Can We Talk? Confessions of a Freelance Speechwriter
The work is hard, independent and anonymous,
but the rewards are many.
By Colin Moorehouse
I remember the day I told my professional colleagues that I was quitting my job in government communications. They e-mailed me back saying how brave I was – which I took as code for how stupid I was. Here I was quitting my well-paying, fully pensioned, health-cared job to make money as a flak for hire. I could visualize them rolling their eyes, thinking I had taken leave of my senses. “How could he choose the most boring form of writing?” I could hear them muttering, and reflecting, I suppose, on all the boring speeches they had heard or written.
I took another view. I hated all the other stuff: The endless meetings. The bureaucratic rules. Everything that actually got in the way of doing your job. I had written or reviewed a ton of speeches on the job, so I knew I had the necessary skills. I had also come across a statistic that said in the United States alone, more than 100,000 speeches are given every 24 hours. I knew, too, that most speakers didn’t write their own speeches. Hmm. There might be a market here. And my timing was great because in 1993 e-mail was just becoming common. That meant I could deliver speeches to potentially any client anywhere rather than being restricted to my home city.
So I abandoned my doubts to embrace a new challenge. I’ve never regretted it for a moment.
But before you chuck your well-paying, fully pensioned, heath-cared job, let me give you a checklist of the pros and cons of the freelance life.
On the plus side, freelance speech writing can be endlessly fascinating because you never know what you are going to be asked to write about – social policy, health or environmental initiatives, labor relations and worker compensation, banking, corporate social responsibility, international affairs or finance. Your topic could be anything!
The second plus is that we sometimes get to rub shoulders with the rich and semi-famous. These are people who in other circumstances would be out of my league. I mean no self-deprecation by this. It’s just that under normal circumstances I don’t get to hang out with multi- millionaires or captains of industry or senior members of government. But when they turn their attention to the words that will come out of their mouths, they want to talk to their speechwriters. And they want to talk to them now! So, we are brought into their professional circle for a short time – a brief vicarious thrill.
What else? We don’t often get roped into office politics or useless meetings. Our clients really like us because we are saving them their most precious commodity – time. And, oh yes, the pay is pretty good.
But the most satisfying part of freelancing for me is this. As speechwriters we may not make policy, but we sure get to “nuance” it. The first time you hear your words on a 15-second sound bite on the evening news, you realize that you get to articulate the first expression of a new policy or service. And if you do a really good job, you might find that articulation becomes an oft-repeated mantra within your client’s organization. With all this excitement it might be easy to forget that there is a downside. You won’t forget for long.
First, we work like the industrious ant. Because we have clients across time zones we get phone calls at very strange hours. We have to be prepared to work on “emergency” speeches, which can mean many lost weekends and late nights. We need to have very understanding families.
Second, the consequences of error are huge. Nobody is going to conduct detailed fact checking of our research. Embarrass a client just once by putting incorrect facts or clumsy syntax in her mouth, and we won’t hear from her again. Not ever. For good reason, too.
Also, the joy of sharing their passions notwithstanding, once you have agreed to a speech assignment you are pretty much on your own. All communications directors want to know is if you can do the job. If the answer is “yes” they are on to other things. There won’t be a lot of hand-holding.
There’s more. Like a news reporter, you will have to do a lot of mining for factual details and their significance and do it all with a certain finesse so you don’t throw any political plans or aspirations into disarray. You must be able to absorb huge amounts of new information, all the while understanding you won’t be using 98 percent of it. But you have to inhale the useless so you can exhale the useful.
You need very finely tuned political antennae. You may be writing a speech for the CEO, but you aren’t a senior member of his or her staff. Moreover, your clients might not even want to let their people know that they are using freelancers. So you can’t go blundering around like a wounded walrus when you go digging for information.
Did I say the pay is pretty good? Well it is. But not nearly what it should be. And as for that working with celebrities, for every time that happens, you will have 20 other occasions when you never meet the client. In fact, many of your clients will be thousands of miles away.
Sometimes you’ll wonder when burnout will come, or if you can ever have another original thought for a long-term client.
Perhaps I have deterred you from quitting your day job. Perhaps that’s a good thing. If you want to be a prophet honored in your own time, don’t be a freelance speechwriter.
You will be confined to relative anonymity. The best you can hope for is a good reputation in the communications community and possibly “he wrote good rah-rah” as your epitaph. But it is such fun “rah-rah!”
If I had my life to do over, I would be a Hollywood scriptwriter, composing dialogue. At least, in my current life, I’m able to write monologue. I get paid to put words in other people’s mouths…and I never know what the next phone call will bring.
Colin Moorhouse has been a freelance speechwriter for more than a decade. Visit his Web site and free newsletter at www.weneedaspeech.com.