Rice Speechwriting

Professional Speech Writer: How to work with a speechwriter and what the actual job is like

This article’s goal is to give you insight into the life of a professional speech writer and to help you better understand how to work with a writer one-on-one or as part of a larger team project. Anyone can hire a professional speech writer depending on the type of speech and budget. Often the scope of a ceremonial toast like a wedding speech or awards speech will be much different than a corporate keynote or a speech that’s reused to sell a product or service.

Professional Speech writer: Life, work, and training: what is it like to be a speechwriter?

Speechwriting is a rewarding job. I work closely with true thought leaders who are experts on world-changing subjects and I help them take those ideas and turn them into persuasive ideas. The best feeling is afterwards when I hear, “the speech went great!” and “they want me to come speak again!”

Other times, I work with people who simply want to give a great ceremonial speech like a wedding toast at their best friend’s wedding or they are accepting an award for a great achievement. For these speeches, learning someone’s personal story and helping them tell it is a feeling like none other.

The work of a speech writer is not your typical 9-5 work–often you are working on a deadline and that sometimes requires work in the evenings or on weekends. You might find yourself as a speechwriter crafting remarks to a world event that occurred and your principal speaker needs to respond immediately. 

How can I be a good speech writer? What makes you a “professional speech writer?” Is there a designation?

Unlike other professions, there is no specific credential that makes you a speechwriter or not a speechwriter (unlike being a doctor, lawyer, therapist, or architect). You can join the Professional Speechwriters Association for ongoing training and networking. 

Above all, to be a great speech writer, you should be well-read and love to write. You should be someone who is flexible and can take feedback well. Clients have their own ideas on what constitutes “good writing” and you have to be able to be diplomatic when giving feedback on areas where you and the client disagree.

Speechwriters have to also act like engineers–writers must be able to take apart an effective speech and figure out why it works. Alternatively, speechwriters should do the opposite with speeches that don’t quite hit the mark–as writers, we have to ask, “Was it the structure, the delivery, the words themselves, something about the occasion?” What make things go well or go poorly?

What training do you need to be a speech writer?

There’s no official college training or university degree to be a speech writer but places like Georgetown have classes that focus on it. Often, speechwriters have a liberal arts degree and are speakers themselves. A common degree that you’ll see would be one like: English, Drama, Philosophy, Political Science, History, Economics, Anthropology, Communications–any degree dealing with literature, logic, and persuasion. Some writers will have a bachelor’s degree while others will have a master’s.

Many will have joined Toastmasters and were probably a member of their college’s debate, mock trial, or model UN, clubs–public speaking is one of those areas where you better understand it if you do it yourself. Other speechwriters have backgrounds in drama, script writing, fiction writing, and a wide breadth of experience across industries. Speechwriters are often students of history–knowing where a speech fits historically is a big leg up for the major addresses.

The best training is to simply write more speeches. If you cannot get paid at first, take a few projects on spec or for a trade to use in your portfolio. Once you have 5 or so pieces, you’ll have enough to show a client that you can really do this.

What separates out a professional from a hobbyist is their dedication to the craft and of course charging for their services. Look for a professional writer to be someone who writes regularly for paid work.

Can you make freelance speechwriting work as a job?

Freelance work is never easy. You spend half your time doing work for a client and the other half marketing yourself to get more work. However, freelance work is possible when you offer multiple services and take on short and long term contracts with clients. It’s best to work closely with a handful of clients as you get to learn their voice better and you do not have to spend as much time on searching for new freelance clients. However, often, speechwriting is a skill found among Communications and PR professionals.

Working with a professional speech writer: What questions should I ask when I want to hire a professional speech writer?

Here are the key questions I would ask or expect to be asked from someone like a Communicators Director who wants to hire with me:

Key speechwriter for hire questions:

-Do you have speech samples that I could see?

-What is your process?

-Have you done speeches like this in the past?

-What is your rate?

-What milestones do you foresee when working to complete this project? Is there enough time to put this speech together?

-If you aren’t a good fit for the project, can you refer someone else?

-When are you available for calls and meetings? What are the parameters for when you can be contacted?

-Do you work often with 3rd parties? Do you ever outsource your speechwriting work? When should we work on the slides to a presentation during the speechwriting process?

-Before we hire you, can we talk with past clients? This is a 50/50 proposition as many clients are under NDAs with their writers. Also another good question to hire a speechwriter, “Are you comfortable signing an NDA if you work with us?”

For most of those answers, you can find them here (speechwriting and pricing page)

What is the typical process to work with a speechwriter?

The following works for speeches but any work involving writers:

  1. The speechwriter begins Initial research into topic, audience, and scope through calls, speech questionnaires, and independent research on a topic
  2. Speech writer delivers an outline to the client
  3. Client provides feedback on the outline and the speechwriter modifies it–when good, the writer moves into crafting the first draft
  4. Speech writer then sends the first draft to the client
  5. Client and writer work together on the draft and subsequent edits to craft a great speech

I favor more client involvement rather than less. It’s important to work closely with the principal speaker to get their voice–both how they sound and their point of view–correct.

How much does a speech writer cost?

Speech writers often charge by minute of speaking time but some may charge a flat rate for certain projects or hourly in the case of edits. This is one of the trickier writing areas to figure out, but you can see my rationale and pricing here. (pricing page)

Is it worth it to get a free speechwriter?

Usually not. If you do something for free, it’s a hobby. If you get paid for it, it’s professional work. With a free writer, you’ll end up spending more time fixing the draft they send you unless there’s a reason you’re getting it for free. In some cases, I will do free work in exchange for a service or set of introductions that could also lead to paying work. However, those deals are only set up in special circumstances such as nonprofits with no budget.

Should I hire speechwriters from Upwork and Fiverr?

Maybe. If you’re OK with writers who are just starting out, Upwork, Thumbtack, and Fiverr are options. Both sites take a percentage from the writers and unfortunately because of so many bids, many put in low amounts to win your business. If you’re OK with getting who is just starting out then the sites might be worthwhile–but honestly, anyone can set up a website and market themselves on the internet. Go with the person who is the most knowledgeable and experienced for the speech you’re trying to create.

Who uses speechwriters regularly beyond politicians, university presidents, and CEOs?

Keynote speakers: Authors, thought leaders, coaches, and consultants–all use public speaking to spread their message and garner clients or leads for their products.

Everyday people: I’ve worked with many people who don’t have a fancy title but who wanted a little bit of help in crafting a great message. Awards speeches, graduation speeches, wedding toasts, anniversary and birthday speeches, retirement speeches–all are speeches that I love to write.

How can my company or I work best with a professional speech writer?

Often, the Communications Director or CMO of a company reaches out for my services to help on a speech for a company’s executive. The following questions are ones I’ve compiled over time that if answered early on can prevent many headaches down the road.

Principal Speaker Access and Communication Team Roles:

You and the speechwriter should discuss the following questions before working:

  1. How much access will there be with the principal speaker? How much involvement does the speechwriter need from the speaker and can that be granted?
  2. Are you bringing on the writer for a first draft, editing an existing speech, or someone to manage the entire speech and presentation creation? How much control over the content of the speech does the writer have?

Clear Communication with Deadlines and Deliverables:

  1. Are the deadlines and milestones for the project clearly laid out and agreed upon? Are they real deadlines or will the company ask for something a week ahead of time? 
  2. Are the deadlines written down and agreed to in a signed agreement? What is the process to change them if needed?

Communication with One Voice:

  1. When team members give feedback, to what degree does the speechwriter get to have the final say in how the piece is written? If not, why not?
  2. Who is allowed to give feedback and at what stage of the process?
  3. Are past public speeches of the principal available as models?

Air Traffic Control:

  1. To what degree are you asking the speechwriter to handle other parts of the process like presentation design? Does the speechwriter have those skills? Are you the one managing the project and team members or should the writer see the whole thing through from beginning to end?
  2. What other content services are needed beyond the speech itself? When will you ask for these (if at all)?

Why hire a professional speech writer? Companies and individuals often hire a speechwriter because…

-The speechwriter can craft a more persuasive and emotional message

-The current team doesn’t have the time or skill bandwidth

-The principal speaker has great ideas but doesn’t always communicate them well

-The upcoming speech is too important 

Speechwriting is a specialized communication skill that not everyone has

-A speechwriter can be an objective voice that sees outside of the company’s current point of view and can act as a “check” on weird, lame, or odd ideas

-A speechwriter can tell how the audience may receive a speech or particular ideas within it–sometimes your great ideas may not get across well to the audience unless tweaked or framed in a new way

Can a speech writer help me to become more persuasive?

Yes, but I’d say this is a 50/50 toss up. No one can change your passion for your work or subject area. No one can make you into a different type of speaker overnight.

However, a speechwriter can help you structure and craft a message that puts ideas into a great structure and adds appeals to emotion, logic, and ethics, in order to make the best case possible for your idea.

What do speechwriters see that others do not?

By virtue of writing the entire speech, a speechwriter can see the big picture and how each part fits together into a whole. When you are buried in your own work each day, it’s hard to have this perspective. A speechwriter can hear which words sound right and which ones don’t–they can also figure out what types of speaking styles will work for the principal speaker. Speechwriters also understand the speaker’s audience–they know what will make a group laugh, respond emotionally, or remain confused. A speechwriter can make a speech clearer and more enjoyable for the speaker’s audience.

Once I have the text from a speechwriter, how do I prepare the next steps?

It’s on you to practice but some speechwriters like me offer public speaking coaching, too. This is also the time to create the slides for the presentation–designers will thank you for having the text done first as they can figure out the best slides to support the text of the speech. It depends on how long you need to rehearse a speech and if you’ll be using notes or a teleprompter. Some short speeches might take a week to prepare whereas major addresses need two weeks or more to practice and tweak portions. Even if using a teleprompter or notes, you’ll still want to rehearse the speech to make it sound more natural.

Here are a set of miscellaneous questions often asked about speechwriting and its profession:

Who were famous writers that wrote for President Reagan, President G.W. Bush and President Obama?

The ones you’ve probably heard of are Peggy Noonan, David Frum, Michael Gerson, Jon Favreau, David Litt, and Cody Keenan. And, of course, Ted Sorensen who wrote for President John F. Kennedy.

Why was President Ronald Reagan considered the “Great Communicator?”

Reagan’s background was in acting before he became Governor of California and later President of the United States. His communication style used short words, stories, and folksy phrases, as he spoke. He was one of the earlier presidents to take advantage of TV as a communications medium to reach the general public, and this manner of communication worked well for news shows and creating soundbites.

On balance, President Obama used soaring language but also fairly short phrases at times along with messages of Hope and Change to connect with the American people. He told stories of his constituents and those in turn resonated with many likely voters.

Both President Barack Obama and President Ronald Reagan demonstrate that even though the content of the speech is important, its delivery matters just as much.

What is it like to be a speechwriter for a president?

This article is probably the best view into working for a president as a professional speechwriter,

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Photo by Aaron Burden on Unsplash

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