary, backlash to this “CliffsNotes” version of political debate is creating new demand for deeper dialogue. As she put it, “speeches are back.” I’m inclined to agree. If so, it’s great news for current and aspiring speechwriters alike.