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SpeechList Issue #7: Five ways to break into speechwriting

Issue 7 - September 5, 2006
by Rob Cottingham
(c) Social Signal 2006

1. Opening words: Speechwriting life

This issue, we'll look at some answers to the question I get asked more often than any other: how do I break in to professional speechwriting?

Maybe it's surprising there's so much interest in our field. Authenticity is valued more and more highly, and can be hard to reconcile with reciting a script written by someone else. And with the decline of formal oratory - especially, but not exclusively, in politics - you might think professional speechwriting is going the way of the fax machine: not exactly extinct, but much less significant than it used to be.

Yet even in this wired age, face-to-face communication remains important. Audiences and speakers alike continue to seek out its intimacy, immediacy and richness. If, as Woody Allen once said, 80 percent of success is showing up, then in-person presentations are going to keep happening.

Maybe busy leaders, executives, activists, parents and advocates would write every word themselves in an ideal world. But that's not what I'm seeing. Instead, I'm noticing more and more people trying to carve out time by focusing on their core strengths and outsourcing everything else. And if they don't happen to be great writers - or even good ones - well, that's when our phones start ringing.

There's life in speechwriting yet. Helping people say what's really on their minds is no impediment to authenticity; with many speakers, it's downright mandatory. So to everyone who's champing at the bit, ready and willing to jump into this business, welcome aboard.

2. Feature article: Five ways to break into speechwriting

Maybe you've written a few speeches for yourself or others that went over well. Maybe you're just attracted by the glitz and glamour of the profession. (Maybe you just fell over laughing.) Whatever the reason, you want to start speechwriting professionally.

But where to begin? Unlike aspiring doctors, bike mechanics and chefs, speechwriters don't have a prescribed course of study and internship. There aren't a lot of jobs out there labeled "speechwriter", and no one career path to follow.

The bright side is, that means there are a lot of ways into the business. Here are five tips for anyone who wants to make the leap into professional speechwriting.

  • Talk it up. The very first thing to do is to let people know you're looking for assignments. Ask them to tell their friends and colleagues. Look through your contacts for anyone who could arrange an introduction to a potential client, and make the call.
  • Give a little bit. Find a cause, a candidate or an organization you support personally, and offer to write a speech for them either for free or at a steep discount. Then make it the best speech you possibly can. What could you get out of it? Three invaluable things: a superb piece for your portfolio, a new and grateful addition to your professional network, and a speaker who gives your name when people ask, "Who wrote that terrific speech?"
  • Carve out a niche. What issues or topics do you know really well? What genres of speech are you best at ‚Äì keynotes, roasts, lectures? Letting people know that you have a special area of expertise allows you to define a market all your own. And when you're just beginning, a distinct identity goes a long way to helping you stand out from the pack.
  • Write to be noticed. Find opportunities to write for publication ‚Äì especially the kind of publication that will be seen by your prospective clients. Columns in trade magazines, op-ed pieces in newspapers and other publications give you exposure and credibility, not to mention the chance to develop your skills in a sideline.
  • Stake out your online turf. I've been headhunted three times purely on the strength of my web site and blog. Blogging is a particularly easy way to begin building a compelling web presence. And if you've followed the third tip, and carved out a distinctive niche for yourself, then writing about topics within that niche will help establish your authority... not to mention making your site a magnet for people searching about those topics.
       However you approach your online presence, be sure your site includes your latest contact information and a professional profile establishing your speechwriting bona fides.

It can take some time to build up your clientele, but don't let that discourage you. Speechwriting's one of those fields where talent can take you a long way... and talent plus a little marketing savvy can take you even further.

Your turn: How did you break into speechwriting... or are you still trying? What's worked for you, and what would you steer clear of? Let us know at speechlist@socialsignal.com!

3. Feed your toolbox! New resources for speechwriters

When it comes to communications tools, you don't get much older than speechwriting... yet the newest technologies can help us out a lot. The right tool for your next speech may be as close as your nearest Internet connection.

So starting with this issue, we'll be profiling some of the best online resources for speechwriters. And we'll kick off this feature with a bumper crop of tools, blogs and reference sites.

Let Google be your secretary: Reader Dennis Jordan emailed to say, "Google's new Notebook application is an excellent tool for writers. It let's you clip and organize bite-sized bits of web content nearly instantly. Today, I've clipped one new word ('sclerotic') for a vocabulary; your comment on repetition (quoting a 'Van Jones'); and the titles of two books I want. Great tool! http://www.google.com/notebook."

Find that factoid: Ian Griffin's blog, Executive Communications, ran a recent series on search tools for speechwriters. Google isn't the only game in town, and when you're trying to track down that elusive quotation, anecdote or statistic, it may not always be your best bet. Ian explains in parts one, two and three.

Stay in the loop: You already know about SpeechList (and may I just say, what fine taste you're demonstrating). But there are a number of other resources and sites by and for speechwriters. Check out Colin Moorhouse's free newsletter duo, Fearless Freelancing and We Need a Speech, and get his best speechwriting and freelancing tips delivered straight to your inbox. (And while you're there, have a look at Colin's speechwriting blog.)

Mingle and mix: There's a terrific group blog at the Washington Speechwriters Roundtable. You'll find plenty of advice and commentary from professionals writing for everyone from senators to lobbyists to non-profits, updated frequently.

Got a tool you can't live without? A web site you check compulsively? Sharing is good for your karma - tell us about it at speechlist@socialsignal.com.

4. Speechlist's new home

There have been one or two small changes behind the scenes. SpeechList, and my speechwriting practice, have a new home: Social Signal, the company I helped to launch at the beginning of the year. Our focus is on online community, but we have a healthy respect for the power of face-to-face communications and leadership... hence SpeechList's new presence there.

I hope you'll check out Social Signal — and drop by our blog. You'll find lots of information on the social web, as well as back issues of SpeechList and more.

5. This issue's tip

Your client is hot to trot with a new speech assignment. Great! But when you asked them what the speech is about, all you got was a meandering series of barely related ideas, factoids, anecdotes and arguments. So what are you going to do?

Here's a way to focus your client's attention: ask them what they want the audience to do after the speech.

Writing that information down and giving it to the speechwriter accomplishes two things:

One, it gives the writer the kind of specific direction she or he needs to do the job right the first time.

And two, it forces the client to confront just how pointless their speech may actually be - and jolt them into embracing something a lot more powerful.

6. Subscribing, unsubscribing and passing along the news

  • Want to sign up for a free subscription to SpeechList? Visit SpeechList.com for details.
  • And please feel free to pass this newsletter on to anyone else you think might be interested!


April says

August 18, 2009 - 3:28am

This is a terrific article, very helpful indeed.  It seems almost impossible in the UK to find an internship in Speech writing at present, so any information and guidance is always welcome.  Thankyou!

Rob Cottingham says

August 18, 2009 - 8:28pm

I'm really glad it was useful - even three years later! Good luck with your search.

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