A few months ago, I wrote about how to become a speechwriter and provided some tips for those interested in the business. We also covered some basic needs of speechwriters.
Time for the next step. What happens after that first assignment? How to avoid being a one-shot wonder?
Again, it’s all about understanding needs. In this case, the needs of the person who hired you.
Let me guess, your client is not actually the speaker, but somebody in the communications unit (public relations, outreach, marketing units etc.). For our purposes, let’s just call them comms people.
Comms people are easy to identify. They’re often stressed out, working on multiple projects at once and have zero time to waste.
I used to work in communications. It’s a tough job. I recall one month when more than 50 speech requests came in. I couldn’t write them all. I needed help.
Because I worked in government I was stuck with a list of HR-mandated writers (nothing like creating a team of writers based on the bottom line….sigh.), but most of the time I relied on only one or two trusted speechwriters.
Why? Because they got it.
They got my needs, frustrations and how to address them.
Now that my job is training speechwriters for comms people, I want to share a few of their needs with you. Most are universal. Master them and you’ll have a long and prosperous speechwriting life.
In no particular order…
Don’t complain about deadlines. The days of having months to ponder logos, ethos and pathos at Starbucks are gone. Expect calls in the middle of the night for speeches due the next day. If you can’t meet this deadline, you should reject the assignment, but…
Never say no more than once. Sure, things come up. We’re all busy. Yet know this formula: saying no more than once = being hired less than twice.
Have a thick skin. Imagine writing the world’s greatest speech. Something JFK-worthy… and then it gets cancelled. Happens all the time. Don’t whine about it. Say thanks for the assignment, send the invoice, and recycle that masterpiece for a future speech. Your time will come.
Be independent. One of the main reasons comms people tend to stick with one or two key speechwriters is because they hate holding hands—explaining each microscopic detail. Again, they’re busy people. While they may say “call me if you need any further help getting information,” what they really mean is: “here’s the information, get back to me when you’re absolutely stuck or absolutely done.”
Be assertive. This is linked to the independence issue. Comms people don’t want passive speechwriters, they want ones who can hold their own, those who can independently obtain information. This is vital at speechwriting meetings. Good writers know the questions to ask to get the answers they need. They also take names and follow up.
Be adaptive. Understand how your comms person likes to receive your work. This includes formatting the speech correctly. For example, leaving two spaces after a period may have worked in 1965, but it drives a comms person crazy. Why? Because they’re forced to go through the speech and take out one space after each period. I’m twitching just thinking about it.
Get the facts right. No exceptions.
Get the spelling right. Read your work more than once before you send it to your client. Best? Read and edit it out loud. Speeches are meant to be heard, not read. Double check everything.
Answer the phone.
Get with the 21st century. First, get standard word processing software; usually Microsoft Word. Your personal thoughts about Microsoft or its effectiveness are irrelevant. Second, figure out how it works. Master the track changes feature. Learn how to set margins and wrap text. Make everything seamless. Doing speeches on a typewriter may seem endearing (to nobody but you), but send it to a comms officer and, well, the good news is that you’ll find yourself with more free time.
Don’t be cheap. Don’t invoice for minor stuff like photocopying, long distance phone calls or “incidentals”. Unless requested otherwise, charge a flat rate that covers all. Anything else makes you look like an amateur. Is getting your $2 coffee refunded worth risking a $50,000 contract? I thought not.
Always follow up. After the speech is given, get in touch to see if the speech succeeded or failed. It shows you care. It’s also a chance to receive feedback on what you can improve for your next assignment.
Write what was agreed upon. I’m sure your thoughts on the descendants of Ethelred II make Monarchists weak in the knees, but the speech you’ve been asked to write for your company’s budget update just doesn’t need it. When it comes to keeping your job as a speechwriter, you don’t need to prove you’re well-read, you need to prove you can understand needs.
On the other hand…speak truth to power. If something really doesn’t work in a speech, speak up. Remember, you’re the expert. But pick your fights wisely. Challenging a key point is being a valuable contributor; challenging every point is just being a pain in the ass.
There you have it. What communicators want in a speechwriter. Thoughts?
Brent Kerrigan is the Global Speechwriter. He writes speeches and trains speechwriters for high-level government and business leaders. Get in touch at firstname.lastname@example.org.