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What exactly does it take to become a professional speechwriter?
How do you bake a pie? First, get a stove.
How do you become a speechwriter? Kind of the same thing.
As executive director of the Professional Speechwriters Association, I get notes all the time like the one I got the other night on LinkedIn:
"How can a seasoned writer in other venues (journalism, academic, corporate, nonprofit) get a foot in the speechwriting door. Thanks in advance for any brain-picked crumbs of insight!"
Maybe it was because he caught me at the end of a long day, but I thought his tone was a little flip. I recommended he get a grounding in speechwriting principles and techniques by signing up for the PSA's spring Speechwriting School Online.
He came back, "Is there a 'Working Poor' pricing model ;-( Likely not."
I further suggested that, once he has taken a speechwriting course, he should "find a worthy client or two who can't afford a speechwriter, and write a few speeches pro bono, to see if you've got the chops and to get a couple of clips, so that you can call yourself a speechwriter with a straight face."
"How would I find someone to take a chance on me? Post to my LinkedIn wall: 'Hey any cheap-ass CEO wannabes out there who need ....?'"
No, I patiently explained, "I'd look for the boss of a nonprofit, maybe a local nonprofit, that you care about. They usually have something meaningful to say, but not the resources to hire a hotshot [speechwriter]."
And then I said it for the first time, after so many years spent trying to sound encouraging to people who want to break into speechwriting. "Getting into speechwriting is not actually very easy," I told him. "You have to commit yourself to it, if you're going to convince powerful people (the ones with the bucks to spend) that you should help them express themselves."
Far from wanting to sound exclusionary, as executive director of the PSA, I want to be welcoming. I allow myself to envision a moment 10 or 15 years from now when there are many speechwriters who tell of how they came to the PSA cold, were treated warmly and encouraged—and are thriving today.
I also believe there are many ways to be a good speechwriter, which is why I've resisted occasional calls for the PSA to issue official speechwriter "certification." You can be a lyrical writer-for-the-ear, you can be a savant of rhetoric and argument, you can be erudite and culturally literate, you can be a genius of empathy, you can be a trusted confidante, you can be a great collaborator, you can be a master of industry policy, you can be a master bureaucrat. Few speechwriters who I know are all of the above, and in fact, three out of seven ain't bad.
But if you're going to bust your way into speechwriting and muscle past a few hundred people who have been doing this difficult and dangerous workfor awhile, you should have to convince someone (yourself, first) that you know something more about this craft than every other jamoke on LinkedIn with "communication" in his or her title.
Shouldn't you? —DM