Survey says: Speechwriting never goes out of style

Speechwriters love the pay and the proximity to power, but the work is mixed and the future is uncertain, according to a Professional Speechwriters Association survey.

Tonight’s the State of the Union Address, and today is the one day of the year when professional speechwriters emerge into the sunlight of cable news punditry, to bask for a day in their own importance as shapers of policy, articulators of arguments and supporters of leaders. And everyone vaguely wonders, “What kind of people are these, anyway?”

Today I’m here to answer that question, perhaps as authoritatively as it’s ever been answered, with the results of the first survey of the global speechwriting profession.

First, I should say: I go back with these people. The very first business conference I ever attended in my first job out of college was a conference of speechwriters. I was assigned to work in the cloakroom.

So now, as the founder and executive director of the Professional Speechwriters Association, I can reliably interpret the findings of our first membership survey (co-conducted with Gotham Ghostwriters): Although the set and costumes have been rearranged—speechwriters no longer smoke pipes, nor research their speeches by leafing through quotation books, nor wear cloaks—the players remain and the script is unchanged.

See for yourself. According to the PSA survey:

Speechwriters are older than their colleagues in public relations, more likely to be male, better educated—and better paid. The typical speechwriter is a 51-year-old man with a master’s degree. More than half of the speechwriters surveyed make more than $100K, with 23 percent pulling in more than $150K (and half of those making over $200K).

Speechwriters found their way into their work through serendipity. Some speechwriters claimed a method to their professional madness, with one saying he joined the business “to fuse my love of writing with my love of policy/politics.”

In a more typical answer to the question, “Why did you become a speechwriter in the first place?” one PSA member wrote that he “stumbled into the job—CEO needed a speech.”

Speechwriters love their work, and hate their work.

Asked what they like most about speechwriting, speechwriters said, “shaping public debates,” “finding and telling stories,” “intellectual and creative challenge and reward,” “the variety of topics and amazing people that I get to work with,” and “the silent hours when I through writing try to understand and share something important.”

What do speechwriters like least about the job? Solitude, short deadlines, slow workflow, lawyers, leaders’ indifference. Speechwriters resent clients who “don’t care about content” and bureaucrats who care too much.

“I have to contend with constant micro-managing by people who see risk lurking in every corner and are afraid of letting the CEO take any kind of position,” one speechwriter said. “They also have no feel for what constitutes good writing yet exert a huge influence over the process.”

Speechwriters fear for the future … Speechwriters feel threatened by new challenges, such as the increasing use of the Q-and-A format and other informal presentation techniques to replace formal speeches. And they face timeless ones, such as quantifying the strategic value of their work and “the everlasting suspicion of rhetoric.”

… and speechwriters envision a brighter future. Now that they’re getting organized for the first time in a global association, they have very specific requests of their new Professional Speechwriters Association: They told us they don’t want another rigid structure in their lives, nor an elaborate guild or union, but straight-up professional development and an expanded network through online and in-person networking programs.

Speechwriters are a joy and a pleasure to serve, because they’re the most erudite, intense, joyful people in the communication profession. They’re also the most frustrated. Now that they have a platform to organize, I hope they’ll realize their potential as powerful actors in their organizations and in society.

Yes, I go back with these people. Now we’ll go forward together.

Journalist David Murray is executive director of the Professional Speechwriters Association. He’s also editor of Vital Speeches of the Day magazine.

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