The 5 roles of a speechwriter that may surprise you

Speechwriters do more than string nice-sounding words together. They act as journalists, humorists, psychotherapists and more.

Woody Allen said 90 percent of being a success was turning up. I’d say you’re 50 percent of the way to becoming a professional speechwriter if you read every speech you write out loud. You’d be surprised how many people don’t.

I spend a lot of time searching for texts of speeches on the Internet. A lot of speeches from the CEOs of banks, international organizations and insurance companies are online, and you soon realize no one could have read them out loud before they delivered them—the speeches are so verbose and dreary.

I’ve given it careful thought, and I’ve concluded that I play five different roles as a speechwriter:

1. Journalist

I trained as a journalist. I worked for The Guardian and The Daily Telegraph.

The most important skill of a journalist is to be able to research a story. My clients don’t have the time to spend five hours looking deeply into a subject.

A newspaper has the resources to support a journalist. I have reference books, the equivalent of a cuttings library, and a large collection of jokes and stories, which work well in speeches.

It means experience counts for something.

2. Fantasist

Most jobs require a little bit of madness, and a speechwriter needs to be a fantasist.

I’m always puzzled by the number of people who accept reality as it is. The Italian sociologist Pareto said you could divide the world into two types: people who like routine, are steady, unimaginative and conservative, and those who are constantly preoccupied with the possibility of something new.

It’s the job of the speechwriter, with a brooding and creative temperament, to manipulate the unimaginative because we’re in the business of reconstructing the world with ideas.

3. Humorist

Speechwriters also need to be humorists.

I studied French at university. One of my favorite quotations comes from the French writer Rabelais:

“Mieux est de ris que de larmes escrire
Pour ce que rire est le propre de l’homme.”

This translates to: “It’s better to write laughs than tears because laughter is what being human is all about.”

What’s the point of being boring? What’s the point of complaining?

If you want to persuade people to do something new, it helps if you can make them laugh.

4. Psychotherapist

The fourth role of a speechwriter is that of a psychotherapist.

Speechwriting is a very intimate process. You have to get under your client’s skin.

When we speak in public, we reveal a lot more about ourselves than we realize. When a best man wants to tell obscene jokes at a wedding, it tells you something about his psyche. I help him conceal this.

When a father of the bride says he doesn’t know what to say, it’s my job to probe and encourage him to express feelings he may be too shy to admit, but will give great significance to the day.

5. Funambulist

Lastly, a speechwriter is a funambulist.

For many, the prospect of giving a speech is like walking a tightrope. It fills them with dread. The speechwriter has to walk for the speaker, and can’t deviate from the path he sets.

One of my heroes is Philippe Petit, the French funambulist. He was inspired to begin his great project when he saw a picture in 1968 of the Twin Towers, which were going to be built in New York.

He decided to put a wire between the towers and walk it.

The story of how he did it—which made a great book and film—epitomizes how an idea becomes a vision and then a reality.

The speechwriter supports the speaker, like a balancing pole assists the wire walker. We’re there to add stability and improve coordination.

I’m lucky. I don’t get to do just one job, but five.

Brian Jenner runs the European Speechwriters Network, an association that brings together international communicators to promote the craft and profession of speechwriting. A version of this article originally appeared on Professionally Speaking.

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