So there I was, sipping cocktails on the Mayan Riviera when a speech request came in. I wandered to my cabana, fired up my laptop and dreamed up a few words of wisdom for the ages.
My client read everything exactly as prepared, gave me a big fat bonus, and then flew me to Paris to complete my next speechwriting gig.
If it sounds ridiculous, it is. Judging by the letters I get, however, some believe this is how international speechwriters live.
Too bad it’s nothing like that.
I’m going to share a few stories with you about how writing speeches internationally actually works, warts and all.
Why bother? Because if you quit your job and move to Zimbabwe in the hope of making millions as a freelance speechwriter, you might be in for a surprise.
If you still feel like doing it, I’ll end by giving you a few recommendations to save you time and money.
(Psst, if you really just want to know how to become a speechwriter, you may want to check out this article).
So, the life.
What is it like to move from country to country writing speeches? Is it glamorous? Is it all rubbing elbows with the rich and famous?
Of course it is. Boy, did YOU ever take a wrong turn on career day in high school!
Kidding, here are the most common problems you’ll encounter.
Problem 1: Bureaucracy
While technology and instant communications have made a joke out of borders and information restrictions, tight-ass governments haven’t cracked a smile.
While it may sound fantastic to just travel to Germany and write speeches for Germans, you have obviously never dealt with a German. Ever.
I should know – I just moved from there.
Free enterprise and Germany are not easy bedmates. There is a systemic need for control over most aspects of life and for freelancers, getting a work visa, getting clients and getting paid a decent return is incredibly tough.
Look, these are still people who count pennies at the supermarket and refuse to take credit cards at most restaurants: the idea of an auslander creeping in to write a few speeches in English is enough to send them into paroxysms of sputtering rage. Even though speech help is needed. Desperately.
Most countries have laws restricting what kind of work you can do as a freelancer. Obviously it makes sense to check those laws before you quit your job and head over.
How do I do it? I’m smart – I married a diplomat. She travels the world and the visa restrictions are a bit more relaxed…but not always. More on that in a bit.
Problem #2: You’re Always Beginning
How much time do most experts (if you define experts as people on the Internet who do top ten lists) suggest it takes for a freelance business to become successful? About six months. That’s extremely generous, but let’s see how it applies to the travelin’ freelance speechwriting life.
Say you’ve managed to scrape together a business in Berlin. You decide you want to move and try your luck in, say, India.
First, good luck with that. Second, where do you go for clients? Is the process the same as Germany? How do you register your business? Will you get thrown in jail if you don’t? Where can you meet other freelancers who won’t be pissed off they have some competition? Where do you meet those who can make a difference?
You need new business cards and resumes (oh wait, this isn’t 1990 anymore), new associations, new relationships.
Also, your previous internet provider won’t let you out of your last contract in Berlin. The one in India won’t let you register without a permanent address.
Electricity to hook up, rental agreements to sign and escape from, kids to register in school, pets to vaccinate, health problems to navigate. There’s a lot more to a move than simply showing up. And don’t forget: you don’t speak the language or understand the local bribery rates.
The idea that you get off the plane and clients come running is not only problematic, it’s borderline insane.
Problem #3: They Don’t Give A Damn About (Paying For) Speechwriting
The third reality of dealing with life as an international speechwriter is that you must realize that most people somewhat get the idea of a speechwriter, but could never actually imagine paying one.
See, speechwriting is kind of a North American thing (we’ll include the Brits as well).
Mexico City, my current home, is an excellent example. Everybody knows the speeches currently given are mas o menos, and everybody knows that help is needed. And they’d LOVE to have you for a few speech workshops. But to pay for them? Well.
You’ll soon find out that a big part of your job in non-traditional speechwriting markets is educating potential clients about why speeches matter. Feel like doing that? If you want this job you better learn how to do it. You’re not only marketing, you’re educating.
Perhaps the toughest part, however, about being an international travelling speechwriter, is…
Problem #4: The Family.
Right! Forgot about them, didn’t you!
I’ve got two kids: a one-year-old and a four-year-old. Sometimes they need care and supervision.
While the dog is an excellent babysitter, the authorities don’t always agree (unless you live in Texas. Trust me, I have.). So, when a speech request comes in for a speech the next morning and you’re like me and you’ve got to make cookies for school, clean the pants your child just crapped in, get the kids to school, and then clean the crayon off the babysitting dog, it’s really hard to give that speech your full, undivided attention (even though you do).
Not to mention uprooting them from their friends and families every few years. Ever try to tell your four-year-old that they will never, ever, ever, ever, EVER see their best friends ever again? Deadlines are a piece of cake compared to that.
I’ve listed four of the biggest problems, but there are, of course, countless others.
If all of this sounds good and you think you’re still cut out to be an international speechwriter, here are a few tips.
First, don’t quit your current job until you have some established clients.
That’s the mistake I made when I launched my business a few years ago. I figured that once I quit my job with the federal government, I’d just turn around and contract to them again.
Let’s just say I didn’t read the fine print.
If you have some clients in the bag, you can worry less about that six-month “getting yourself established” period. If you have one client willing to pay your way to a new country, even better.
At this point, I get the following question: “how can I write speeches while I’m still currently in a job?”
I guess you need to find the time and you’ll have to work harder than normal.
Sorry, I’m sure that answer isn’t on a lot of top 10 lists, but it’s true. You simply have to do what you can on the side—by hook or by crook.
Second, build a slush fund for the horrible periods of destitution, self-doubt and loneliness.
There are some months when you will earn nothing. Forget what others suggest about fast riches and fame, there will be times when you’ll be hunting for coal on the sidewalk.
If you’re a speechwriter, you’ll find that people typically buy speeches during two times of the year: spring and fall. These are the periods when a)businesses and governments still have money in that year’s budget and b) speakers actually give speeches.
Let’s say you get a stack of great keynote speeches to write in April and the cash is flowing in. You may wish to reconsider buying the Porsche, because that stack may turn to dust come July.
How to solve this? Diversify your services.
I don’t put all of my eggs in one basket. I don’t just write speeches. You may have noticed that I also like to train speechwriters. I can do this from anywhere in the world. It’s also awesome, you should join. When the speech writing business is low, the training balances it, and vice versa.
I find that flexible cash flow makes my speechwriting morals less flexible. To wit: I’m not forced into writing for heinous groups such as tobacco companies to survive. Hey, how else do you think they get their speechwriters?
Third, make your damn business borderless already!
I’m centralized because I can write from anywhere. If I’m living in Berlin, I don’t just hunt for clients from Berlin (what is this, 1915?), I hunt for them globally. Why else have a technological revolution? Why bother with the Internet at all? The only material items you need to become a speechwriter are a computer, a word processor, the Internet and, as an extra, Skype.
So here’s the catch at the very end of this article: in order to be an international speechwriter, you don’t actually need to travel at all.
Wicked, I know.
If you have any questions about speechwriting, and you’re willing to accept an honest answer, get in touch with me at firstname.lastname@example.org. Better yet, why not take the first step in becoming a speechwriter by taking my On-Demand Speechwriting Course? You’ll be glad you did.