In December 1984, I quit my job as a staff speechwriter in New York City to start my own freelance speechwriting business. I’ve never looked back.
If you ever think about quitting your day job to work as a freelance writer, you’ll get valuable guidance from the following article:
Last week, a colleague wrote to tell me that she had read a wonderful book: The King’s Speech – How One Man Saved the British Monarchy (written by Mark Logue and Peter Conradi, published in 2010, based on the newly discovered diaries of Lionel Logue).
As it turns out, I read the book about a year ago and I concur with my colleague: This book is absolutely wonderful. I keep it by my desk just so I can remind myself of the power that lives in each speaker.
If you’re a speechwriter … if you’re a speaker … if you’re a speech coach … if you like history .. if you follow royalty … if you are keen on all things British … if you just plain like to read a fine book … then do not miss this book.
A few days ago, I was coaching two top-level government speechwriters. Our discussions covered a range of significant speechwriting issues – working with clients who have incredibly busy schedules, serving our organizations effectively, creating speeches that generate positive media buzz.
But I told them: It’s your nitty-gritty line editing skills that will distinguish you as a professional speechwriter, and it’s your nitty-gritty line editing skills that will give your speakers a manuscript they can deliver with style.
I highly recommend Line by Line: How to Edit Your Own Writing [The one book that shows you how to make what you say as good as what you mean], written by Claire Kehrwald Cook and published by the Modern Language Association.
Study this material. It will pay off.
… then it’s soon time for Parents Night at schools across the United States. Every back to school program involves speeches and presentations.
As a parent who sat through years of Parent Nights, I have a few words of public speaking advice for both teachers and administrators:
1. Less is more. Don’t fill every minute of your allotted time with a PowerPoint presentation. Before you launch into your presentation, give parents a few moments at the beginning to get seated (remember, they are not used to squeezing into those cramped desks). Above all, give them ample time at the end to ask you questions! An intereactive Q&A is more important than anything you can say or show on your own.
2. More is not more. Whatever you do, don’t run overtime. Running even one minute over the established schedule will work against you. Parents want to hear you talk, and then they want you to stop talking. Give an efficient presentation that runs on time (or, better yet, that runs short). Immediately after you wrap, parents need to rush to the next room on the schedule so they can meet – and yes, assess! – another teacher. Delay parents at your own peril.
Last week, I taught a 1-day speechwriting workshop in the greater Washington DC area. Throughout the day, I made a number of references to linguistics – in particular, what speechwriters can learn from this field.
One attendee asked if I could recommend a few good books on linguistics. I can. Over the next few weeks, I’ll post about several resources.
I highly recommend the way we talk now (yes, all lower case), by linguist Geoffrey Nunberg. Published by Houghton Mifflin, the book provides commentaries on language and culture.
This praise comes from Deborah Tannen (whose work I also admire): “Geoffrey Nunberg’s witty and entertaining commentaries will turn anyone into a lover of language. He shows how language can be a lens through which to view our evolving popular culture.”
Did you notice the “Best Sellers” section in The New York Times last Sunday (August 17)? It opened with this comment:
“Can punctuation help sell a book? It can’t hurt!” And then the section cited these books:
IS EVERYONE HANGING OUT WITHOUT ME? (AND OTHER CONCERNS), by Mindy Kaling
The Pigeon Needs A Bath!, by Mo Willems
#GIRLBOSS, by Sophia Amoruso
I’m thinking: If lively punctuation can help sell a book, maybe it can also draw more attention to a speech. At conferences and conventions, presentations with the best titles tend to attract the largest crowds and get the most media attention.
I say: Speechwriters and presenters can learn from the Best Seller list.
2014 Call for Entries
Yes, says Hal Higdon (a fellow member of my main professional organization, ASJA – the American Society of Journalists and Authors).
We have treasures in our attics and treasures in our filing cabinets and treasures at the back of desk drawers.
I smiled when I read Hal’s article. After freelancing for 30+ years, it’s easy to forget about the lovely nuggets that I placed aside for safe keeping a couple decades ago. Sweet letters from Dr. Norman Vincent Peale, an autographed bookplate from Ellie Wiesel, a memento from my interview with Sammy Cahn, a gracious note from Glenn Close, handwritten thanks from CEOs, little gifts from grateful clients.
In spite of several moves, all these little treasures are still with me.
Best of all? The terrific memories.
Enjoy Hal’s article. See if you have treasures in your own attic - literally and figuratively. If you’ve been writing for a while, I’ll bet you do.
I’ve had my own consulting business since January 1985. People often ask what my “typical” assignment is. I chuckle: No such thing in this office as a “typical” assignment.
I began this week by teaching a 2-hour presentation skills workshop at an educational institution in the greater Philadelphia area … editing a speech for a client in Virginia … doing (ongoing) speechwriting for a financial services client … preparing to coach a corporate executive in Toronto … and teaching a full-day speechwriting workshop to the US military in Washington DC.
I don’t have a “typical” assignment. I don’t have a “typical” week.
And that’s how I like it! Each client is unique, each speech is different, each training/coaching assignment brings its own satisfactions.
Yesterday I received an email from a journalist who wants to move into freelance speechwriting. She asked if I had any advice. I do. And, since many writers want to move into freelance speechwriting, I’ll offer my advice via this blog.
Here’s the key point to keep in mind:
When you seek freelance speechwriting assignments, you should try to work directly for the client. Avoid intermediaries – for example, avoid working through public relations firms or agencies.
Why? Lots of reasons. Truly, lots and lots of reasons. For now, here are two:
1. If you accept speechwriting assignments through a PR firm or some sort of an agency, it’s quite possible the firm/agency will make more money than you do. You’re the skilled writer who’s doing the work, but the hefty fees will go to the firm, not to you. A PR firm might bill the client $20,000 and pay only $3,000 to a freelancer who’s desperate enough to work at this rate.
2. If you work through a PR firm, you might be kept “hidden.” You might not meet the client in person. In fact, you might not even be allowed to talk with the client on the phone. Reality: the client might never know about your existence, let alone learn your name and hear about your credentials. Often a client will only know that a speech is being written “through the firm”. If you do a great [anonymous] speechwriting job, the firm will get the credit – not you. How can you get referrals to grow your speechwriting business if you don’t have direct contact with clients?