Meet the Speechwriters: ‘Eccentric’ Doesn’t Even Begin to Describe This Group

July 25, 2016


Speechwriters are a little odd, because speechwriting is a strange job. Recruiters who are looking for “normal” speechwriters will look forever. Looking for any speechwriter is difficult because, as the old saying goes, the title “speechwriter” is only a little more common than the title “CEO’s lover.” Headhunters have a hard time finding speechwriters because they often lack linear career paths, rarely seem like the “perfect fit” and sometimes even wear funny shoes.

I once recommended one of the smartest speechwriters I know to a recruiter who rejected her because he found her “loquacious” and was afraid the CEO would too. If you reject a speechwriter because she talks a little too much during a job interview, you’re going to have a very hard time finding a speechwriter.

Speechwriters, to the extent that they are good, are also a little strange. They should be. They have a weird job to do. They are intellectuals who are trying to capture and refine and express the point of view of other people who are more powerful and intelligent in very different ways from the speechwriter.

What are speechwriters like? Let me introduce you to some:

•    I know a speechwriter who dismisses the whole job as an answer to a powerful person’s command: “Write down my thoughts as if I had them.”

•    I know young speechwriters frustrated because leaders don’t take them seriously, and older speechwriters who can’t get hired because nobody likes to hire older workers.

•    I saw a speechwriter nearly break down in tears discussing his love of libraries.

•    I know a speechwriter who at business cocktail parties loudly recites long, memorized passages of literary works (while holding a wine glass…), including this assessment of President Warren G. Harding’s prose by H.L. Mencken: “He writes the worst English that I have ever encountered. It reminds me of a string of wet sponges; it reminds me of tattered washing on the line; it reminds me of stale bean soup, of college yells, of dogs barking idiotically through endless nights. It is so bad that a sort of grandeur creeps into it. It drags itself out of the dark abysm of pish, and crawls insanely up the topmost pinnacle of posh. It is rumble and bumble. It is flap and doodle. It is balder and dash.”

•    I know a speechwriter/cabaret singer. (In fact, she’s speaking and singing at the 2016 World Conference of the Professional Speechwriters Association.)

•    I know a speechwriter who operates, for part of his living, a regional association of speechwriters. For the rest of his living, he runs a regional association of funeral directors.

•    I know an African-American White House speechwriter who hated President Clinton’s welfare reform plan, but who wrote the speech anyway because he wanted to make sure the message was delivered properly.

•    I know a mild-mannered speechwriter who once felt so wronged by the office politics involving a colleague that he was arrested for assault.

•    I know the speechwriter who was writing for Penn State when the Jerry Sandusky scandal blew up. Asked during a Q-and-A at a speechwriting conference how she handled that year, she said “wine and pills.”

•    I know speechwriters named Tack Cornelius, Cappy Surette, Vinca LaFleur and Lucinda Holdforth.

•    I know several speechwriters who are working hard to create a speechwriting code of ethics. I know several other speechwriters who think that is the funniest thing they’ve ever heard.

•    I know at least two dozen speechwriters who have been interviewed and rejected or hired and then fired by the same Fortune 100 CEO.

•    I know more than one speechwriter who was cast aside by the CEO but not fired, and spent miserable, idle years on end waiting for a new boss to come along and use him again.

•    I know a speechwriter who once made seven figures.

•    I know speechwriters who have done nothing but speechwriting for 40 years.

•    I know a freelance speechwriter whose marketing strategy centers on speaking at conferences, but he hasn’t traveled to a conference for the past three years because his aging, anxiety-ridden dog can’t bear to be without him.

•    I know a rock band called Speechwriters LLC.

•    I know a speechwriter who got promoted out of speechwriting and into management. And she misses speechwriting, which she remembers as “incredibly simple and fulfilling.”

•    I know a speechwriter who quit speechwriting after 30 years to become a real estate agent. “I love it and wish I had done it 20 years ago,” she says.

•    I know a speechwriter who grew up in a trailer smaller than the corporate jet he travels on with the CEO he writes for. (And the moving and courageous speech he delivered about his life was a runner-up in the 2016 Cicero Speechwriting Awards.)

Done right, speechwriting is an intellectually and emotionally demanding job with absurdity built in. So you must find someone who has acquired, over time, through difficult and confusing experiences, the unique tools required to do this job.

The chances that person is old enough and young enough, egg-headed enough and savvy enough, detached enough and committed enough — the chances that this candidate will present like the perfect PR people person — well, those chances are slim to none, and none just got laid off.

When interviewing someone for a speechwriting job, listen to her words, get to know her mind and don’t look down. Because you’re not hiring her for her shoes. 

David Murray

David Murray is executive director of the Professional Speechwriters Association. He is also editor of Vital Speeches of the Day, a monthly magazine that collects the world’s best speeches.


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