Being a speechwriter is great, but how do you land such a gig?
I’ve been a professional speechwriter for more than a decade and have written for heads of state, international organizations and more than a few weddings and funerals.
Competitions and salaries for speechwriters are high—certainly higher than most writing gigs. Experienced speechwriters earn more than $100,000 annually.
Speechwriters also have the advantage of access: access to top decision-makers, access to those who shape policies and ideas, and access to people who want to change the world. It’s just a matter of getting your foot in the door.
Unlike most occupations, there’s no school that teaches speechwriting. There’s no place to trade your life savings for a piece of paper that will land you an unpaid stint as an intern. Although live and online speechwriting courses exist, there’s no Harvard for speechwriters.
At the risk of putting myself and my colleagues out of business, I’ll let you in on the big secret about how to become a speechwriter. Please keep this confidential, because it’s a huge secret:
Find somebody who needs a speech written, and write it for them.
The answer to your next question? Anybody who needs one.
There are countless cities, villages, towns and hamlets throughout the world, all with mayors, councilors and other officials with multiple (often unpaid) responsibilities and demands upon their time. They don’t have time to write great speeches, so you’re going to volunteer to do it for them.
Becoming an expert in anything takes practice.
Just as you can’t become a great musician by tacking a picture of Tchaikovsky on your wall, you can’t become a great speechwriter unless youwrite speeches. How many? Ten? Ten thousand? The answer: a s many as it takes.
Learn from those who do it well. Read and listen to famous speeches. Rewrite them. Understand words and how they work. Recognize those that melt in our ears and those that make them bleed.
Get feedback from an expert
Your next step is to find a mentor—preferably an experienced speechwriter who will read your speeches and provide honest and fair feedback.
Don’t look for a mentor who will kiss your rear; find one who will kick it.
When I began writing speeches (yes, I volunteered), I was lucky to find such a mentor. I’d give him what I thought was a polished gem. He’d look at it, grunt and then spill so much red ink on the page that it looked like Dexter and Dracula had gone to war.
It was exactly what I needed. I needed it ripped apart and reorganized. I needed it rewritten and rearranged. Most of all, I needed to know that my fragile ego was the biggest impediment to my success.
Practice for those who need you most
As you continue to hunt for clients, don’t forget nonprofit organizations. Hospitals and health clinics are great choices. Rotary and Lions clubs exist in even the smallest villages, and they often have guest speakers. Get in touch with the speakers, and offer to help them out.
If you already work in an office, go to the communications team and volunteer to write some speeches in your spare time. Better yet, go directly to the boss and tell her you want to begin writing her speeches.
Sure, it’s a risk, but if you don’t have the guts to face her, how do you expect to write speeches for her? Will you truly be able to give her honest and fair feedback about her speeches when it counts? Being assertive is vital if you wish to become a speechwriter. Learn it early.
Stiffen your spine
If you’re really brave, take a speech your boss has already given, rewrite it and give it to her. Show how you would have written it.
Does such a move require a delicate touch? Absolutely. Could it get you kicked out of her office? Absolutely. Could it land you your first job as a paid speechwriter? Absolutely.
Once you’ve got a few speeches under your belt, step up your game. Develop a portfolio, and start calling for interviews. Some openly advertise for speechwriters; some don’t. Find the openings. How? Pick up the phone.
Again, if you can’t call and ask for information, you can forget speechwriting as a career. Sorry if this sounds harsh; I’m just trying to save you time and money.
Take a speechwriting course
If you’re still interested, here’s a final suggestion: Whether you’re a beginner or a seasoned writer, take a specialized speechwriting course. You can find live courses in your city or, increasingly, on the internet.
Do your research and find the right fit for you. Just make sure the course is taught by a speechwriter who has actually written speeches. You’ll be surprised how many “experts” have never written a speech of any significance. Be careful out there.
Similar to juggling, quantum physics and sex, some people tend to pick up speechwriting more quickly than others. If you’re stuck, keep at it. Styles are hard to develop, and nobody ever said it would be easy. It is, however, achievable.
Your must-do list:
- Get to know some speechwriters. Understand their struggles, their stresses. Ask yourself: Do I really want to do what they do?
- Read and listen to speeches. Two per day is a good start. A simple Google search will turn up thousands of speeches. If you don’t know how to handle a search engine, you might want to rethink the speechwriting thing.
- Get as many tips as possible for free at the beginning.
- Develop a thick skin. Remember that your speeches are for somebody else. They’re not yours. Even if you’ve written something resembling “I Have A Dream,” your speaker might only want to smile, say a few words of thanks and finish with a grip-and-grin photo. Deal with it.
- Become a speaker. Nothing has helped me more as a speechwriter than being in groups such as Toastmasters and regularly giving speeches. Who knows where else it can lead? It’s also vital to understanding how a speech is constructed, what works and what doesn’t.
Enjoy your new job.