14 secrets of successful freelance speechwriters

A look at what it takes to succeed as a freelance speechwriter.

I also know lots of corporate types fantasize about going out on their own. Before you decide to make that move, I wanted to share tips I’ve garnered from long friendships with a number of successful freelance speechwriters, and things I’ve done right and wrong in my own freelance writing career.

I hope this list helps you think more specifically about whether you have what it takes—or can get what it takes. Here goes:

Be famous. Get yourself published in national magazines and important trade journals. Or write a book. CEOs are status-oriented; they’ll not only be more likely to hire you if they think you’re a hotshot, they’ll treat you with more respect along the way. (Machiavellian hint: If you publish one article a year in a magazine or newspaper, you can say you “write regularly” for magazines and newspapers.)

Offer full services. The busiest freelancers I know know a lot. They know all the top speaking forums. They know how to create executive communication strategies, and they’re eager to expand their role beyond scribe, to communication counselor. They know how to coach CEOs in public speaking—and when they get in over their heads, they know the best speaking coaches to call. (Hint: Those speaking coaches are Virgil Scudder, Tom Mucciolo and Patricia Fripp, any of whom might be best, depending on the personal style of the executive. Get to know these people.)

Be everywhere. Used to be Speechwriter’s Newsletter was the only place for a freelance speechwriter to get his or her name in front of hiring executives. Now there’s MyRagan.com, there’s the Speechwriters Conference, and, if you’re serious, there’s your own blog. Be everywhere. All the time. (Hint: Doubling as your professional Web site, your blog will be a great place to express ideas that no one will immediately buy, and a good time-killer while you’re waiting for call-backs.)

Have a specialty or five: You should be constantly aware of what industries or sectors you’ve written for and which you’re sincerely interested in. Also, are you particularly adept at writing presentations for town hall meetings with employees, or speeches to analysts? Then be ready to say so!

Warm up your cold calls. If you’re gonna call people you don’t know, try to find companies you truly admire or have some kind of connection with. Your dad’s a pilot, pitch the airlines. You write about global warming, pitch oil companies that acknowledge it. You admire a political candidate, pitch the campaign headquarters. If you can’t demonstrate a personal connection, selling freelance writing services is like selling appendices door to door: Unless the person is having an attack at that exact moment, she looks at you like you’re crazy.

Never let ’em see you sweat. If you can’t maintain a cool exterior so that prospective clients see you as enthusiastic but not desperate, you’re toast. Freelance speechwriting requires nerve, lots of meditation and some acting ability.

Conversely: If you want the job, get it. Every once in a while, an assignment will come along that you know you’re right for, and that you know will turn into more work. Do not play it cool. Reach across the table with your eyeballs, and—also with your eyeballs—grab the client by the lapels and say, “I will do this assignment for you, because I am perfect for it.”

Have a personality. CEOs don’t want to hire Hunter S. Thompson, but they don’t want to hire Larry Thompson from accounting, either. You want people to think you’re the luckiest nut in the world—and they’re incredibly lucky to get you. Play up your larks—your motorcycle adventures, your oddball journalistic assignments, your 1964 International Harvester Scout “service truck” that says “Murray’s Freelance Writing” on the side. Many corporate types go into freelancing for freedom, and then they turn into stone.

Don’t let it happen! And finally, the most important freelancer’s tip there is: Be faster than the writers who are better than you, and better than the writers who are faster than you.

Other freelancers, other ideas
Here are a few other ideas we’ve gathered along the way:

To read the full story, log in.
Become a Ragan Insider member to read this article and all other archived content.
Sign up today

Already a member? Log in here.
Learn more about Ragan Insider.