What do you do for a living?
I am a freelance speechwriter and executive communications consultant working with high-tech companies in Silicon Valley.
How would you describe what you do?
I help executives communicate with various audiences.
Some of what I do can be described as traditional “speechwriting”, that is, writing verbatim speeches that are delivered from the podium to a live audience. However this is only a small part of the job.
Today, many executives communicate online through e-mail, blogs or websites. They also deliver live or pre-recorded messages through video. They might be speaking to employees within their own company or audiences of customers or partners outside the company. In the technology industry, where I mostly work, many executives use PowerPoint. Whatever the format, I help research and write the content.
What does your work entail?
Many brilliant executives have difficulty communicating their message. That’s where my services make a difference. Whether it’s a keynote speech, media interview, a presentation, meeting, or new product introduction, I help people deliver their messages with clarity, energy and enthusiasm.
I am usually involved from the time that the executive is booked to speak at an event. Once this is on the calendar, I will meet with the executive and the staff to outline the most effective message for the specific audience.
There is then a period of time when I’m busy doing research, interviewing subject matter experts, finding out more about the event and the audience’s needs.
I write three or more drafts of the speech, script or presentation and fact-check all the details. I may attend the event to make last-minute edits and gauge the audience’s reaction to the presentation. Once the event is over, I might post video clips to YouTube or podcast recordings so that people who were not at the event can catch it online.
What’s a typical work week like?
This work definitely goes in cycles and is not predictable. Some weeks I’ve worked over 100 hours, including last-minute late-night sessions right before a speech. Other weeks there’s time to catch up on background reading on industry trends and find new clients.
How did you get started?
I’d been in high-tech for 10 or 12 years and gradually worked my way from the tech side (doing customer support) into product training. This involved creating a lot of presentations that were used by the salespeople to explain things to customers. From there, it was a natural step to write presentations that the executives used.
But I know other speechwriters who came from different backgrounds; many had been journalists in the past.
What do you like about what you do?
Speechwriting is a great job for people who are naturally curious. No two presentations are alike or on the same topic. So it’s an opportunity to find out about a lot of things. Plus, there’s the unique opportunity to spend time with people who are leaders in an industry and help them clearly express their ideas. There’s also the chance to travel with the executives and attend high-level meetings.
What do you dislike?
This really is my dream job so there’s not a whole lot I dislike about it. Sometimes the deadlines or hours can get to you, but there’s always the reward of seeing the speech delivered.
How do you make money/or how are you compensated?
In a good year, $200,000. Most jobs will pay a flat fee, but some pay by the hour. Experienced speechwriters charge between $8-$15,000 for a project and $150-$350 an hour. These are the top rates for the corporate market.
How much money do freelance speechwriters make?
Speechwriters really fall into two groups. The political speechwriters, like the ones you see on West Wing, do it because they believe in the cause. I’m guessing they might make $30-$40,000. In the corporate world, at least in Silicon Valley, if you started out as an employee to gain experience, you’d be looking at $50-$60,000. With 6 to 10 years’ experience this could easily double.
As a freelancer, it’s all a question of finding the right clients. You need to be a good business person as well as a good writer.
How much money did/do you make starting out?
When I moved from the technical role into speechwriting I was making around $80,000.
What education, schooling, or skills are needed to do this?
There is no one degree that would be best suited for speechwriting. However English, Journalism, PR or Media Studies would be good degrees. But I’ve met speechwriters who have qualifications in History, Business and Politics. I have a Sociology degree.
It goes without saying that you need to be a good writer.
The best thing you can do is gain practical experience. Offer to write speeches or do the research for the mid-level managers in your organization, they usually have no-one to help them. You can also volunteer at non-profits and help with their presentations.
What is most challenging about what you do?
Taking all the details about the topic and boiling them down into a compelling 20 or 30 minute speech. If a senior executive is talking about three topics in one speech, they might only have 10 minutes to spend on each. But when you ask the subject matter experts in engineering or marketing for background details, they often give you many hours of material. It’s a challenge to extract the most compelling details and write a speech that will interest the audience and move them to action.
What is most rewarding?
Spending time with senior executives and helping create messages that become part of the strategic direction of the company.
What advice would you offer someone considering this career?
Listen to great speeches and read as much as possible about the craft of speechwriting. American Rhetoric (http://www.americanrhetoric.com/) is a useful resource. Consider joining Toastmasters for first-hand experience
How much time off do you get/take?
I take two weeks’ vacation a year and can also add a few days onto a business trip as personal time, especially if the event is overseas.
What is a common misconception people have about what you do?
They think it’s just like the West Wing. But most of the time it is spent alone in front of the computer.
What are your goals/dreams for the future?
I’d like to have clients in Europe and Asia as well as the US so that I can work overseas for some of the year. I’d also like to write an award-winning speech.
What else would you like people to know about your job/career?
There are not many speechwriters in the world. People often do a double-take when I tell them what I do. However, as a speechwriter you never see your name in lights. So you need to check your ego at the door and realize everything you do is to make somebody else look and sound good.