I’m often asked how I became a speechwriter. And for those in search of career guidance, I suspect my answer is rather frustrating: “Totally by chance.”
I’m being a little flippant, but this response is shared by other speechwriters I know. Karen Duffin, in the podcast discussed in my last post, says that she “stumbled onto” her job as “a complete accident.”
Not a lot of help to the aspiring speechwriter!
That the question is asked so often, and the responses are so evasive, must reveal a truth about this career:
There is no clear or singular path to becoming a speechwriter.
Thankfully, there are occasional parallels between the winding routes that have led some of us into this arcane profession. So, here is my entirely anecdotal advice on how to become a speechwriter.
The Press Office Route
Some speechwriters move into their role via a press or media office. After all, in big organisations, the speechwriter tends to sit within the communications function, alongside press officers, public affairs and other PR roles.
Press officers routinely draft press releases, blog posts and digital content. This copywriting experience naturally lends itself to speeches. As such, the press officer might make their interests known to their manager when an opportunity arises. Or, better still, they might create an opportunity for a principal to speak, and then offer an initial draft.
This option requires a couple of qualifiers.
First, there’s no point in joining a press office in an organisation that has no reason to communicate through speeches. So, the aspiring speechwriter must choose their industry or sector carefully.
Second, most speechmaking happens in political, business and administrative centres. We’re talking London, Washington, Brussels, etc. So, the aspiring speechwriter must also choose their geographical location carefully.
The Political Route
Other speechwriters, perhaps more interested in political speechmaking, begin by working for a politician.
They might start as a researcher or an administrator rather than a speechwriter as such. The point is simply to be present and keen when someone is looking to delegate a speechwriting task.
In the UK at least, some speechwriter jobs are as much about ceremony and tradition as they are about messaging. These jobs – those in the orbit of the Royal Family, for example – are best approached in a similar manner to political roles. The first step is to get your foot in the door.
The Freelance Route (aka “I just fell into it!”)
Personally, I found speechwriting within a variety of comms and editorial freelancing that I was doing alongside my PhD. There was a degree of fortuitousness – the notion was first proposed to me by someone who knew someone else in need of a speechwriter – but I was also able to manage chance and create opportunity.
To aspiring speechwriters currently working in an unrelated profession, I would recommend contacting anyone who might need a speech and offering your services – for free, if appropriate. Lots of people find public speaking very difficult. So, if you know someone soon to give a wedding speech or eulogy, offer to help them draft it.
If you can build a portfolio, when the time comes to interview for a speechwriting role, you can be confident that you have the experience rather than just the potential.
One piece of advice which I’ve received, and which makes me squirm a little but is nonetheless good advice, is “Fake It ‘Til You Make It.”
Put yourself out there. Write a blog (?). Read blogs (I like Writing Boots, Expression/Impression and the column, “The Art of Persuasion,” in the Financial Times).
You might also join a membership organisation. I’m a member of the UK Speechwriter’s Guild and the European Speechwriter Network; the CIPR also offers speechwriting training. In the States, the Professional Speechwriters’ Association is a useful resource.
Prior to my first in-house speechwriting job, these forums taught me how to balance my literary way of thinking with the more corporate concerns of most speechwriting jobs.
Go Forth and Write!
So, I hope these are some useful tips. Do please let me know if any of these recommendations bear fruit!
Or, if you are a speechwriter already, I’d love to hear how you gained access to our strange and sometimes secret society.
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Image: “Pericles’ Funeral Oration” by Philipp Foltz (1852). A painting whose garishness is only redeemed by how much it reminds me of the super-saturation of old Technicolor films. Anyway, don’t expect your first speeches to look like this. They’re more likely to commemorate the opening of a new drinking-water fountain or the planting of a tree or something. Both important but… you know!