So You Want To Be a Speechwriter?
Katherine Perry Harris | October 2003
'Half the world is composed of people who have something to say and can't-and the other half who have nothing to say and keep on saying it.'
It is, perhaps, every writer's dream to appear in The New Yorker, and Ned Randolph had his chance while serving as a speechwriter for Marc Morial, then mayor of New Orleans. Right before a last minute press conference, Randolph threw together talking points on the gun industry for the mayor, and it was one such 'sound bite' he wrote that later appeared in the magazine.
Not everything speechwriters work on, however, ends up in a national publication or flashing across a television screen on Meet the Press. On any given day, a speechwriter may work on an address for a high school commencement, a chamber of commerce luncheon, or a pre-game football rally, among others. Particularly at the entry level, a speechwriting position isn't the glamour or fast-paced glory of, say, characters on The West Wing. Yet, with the scarcity of tenure-track positions in the academic job market, or if academia simply isn't your desire, a job in speechwriting offers a chance to use your writing skills in a university, public relations, nonprofit, government, or even corporate setting.
A Natural Fit
It is not everyday that one chooses speechwriting as a career path. Instead, it is more likely that someone with a journalism or writing background falls into a job requiring speechwriting.
For Randolph, editing speeches for the mayor, which was just a project at first, turned into a full-time position. 'Quite literally, I was an unemployed reporter who had once worked in state politics. I was freelancing for some publications when I was called by the mayor's newly-appointed press secretary,' Randolph says. 'She needed someone to edit a manuscript of his speeches. While working on the project, she told me she wanted to add a writer to the staff. So the project turned into a job.'
Similarly, Mike Field began working at the Johns Hopkins University as a full-time staff writer for the university paper, the Hopkins Gazette. About two years later he was asked to write speeches for the university president, then Bill Richardson. 'I jumped at the job because my real passion is playwrighting,' Field says. 'Writing the spoken word-in this case speeches-seemed to fit nicely with playwrighting. It still works.' Field continues to write for current Hopkins president William Brody.
Like many who end up writing speeches, Sally Oxenhandler, currently a public information officer for the Missouri Department of Agriculture, received no formal training in speechwriting. Oxenhandler says that 'with most of the communications jobs I've had, top management naturally turned to the communications person on staff to draft speeches or pull together talking points for their public speaking engagements, so that's how I began writing speeches.'
As Field mentions, speechwriting can be seen as a natural fit for those with a writing background. In addition, such jobs provide the opportunity to write about and promote the value of a specific university, higher education in general, or a political, cultural, or social cause about which you are passionate. In this sense, you are contributing and adding value to the conversation, whether about public policy or arts education, and serving as a liaison between an organization and the public.
For those who find that a speechwriting job doesn't readily fall into place, seek out others in positions or organizations similar to those in which you are interested. 'While many people fall into speechwriting through careers in journalism or corporate communications offices, recent graduates who are interested in speechwriting should network,' says Nathan Osburn, a University of Missouri-Columbia graduate student who recently conducted a speechwriting survey, co-sponsored by Ragan Communications. Osburn, who belongs to a local speechwriting group, recommends attending conferences and reading widely in the field-much as you would do for professional development in any other discipline.
Knowing a Little About a Lot
The skills and tools gained from an English, journalism, or liberal arts degree-research, communications, analysis, audience awareness and, of course, strong writing skills-are all necessary for a speechwriting position. Respondents to Osburn's survey agreed that research and writing were the two most important skills for speechwriters. Creativity and intuition-certainly talents that creative writers possess-also received high marks as vital characteristics of good speechwriters.
A sense of curiosity and a range of interests, too, serve speechwriters well. Whether writing for a politician or an academic, speechwriters most likely are required to know a little about a lot. Oxenhandler says that 'it's important for a speechwriter to have a good knowledge of the industry or subject about which they're writing.' A speechwriter with no science background, for example, may find themselves writing remarks for a life sciences summit or an address to a luncheon of retired agriculture professors. This is when contacts in the field and research skills are critical to immerse yourself in the facts before attempting to write about a discipline in which you have little or no background. For creative writers, using these same research skills can only help any research needed for creative work in fiction, poetry, or nonfiction.
The qualities necessary for first-rate fiction or poetry writing also apply. 'It helps to write with your ear,' Randolph says, 'imagining the monologue as you write. If you witness the speech, you will see in heart-wrenching fashion if you pulled it off or not.' Field agrees that speechwriters should have a 'good sense of rhythm and an ear for poetry.' Also necessary, according to Field, are 'a passion for accuracy and an accurate sense of passion-that is, when telling a story, where is its heart?' Skills like strong character development and point-of-view are also valuable in writing a solid speech. It is helpful to imagine the audience and the scene, situating the speaker in the center of a story to create a memorable speech.
Audience awareness is another essential requirement. Speechwriters should have a feel not just for whom they are writing, but also for who is listening: What do they want to hear? Is there a particular hot or current issue that this audience will be concerned about, say, budget cuts in the English Department? And what are their expectations, history, politics, and backgrounds relative to the issue? 'Speechwriters, perhaps even more than other public relations people, have to have a subtle understanding of how their public thinks,' Osburn writes in the Speechwriter's Newsletter. 'Subtle, and comprehensive: they have to know what the audience will think is funny, inspirational, and thought-provoking all at the same time.'
Osburn's survey, conducted at Ragan's Speechwriter's Conference in Washington, D.C., reveals some interesting demographics about speechwriters. Studies of the speechwriting field are few and far between; in part, as Osburn's survey reveals, because 'you can't survey people you can't find.' Among his survey's findings: there are twice as many women as men in speechwriting, and their median age is 41 to 50. Most are highly educated: all have some college, and more than half have at least a master's degree. In terms of salary, almost all make at least $50,000 annually and a quarter make over $100,000.
Not all New Yorker' Moments
'For a while, I was really into being the mayor's speechwriter,' says Randolph, who now works as a journalist. 'It was a charge, not only from watching him use my words, but also seeing from the inside how things were done in New Orleans.'
Randolph's New Yorker moment arrived one day when the mayor was about to give a press conference on suing the gun industry. In a few minutes, Randolph 'banged out about five paragraphs' of talking points, which the mayor then proceeded to read, word for word. The New Yorker article used the sound bite written by Randolph: 'A day of atonement for the victims of gun violence.' They were, he says, 'probably the only words I'll ever get in The New Yorker.'
A chance, however small, to shape policy can have an exhilarating effect-the 'charge' that Randolph describes, which, for him, eventually wore off. Those interested in speechwriting should remember that most working days, particularly at the entry level, are not full of State of the Union addresses or stories such as Randolph's. Field enjoys what he describes as 'meaty commencement speeches,' but notes that 'unfortunately, those opportunities arise only infrequently. Readers should try to understand that even the President of the United States still has to give a lot of Rose Garden speeches to the visiting Kiwanis. Much of public speaking is not exciting.' Randolph agrees that the day-to-day speeches were, in fact, more monotonous.
This often means that-in between work on that State of the Union address-speechwriters find themselves with other duties, frequently in writing, editing, and publishing. Osburn's survey found that most respondents spent more than half their work week in some part of the speechwriting process. Other activities included, in descending order of frequency, client/boss meetings; planning; crisis communications; maintaining client/boss/organization's reputation; public relations; and public affairs.
In addition to speechwriting, Field also edits op-eds and columns written by the university president and writes and produces video projects associated with the university. Randolph notes that his position was a 'little broader than strictly speech writing,' and included writing press dispatches, columns, and copy for publications. For Oxenhandler, speechwriting is one component of a job that also includes writing news releases, handling media inquiries, planning and assisting with special events, and overseeing web content, among other responsibilities. Flexibility is also key; some days may find speechwriters working on several upcoming speeches, while other days may be consumed by other projects. 'No two days are alike,' Oxenhandler says, noting that she especially likes the wide variety of activities in which she is involved.
A potential downside is that no matter how sublime a speechwriter's words may be, there is indeed a difference between who is doing the writing and who is doing the speaking-and, ultimately, who receives the credit. This may be difficult for the ego, or the writer, to bear. 'The words belong to someone else-and they should if the speech is good,' Randolph says. Anonymity is key.
Even if the speaker does read the carefully-crafted prose word for word, there is also the possibility that a speechwriter may never witness it. If a speechwriter never hears the speaker deliver the remarks, and never meets with the speaker, a disconnect exists that can make writing speeches reflecting the speaker's personal style all the more difficult. Writing remarks in a vacuum is a difficult proposition, and often means the remarks will lack the passion or details needed for effective work. After all, how can you write for someone you don't really know?
The toughest problem in speechwriting, according to Osburn's survey, is speaker access. Speechwriters note that while it is important to have this access, the reality may be that it doesn't happen as frequently as it should. 'This rift highlights the frustration of writers who need to understand not only the speaker's stance on issues, but also the preferred rhetoric the speaker uses when discussing the topic,' Osburn writes.
In the ideal environment, speechwriters would meet with the speaker afterward to go over the remarks: what worked well, what didn't, what could be done better next time. In this best-case scenario, the speechwriter knows the speaker well enough to identify their rhetorical style, their oft-used and favorite phrases, the tricky words that make them stumble. In addition to rhetoric, knowing the speaker's stance on issues, as Osburn mentions, is also key. Even broader themes, such as the speaker's mentors or views of success, are helpful in crafting remarks. However, as the survey attests, this is not always the case.
There is also the possibility that despite the hours and days a speechwriter has toiled fine-tuning the prose, the speech will be cancelled or, even if the show does go on, that the speaker will prefer to extemporize. Seeing remarks tossed into a recycling bin can be annoying, even for creative writers who deal with rejection from publications and publishers. But for Field, the 'most frustrating thing is running up against my own limitations as a writer-a near-constant occurrence.'
The Secret to Speechwriting
The secret to speechwriting? Read, research, write, and, of course, remember to tell the story. A position in speechwriting can be a chance to hone your research skills while earning a living doing something you love-writing. For creative writers seeking employment outside of academia, speechwriting offers a viable alternative.
Katherine Perry Harrisis a senior information specialist for University Relations at the University of Missouri System, where, among other duties, she writes speeches for the president and members of the board of curators. Her work has appeared in the Writer's Chronicle, the Writer, and AWP Job List. She holds an MFA in fiction from George Mason University.
- Speechwriter's Newsletter, Ragan Communications, http://www.speechwritercity.com (a copy of Nathan Osburn's full study is also available here).
- How to Write a Speech by Joan Detz, St. Martin's Press.
- The Corporate Speechwriter's Handbook by Jerry Tarver, Quorum Books.
- Public Relations Society of America, http://www.prsa.org.