A speechwriter is a creator of a written script which is used by people who must give speeches or presentations to a significant audience of other people.
The act of drafting, writing and delivering a public speech can be an intimidating experience, especially for those with little or no experience. Even the “Best Man’s Speech” at a wedding can be a significantly unnerving event, which can see the subject worrying about getting things right under what they perceive to be a pressured situation. In these circumstances, individuals may choose to employ the services of a professional speechwriter, who will examine the case objectives based on the individual circumstances, and draft and present a complete speech in paper format to allow for effective presentation.
At the higher end of the speechwriting scale, the client may be a well-known or respected politician or international ambassador. These high-profile cases demand extensive socio-political understanding, ongoing collaboration with the client, and ultimately, a long and intricate presentation of the finished speech. This may include various options for dealing with potential questions and comments from the audience during delivery of the speech by way of bullet points and additional notation. This is a specialised area of freelance writing, and the demands it places on candidates in terms of skill set requirement can be uniquely challenging.
As most speechwriters are freelance, the amount of potential work varies according to geographical location, self-motivation, experience, industry networking ability and knowledge of traditional and web-based marketing forms. Nearly all speechwriters start out as a hobbyist or part-time professional, as it takes a long time to develop a list of ongoing, repeat clients. A reasonable first year earnings figure would be around £6000, based on a part-time (evenings and weekends basis) example.
The job fits neatly around other full-time employment obligations, and the earnings will increase significantly during the second year, assuming the writer has a reasonable client retention rate. Full-time, professional, self-employed speechwriters with several international or corporate clients can expect to receive around £25,000 at the higher end of the earnings capacity scale.
- Consult with the client to decide on objective and deliver against the demands of the speech or presentation
- Work with the client on the first edit after receiving feedback from the customer on the initial draft
- Candidate must be partly familiar with the relevant social or political context if speech is for a political objective
- Timely and accurate invoicing and self-accounting
- Active promotion of business to win new clients
There are no formal academic barriers to entry, although a lot of professional and semi-pro writers find a GCSE qualification in English, followed possibly by an A Level English qualification, can equip them with a broad skill set in terms of language and technical writing ability. This is a job where life experience and the ability to speak face-to-face with the client are more important than a glittering array of academic certification. Good punctuation and spelling can be learned, but creativity, humour and broader understanding of context often cannot.
- A diverse range of writing styles, dealing for example with severity, forcefulness, humour or sensitivity
- Ability to interpret client’s instructions for speech objectives
- Be able to deal with the client’s needs with compassion and sympathy (in the event of a funeral eulogy, for example)
- Be committed to delivering content in line with established time line commitments
- Be open to criticism, and have the ability to interpret edit notes in composing the final draft
As the job mainly involves working from home, the profession is classified as generally a low-risk occupation. A possible area of stress arises from the initial need to begin as a part-time writer, with sporadic work having to fit around other job commitments. This can lead to a feeling of never actually leaving work: nine hours in the office, drive home, five hours in the home office, then repeat.
Heavy computer usage can lead to health problems such as wrist injuries (nerve damage, repetitive strain disorder), back problems (aches and pains, potential long-term damage to spine or shoulders) and issues with the eyes (swelling or reduction in the quality of vision). Candidates need to monitor their own health and safety and make their own decisions on areas to improve with regards to their own working conditions and environment.
Speechwriters starting out usually begin with no experience, often learning the craft by offering free services to friends who are getting married or by approaching line managers within their existing full-time workplace. The next step is to approach local political candidates and charity organisations, with the aim of securing additional (paid and unpaid) writing experience. This can often yield ongoing paying clients if the candidate is able to deliver speedy content of a high quality. They are then able to build up their business from there.
Industry networking events and launch parties can provide a significant advantage in making new contacts and in extolling the virtues of one’s own speechwriting ability. There is not a tried and true process; it is all about determination and making luck where none exists. This is the case with all freelance writing jobs, but speechwriting particularly demands that the candidate be plugged in to the corporate scene, and be able to grasp the concepts of continuous professional development (CPD).
The career path for potential speechwriters spans from grass-roots wedding speeches, all the way up to possible work with embassy ambassadors, MPs and corporate spokespeople. Corporate work often yields the best results in terms of remuneration, and allows for the most rapid contact book and career progression rates. It is recommended the candidate joins a well-known speechwriting membership organisation, in order to grow their list of contacts for commissioning opportunities and the exchange of best practice advice with other members. Writers who join established speechwriting agencies have the chance to be promoted to become project managers or communication executives.
Most speechwriters are independent freelancers, although there are a few agencies who do take on staff. Notable examples in the UK include Bespoke Speeches of Westminster (who deal with the World Wildlife Fund and HSBC Bank), EZ Speechwriters and Unique Speeches, all of whom have been operating successfully for many years.
Brian Jenner is a well-known and entrepreneurial freelance speechwriter based in Bournemouth, UK. He works in partnership with some very high profile FTSE-represented companies.
What made you decide or choose to get into this sort of career?
I was asked by someone at BP to write speeches for the Chairman. It was quite lucrative, so I asked myself, “How do I get more of this work?” I had worked as a journalist, which isn’t a very creative pastime, so I found speechwriting gave me more scope to use my humour and imagination.
Do you have a standard day or a standard type of `exercise'?
Were I to be an in-house speechwriter, I expect I would have to write three speeches a week. As a freelancer, I have had three speeches a week, but it can be difficult to find work during some periods in the year, so I do other work, like running the UK Speechwriters’ Guild, producing newsletters and organising events.
What is the most common type of problem/call-out/enquiry to which you must attend?
People don’t have time to write the speech or they don’t have a clue what to say. You need to consult with the client to realise the objective, and then give them the tools to be able to convey what they need to.
What do you like most about the job?
The fact that you have to work very closely with people, and get ‘under their skin.’ It’s a personal experience: the consultation, the need to understand and convey key messages, sometimes being authoritative, sometimes with humour.
What do you like least about the job?
The biggest challenge is dealing with the British cult of the amateur, which would have you believe that anyone can write. The internet means that anybody can create a blog and call themselves a writer, and this is what industry professionals are up against.
What are the key responsibilities?
Discretion and sensitivity. Being able to deliver against the client’s brief, being able to understand, and to be empathetic and to realise the objectives.
What about academic requirements? Any formal demands, eg A Levels?
You don’t really need any academic qualifications. In fact, academic training can be a disadvantage. Sadly, it is probably best to have written for someone famous. Most people can’t look at a page and say whether a speech is good or not, so it is about experience, not schooling.
What is the starting salary, and how does this increase over time with promotion?
There is no fixed career path for a freelancer. An in-house speechwriter might get promotion to become a policy expert or head of communications, and so the money will go up from this point. Working freelance is a different matter entirely, and there are often periods with no work coming in.
What advice do you have for someone who is looking to get into this as a career?
Most people fall into speechwriting rather than setting out to do it as a job. Make it a hobby initially, and hope you get an opportunity to work for someone eventually.
What are the most important qualities an applicant must and should possess?
The confidence to engage with top people, and not to be intimidated by the event or the client.
Any closing questions, comments or additional advice?
Writing is easy. All you do is stare at a blank sheet of paper until drops of blood form on your forehead!