By Brent Kerrigan, Owner of Global Speechwriter
Hiring a professional speechwriter is a big decision for any organization. The speechwriter ultimately hired can, for better or worse, shape the brand and reputation of your company and your speaker.
Need I mention how the decision may affect the career of the communications manager responsible for hiring that speechwriter?
As an executive-level speechwriter with more than a decade of experience, and as a communications advisor for the Government of Canada before that, I know what it’s like to hire a speechwriter and be hired as one.
What I’ve learned from sitting on both sides of the table is that communications managers just aren’t asking the right questions to get the writer they need.
I’ve compiled a dozen of what I feel to be the most crucial questions communications managers should ask speechwriters and why.
It will help those who want to know how to hire a speechwriter on a permanent basis, and those looking for a freelancer.
Question 1: How many years have you been writing speeches and for whom?
Explanation: Here’s the dirty little secret about speechwriters: anybody can call themselves one. There’s no accreditation, little training, and no telling what the happens to the information you provide to them. While it’s extremely rare, some people aren’t looking for speechwriting work, but confidential information about your company.
The challenge: Most good speechwriters really can’t tell you about their clients. Confidentiality is a big part of our jobs.
What to do: At the very least, you need to verify the speechwriter is who they say they are. While they may not give up the names of their clients, they can easily send you sections of speeches they’ve written with information that could identify their clients blacked out. Make sure you get more than a few paragraphs. You need to review that speech to determine how they handle the key ingredients of a speech (style, structure, substance and storyline). If they’re not sure, send them this.
There is nothing wrong with asking the speechwriter to get permission from their current clients to send you speech samples. This is the 21st century, not the 12th — most clients understand that speechwriters run a business and could use the reference. Please understand, however, that receiving this permission may take extra time for the speechwriter and ultimately not be granted. Still, ask. Furthermore, check out the speechwriter’s Web and LinkedIn pages. They don’t have a social presence? Why not? Verify.
Q. Describe The Process of How You Work
Explanation: Many speechwriters have no process. Why? They’re not actually speechwriters, just hobbyists looking for extra cash. They’ll need you to hold their hands each step of the way.
The challenge: You’re not saving any time! If you’re like 99% of communications managers on earth, you’re bringing in a speechwriter to save time, not waste it. A speechwriter without a process is one who will leave you with a speech mess to fix. Sure, your organization may already have a process, but a good speechwriter should, after a short period, understand how to navigate (or fix!) it.
What to do: Before you describe your process, get the potential writer to describe theirs. Find out how they usually get their information and what they expect you to provide.
Q. Can You Host The Speechwriting Meeting?
Explanation: When I’m asked to troubleshoot an organization’s speechwriting problems, I always look to the speechwriting planning meeting first. No meeting? Big problem. A planning meeting is where those with the key information for the speech get together to hash things out. (Need help getting your own going? Check out my suggestions here). I hate meetings as much as anybody else, but a quick 15-minute meeting can save massive amounts of time on the back end of the approvals process (“I wasn’t told about this speech! Here are 14 pages I’d like inserted!”).
The challenge: Most speechwriters are too introverted or nervous to host a meeting or they just skip it. They don’t get the information they need, and guess who has to go searching for it afterward? Yep, you.
What to do: Let the speechwriter know you expect them to host the meeting. Be present, but have them host it. It makes sense: any speechwriter worth their salt knows the information they need and the questions they need to ask to get it. They don’t even need to be physically present at the planning meeting. I hosted speechwriting meetings in Ottawa while stationed in Berlin. Everything was done via video or teleconference. We’re not choreographing a stage show, we’re talking about information gathering. Psst…during this speechwriting meeting, establish deadlines. Speaking of which…
Q. Can You Meet The True Deadline Of The Speech?
Explanation: The speech delivery date is not the due date. This probably isn’t news to you but it will be to non-experienced speechwriters. They don’t realize that speeches often take more time to approve than write! It’s the dirty little secret of almost any big organization.
The challenge: If the speechwriter works with only the delivery date in mind, you’re going to have a problem — especially if it usually takes you three days to get that speech through approvals.
What to do: While it’s not realistic that a potential speechwriter intuitively know your approvals process, they should at least ask about it. If they don’t, it’s telling. At the very least, get them to tell you how they’ve met deadlines with previous clients.
Q. Will You Be Around When I Need You?
Explanation: In a past life as a communications advisor responsible for hiring freelance speechwriters, I would often hire a writer and then face some sort of emergency (speech needed sooner than I thought, the facts had changed, the speaker had changed, etc). I’d phone the speechwriter and….static. Nothing. Huge problem. Guess who ultimately had to write the speech? You guessed it. Money, meet drain.
The challenge: Really? Is it a challenge to stay in touch these days? Unless he or she is working on the surface of the moon, the speechwriter should be accessible. “I was out of the office” doesn’t cut it.
What to do: Tell the speechwriter that if they work with you, they’re essentially your employee for the period of time it takes to write and deliver the speech. Just like an employee, you need all telephone, SMS numbers, emails, and contact information in case an emergency arises. You need to know if they’ll be travelling, if they get sick, or are out of the office. This isn’t about control, it’s about making sure you can reach them when the shite hits the fan.
Q. How Much Do You Charge?
Explanation: Self-explanatory. Know your final bill.
The challenge: A low fee may not always be so once “extras” are included.
What to do: Ask for a flat fee. Want the speech to take a longer period of time? Have them charge by the hour. Again, it’s common sense. How does charging by the hour possibly jive with meeting a tight deadline? Not only ask for a flat fee, make sure the price includes everything. Only an amateur charges for ridiculous items such as long-distance calls, shipping or taxis.
Q. Let’s Get More Specific: How Many Drafts Does That Flat Fee Include?
Explanation: When I say “drafts” I’m talking about a complete rewrite of the speech—not paragraph changes, insertion of new information, or otherwise. Those are expected. I’m talking about “this speech is totally wrong, do it again.”
The Challenge: You want them to write 19 drafts if that’s what it takes. The speechwriter thinks they’re writing two. Result? Problems.
What to do: Get them to put it in writing. How many drafts should you expect? You can ask for “as many as it takes”, but I usually include two complete drafts — one original and one rewrite. Why? If it’s wrong the first time, it’s the fault may have been mine. Hey, it happens. The second time? It’s almost always the fault of the organization for not providing the information. I charge an hourly rate after two drafts because at that point the organization is…wait for it…disorganized!
Also make sure you understand if the speechwriter charges a premium for emergency speeches. I typically double my rate for such speeches (speeches needed within 48 hours). It’s an incredible amount of stress and I’m getting you out of a potential mess.
Finally, what’s the speechwriter’s kill fee? As in, how much do they charge if the speech gets cancelled halfway through the writing process? It’s only right the speechwriter gets paid for the work they’ve done. Again, get it in writing. If they don’t have one…well, how long have they been doing this?
A note: it’s completely understandable that you’re watching your bottom line and want somebody who will work for cheap. But be careful. Can you really trust a speechwriter with, for example, your sensitive financial information if they don’t even know their own worth? Quick way to spot an amateur? They charge a few hundred bucks for a speech. Why? Because they have no experience, you’re just a way to build their empty portfolio, or they want your information.
What is cheap? Anything under $1,000-2,000 for a 7-10 minute speech.
What do you know about our organization? Don’t expect a lot here (especially if you contacted them) but if a freelance speechwriter reaches out to you, make sure you’re not just another on a long list of cold calls. Nothing wrong with cold calls (actually, there is and there’s a special place in…), but ask what they know about the broad strategic direction of your organization. At the very least, ask if they know what you actually do. If you get “umm” as an answer, hang up or delete the email.
- How do you structure your speeches? Get them to describe (or show through speechwriting examples) how they put a speech together so the audience will be able to follow it and retain the information.
- How do you capture the “voice” of a speaker? If they only write in the style of Martin Luther King Jr., how will that help your speaker who delivers like George W. Bush?
- How do you incorporate stories or anecdotes in your speeches? In other words, can the speechwriter relate an anecdote in a way that neither embarrasses your speaker nor makes them sound disingenuous?
- How you deal with confidentiality? If you don’t already have a confidentiality agreement that the writer can sign, I suggest having a discussion about it with that writer. Are they allowed to use the name of your speaker as a reference on LinkedIn, etc.? What do they ultimately do with the information they collect about your company? How is information handled on their end, period?
When you’ve concluded your discussion with the speechwriter and you’re happy with the answers provided, summarize all of this in a short email and send it to them. Get them to respond in writing that they agree with it. This keeps both sides on the same track.
If all of this sounds like a lot of work to you, it’s not…if you’re dealing with a good speechwriter with experience. Most speechwriters already know the answers to these questions. If they don’t, it’s telling.
Finally, consider the headaches and stress you’ll experience if you don’t go through this process!
Brent Kerrigan is a professional speechwriter with more than a dozen years of experience working with executive-level clients. He also teaches speechwriting and is a former communications advisor with the Government of Canada. Find out more about his speechwriting services by clicking here.
You can also reach him by email by clicking here.