Read as Michael Freeman talks about his career as a Speechwriter. Find him at www.podiumprose.com.
What do you do for a living?
I write speeches for individuals in business, government, non-profit organizations, politics and even, on rare occasion, the entertainment and sports worlds. Additionally, I write and consult with clients on issue-focused campaigns and the creation of op-eds, white papers, annual reports, blog posts, video scripts and other communications materials.
How would you describe what you do?
In short, I take my clients’ ideas and package them in a way that will be compelling and will resonate with their target audiences. I need to understand the ultimate objective a speech or an op-ed piece is intended to achieve and then figure out the right words to get there.
What does your work entail?
Actually, it’s a misconception that a writer – at least, in my case – spends all of his or her days hunched over the keyboard writing. I spend more time researching, broadening my understanding of the topics involved in a project, and speaking with clients to fully absorb their point of view than I spend actually putting words on paper.
What’s a typical work week like?
In the kind of work I do, there really is no such thing as a typical week. When you work for clients on a freelance or even a retainer basis, the flow of work is not consistent. One week, you may have three or four major projects that need to be finished. Another week may involve just preliminary groundwork and researching. If you want to be able to plan your days out in nice, neat little packages, this is not an ideal career choice.
How did you get started?
I’ve always enjoyed writing. My early goal was to be a sportswriter and, in fact, throughout college, I made money on weekends covering high school football and basketball games for the local newspaper. Eventually, my love of competition took me into politics and I became press secretary for a U.S. Senate campaign. That brought me to Washington, D.C. and my volunteering, in our Senate office, to write speeches. I came to love that form of writing and have been doing it ever since.
What do you like about what you do?
What I enjoy the most about speechwriting is the merger of substance and style. When it comes to subject matter, you have to strive to be a like a Jeopardy contestant in terms of breadth of knowledge, knowing at least a little about a lot of different things. I’ve written speeches on subjects ranging from cardiovascular surgical tools to natural gas pipeline safety to challenges facing the Asian banking industry. Working in a panorama of different topics, you never have a chance to get bored. Then, you have to merge that substance, with the speaking style of the individual who is going to be delivering the material. That’s when it gets both fun and challenging.
What do you dislike?
There’s an old saying that writers love having written, but they hate the actual process of writing. That’s not entirely the case, but there are elements of truth to it. Everyone who does this for a living has had those dark nights of the soul when, at 3 a.m., the ideas simply aren’t flowing and you question why you ever took on this project, or even this career, in the first place. There is no worse feeling than having no idea what to put on that blank computer screen, but there is no better feeling than overcoming that mental barrier – and you will eventually overcome it – and feeling the words and phrases click into place.
How do you make money/or how are you compensated?
I always charge clients a flat fee per speech, a figure that is agreed upon up front before the project ever begins. Some charge for their work on an hourly basis, and there are writing career guidebooks that even recommend this, but I don’t think that approach is fair to either me or my clients. My clients shouldn’t have to pay more for the hours I spend in anguish futilely working through adequate ideas before I come up with a great one, and I shouldn’t penalize myself if the words flow quickly and a project goes more rapidly than expected.
With some of my regular clients, I work on a monthly retainer basis and am on call whenever they need a project completed.
How much money do Speechwriters make?
According to the publication Writer’s Market, a 30-minute speech should bring a minimum fee of at least $2,700, with a mid range of between $5,000 and $6,000. The reality is that the fee range for freelance speechwriters is extraordinarily wide based on both the experience and credentials of the writer and the type of client involved. An experienced speechwriter crafting prose for a Fortune 500 CEO will charge a five-figure fee, while a lesser experienced writer working with a small non-profit organization may charge a few hundred dollars.
According to salary.com, the average salary for an on-staff speechwriter is approximately $75,000 annually. Again, though, that can vary considerably based on the employer and the writer’s experience.
How much money did/do you make starting out?
Keep in mind that this was over 30 years ago. When I was a U.S. Senate press secretary in 1981, I incorporated speechwriting into my job. At that time, I was making $22,000 per year and supplementing my salary working weekends as an auctioneer for an art gallery. When I went into freelance speechwriting, I think part of my early popularity stemmed from the fact I was ridiculously undercharging clients for my work. There was a painful chasm between my writing ability and my business sense.
What education, schooling, or skills are needed to do this?
Conventional wisdom would say you should have an English or journalism degree to get into speechwriting (I majored in journalism and political science), but I think the primary prerequisites are intellectual curiosity and a desire to continually improve your writing skills. I’ve told students that they should make their reading material as expansive as possible. Learn about government, politics, science, literature, social trends, the arts, pop culture and every other imaginable subject. The best speechwriters are those who can be conversant on a litany of different topics.
What is most challenging about what you do?
From a business standpoint, marketing is always a tremendous challenge. Speechwriting isn’t a service that lends itself to general, broad-market advertising. It’s challenging to pinpoint and reach the people who make decisions on hiring speechwriters. Most of my work comes via word-of-mouth.
Creatively, the mental compartmentalization involved in handling multiple speechwriting projects at the same time is always challenging, but not unpleasantly so. You need to train yourself to shift gears from an energy policy speech to a business-focused address to motivational remarks, all within a single afternoon.
What is most rewarding?
For a speechwriter, there are a couple of answers to that question. The first concerns the relationship between the speechwriter and the client. When a client reads a speech draft and says, ‘That sounds exactly like me,” that tells me I’ve succeeded in listening to the client, absorbing their style and capturing them in my mind’s eye while putting words to paper. That’s a very satisfying feeling.
Then, it isn’t often that you actually get to hear one of the speeches you’ve written being delivered. On the few times I’ve been able to sit in the audience, though, there is no better sense of achievement than hearing people respond to a speech’s humor and applause lines, and then give the speaker a resounding ovation at the end.
Once, I was able to ghostwrite a humorous one-act play for a celebrity client involved in a competition for charity. The night all of the competing plays were performed by a professional theatre company, my client’s play won a standing ovation and he took the bows. No one in the building knew I had written the dialogue, but it was one of the most rewarding nights of my life nonetheless.
What advice would you offer someone considering this career?
Write as often as you can, and pay close attention to the work of different writers. Learn how to write for the eye (opinion pieces, white papers, website text, blogs) as well as the ear (speeches). Anyone who will ever hire you to write speeches will insist upon seeing the quality of your work. Years ago, it was more difficult to get yourself published. Today, you can always start your own blog to put your writing on display. Write often, in different formats and on multiple topics.
How much time off do you get/take?
On one hand, freelance speechwriting is not a nine-to-five desk job and you can plug in your laptop from any location. So, if you have the opportunity to write with a view of palm trees and beautiful blue waters, more power to you. On the other hand, if you’re conscientious to your clients, you’re always on call when they need a full speech or a set of brief remarks prepared, so a vacation can turn into a working trip with a single phone call or e-mail.
What is a common misconception people have about what you do?
Particularly in the political world, there is sometimes a perception that speechwriters take on a Svengali-like power and create the ideas that politicians simply vocalize. (Of course, some well-known speechwriters have not exactly tried to discourage that image in order to tout their own importance.) In actuality, I believe good speechwriters are also excellent listeners and are able to capture both the substance and the nuance of their boss/client’s vision.
What are your goals/dreams for the future?
Well, my lifelong goal was always to play second base for the Minnesota Twins. At age 54, though, I think my window of opportunity on that one may be closing. More realistically, I hope to just keep improving as a professional and earn the opportunity to do more challenging work.
What else would you like people to know about your job/career?
I think there are people who wonder why there’s even a need for speechwriters. After all, why can’t people just say what they want to say without getting an outside professional involved? The fact is, though, that there is an art to keeping audiences mentally engaged and, where it’s desired, emotionally involved and motivated. The speechwriter’s job is to create that link between the speaker and the listener so that the speaker’s ideas have a lasting impact.