There are plenty of benefits that come along with the life of a freelance speechwriter or external communications consultant. Along with the freedom of working from a coffee shop, you get to tackle a variety of subjects and work with a range of different speakers. Given the natural curiosity of most writers, this diversity of material can be enormously stimulating.
There is a sizable downside, however. Gaining access to a speaker can prove to be a challenge, leading to endless games of phone tag. I’ve personally worked with some clients with such busy schedules that I was left to entirely coordinate their speech with a staff member or advisor – a relief on the schedule of a busy executive, but not ideal for helping me to gain a sense of their voice.
I’ve been fortunate to have worked on both sides of the coin in my speechwriting career – at various times as both an outside consultant and an in-house speechwriting staffer. While the scope of subjects might not be as varied as a freelancer’s portfolio, there is much to be said for all of the resources at your disposal. For one thing, gaining access to your principal is a much easier question when their office is just down the hall.
Best of all, a resident speechwriter normally has access to a wealth of institutional expertise and knowledge. As a speechwriter for various officials at the State Department and Energy Department during the Obama years, I had the luxury of being able to call upon subject matter experts throughout the agencies when I needed to conduct research for speeches – and I was able to name-drop my boss to help open doors that would be closed to a writer toiling alone at home.
I have learned a lot over the years about how to gain the most from these experts in crafting a speech. Managing a speechwriting process is fundamentally a question of managing relationships – not only with your primary principal, but with all of the other voices who weigh in during the journey of drafting remarks.
For one thing, a speechwriter should always remember their primary value – they know how to craft a good story. This can doubtlessly sound like a hazy skill, until you’ve had the experience of crashing and burning during a presentation. Speechwriters bring unique value to helping to translate knowledge and expertise into a pitch that will make for a compelling speech.
Own that skill.
As I began my career, I would often be intimidated when meeting with, say, a senior policy expert on human trafficking at the State Department or solar subsidies at Energy. In time, I learned to respect this expertise – while also recognizing what I brought to the table: a sense of narrative, an understanding of my boss’s priorities, a sense of how to write about biofuels in a way that won’t lull an audience to sleep immediately.
While most accomplished professionals develop a competent sense of writing, it doesn’t necessarily translate itself well to speechwriting. There is a world of difference between writing for the eye and writing for the ear - the most cogent and persuasive memo would likely be a disaster if read aloud in front of thousands of people.
I learned this distinction firsthand when I asked for details or information from experts, who often responded with dumps of raw data or indecipherable clouds of jargon. It was invariably always more effective for me to call a meeting in order to get the most useful research – in a face-to-face scenario, they couldn’t respond with an avalanche of statistics. Instead, I could engage them in a real conversation. Why does this issue matter? What does this audience care about? How would you explain this issue to a friend at a bar in casual conversation?
Not everything I learned would be gold, or especially interesting to an audience. But it would give me context. And occasionally, a real gem of an insight would emerge.
The trick is to engage experts early on. The State Department, in particular, has a culture of requiring a number of offices and experts to “sign off” on speeches before they are approved. (Or at least it did in the days of the Obama Administration, when the expertise across the Department was highly valued.)
However, waiting until this late stage of the drafting process to solicit input from experts was typically a fruitless exercise. The simple reality is that most government officials are busy. (Disregarding what you may have observed at your local DMV.) With only so many hours in the day, few experts will have the time to thoroughly dissect a speech that appears to be a fully formed product. If an expert is asked to review a near-finalized speech draft, they’re going to likely have one of a few reactions. They may be peeved that they weren’t consulted earlier. They may approach the remarks purely from the perspective of a fact checker – amending incorrect statistics, but not adding a strategic sense of what message would have the greatest impact. Or worst of all, they may see a draft that looks damn near complete and simply approve without a second thought: “This looks good.”
By engaging with experts early – even before you have finalized the structure of your speech – you can ensure that they feel like valued collaborators. And you will be far more likely to learn great stories that can bring the final product to life.
A final note on working with experts - don’t settle for one view. Most of your speechwriting process should neat and tidy, with clear lines of review and authority. An exception, however, can be in the very early drafting stage. I have learned to not ask just one policy expert for information, when I can consult with several – sometimes without them even knowing that I have cast a wide net for input. It might not be a best practice in terms of hierarchy on your organization chart, but there’s no reason that your early research process needs to depend on the perspective of one single expert.
My favorite president, Franklin Roosevelt, maintained a famously chaotic management approach in which he played advisors off of each other with unclear lines of reporting. As Doris Kearns Goodwin writes in her FDR biography No Ordinary Time, “Though divided authority and built-in competition created insecurity and confusion within the administration, it gave Roosevelt the benefit of conflicting opinions…with different administrators telling him different things, he got a better feel for what his problems were.”
There’s a lot of wisdom there – something that’s sometimes lost in bureaucratic organizations like federal agencies and large corporations. So, my advice to any speechwriter is to not settle for talking to the division boss or chief of staff – also spend time talking to people lower in the ranks, closer to the ground. You may be surprised at what you’ll come up with.