People often ask me how to get started in speechwriting. I have a long answer with some practical advice (it’s a decade old, but still valid), but the short answer is that there’s no one route in; there’s no formal career path for a speechwriter to follow.
There’s no Speechwriting Academy on the lookout for promising young high school speechwriters, offering them generous scholarships to their four-year post-secondary program, and then on completion apprenticing them to established speechwriters for a few years of grueling labour (“Fetch me more adjectives, apprentice! And be…” “…snappy? expeditious? swift?” “Yes!”) before they finally get their certification that allows them to be formally listed with the Registrar of Speechwriters.
As far as I know, anyway. Maybe you know different, and like an idiot I did this the hard way.
* * *
In April of 1989, I was working with a non-profit peace group. While we were tackling a range of issues, the most politically salient was our campaign against Canada’s planned purchase of three nuclear-powered submarines.
We’d built a lot of support, but it still came as a shock when the federal government abruptly announced they were scrapping the purchase. It came as an equal shock when, within a week or two, donations to the organization slowed drastically. Apparently, our victory prompted our donors to take their own equivalent of a peace dividend, and soon I found myself without a job.
Meanwhile, a campaign was underway for the leadership of the federal New Democratic Party. Ed Broadbent had stepped down in March, and a convention to replace him was slated for December. And an exciting candidate, Audrey McLaughlin, had just opened a campaign office in downtown Ottawa.
I found it on Bank Street, through one of those easy-to-miss doors between two storefronts, up a narrow staircase and into the makeshift office. The campaign was still very much in its startup phase: the chairs, desks, tables and filing cabinets were hand-me-downs brought in from union offices and supporters’ basements. The walls were mostly bare except for some contact lists and emergency phone numbers.
I sat down on a wobbling chair with campaign manager Valorie Preston (who’s now an accomplished artist), and volunteered my services as a communications flunkie, offering to write news releases (I was only a year out of journalism school) or leaflet copy.
“Actually…” she said, “do you have any experience speechwriting?”
* * *
In my first year of high school, I discovered debating. I got to be pretty good at it, even winning a provincial championship and going to the national high school finals. The first-prize scholarship offered by the University of Ottawa’s high school tournament paid for a year’s tuition. Debating taught me an awful lot about how to construct a persuasive spoken argument.
But those were mostly five-to-seven minute speeches. I’d only had a few occasions to speak for longer than 15 minutes or so, and I almost always went to the lectern with a fistful of scribbled notes—some prepared in advance, the rest in response to my opponents. I’d also run twice as an NDP candidate, but even that involved only a handful of short speeches, mostly at all-candidates meetings. I could count the number of prepared, formal speeches I’d ever written on the fingers of two hands: to count the ones I’d written for other people, I wouldn’t need any hands at all.
* * *
“Sure,” I told her.
After all, I had plenty of experience in planning an argument, structuring a speech and putting it all to words… in the moment. True, I was missing that middle step of writing those words down before they were spoken, but I was confident it couldn’t be all that difficult.
I told her all of that, but I started with “Sure.” I was hired (as a volunteer) on the spot, and found myself the speechwriter for a national leadership campaign. And the next six months became a crash course in political communication—starting with just how collaborative campaign speechwriting could be.
I drafted my first speech expecting to get a set of line edits back. Instead, I got direction from multiple sources, ranging from “can we say ‘they’ here instead of ‘people’?”-level tweaks to two-page think pieces with strong views on what the speech should be (summary: my draft wasn’t it).
It didn’t take too long for me to hit my stride, and for the campaign’s feedback cycle to tighten helpfully. Fast forward to early December, and Audrey made history when she won the leadership… and my career as a speechwriter was formally under way.
* * *
How many ways could my speechwriter story have gone off the rails?
- Valorie might have looked askance at this kid, barely out of university, and called up any number of veteran writers to come aboard instead.
- She could have pried a little more closely behind that “Sure,” determined that I’d never written a speech for anyone other than myself in my life, and gone to step 1.
- Audrey could have taken one look at me and my resumé, and told Valorie to go to step 1.
- I could have answered less confidently, sending Valorie to step 1.
- I could have turned down the job, because it was so far out of my league.
But none of these things happened. Valorie and Audrey (a political outsider herself) were willing to take a chance on me, and I was willing to take a chance on myself. And it didn’t hurt that I was there at exactly the right time.
Becoming a speechwriter: lessons learned
- Start with something you care very deeply about. A project that matters to you can go a long way to keeping you going during the more frustrating periods that come with doing something new.
- Go where you are needed. As the saying goes, a friend in need is a friend indeed. An organization that doesn’t have the resources to hire an experienced, full-time speechwriter may well be a lot more open to bringing in some fresh, new, untested talent at the entry level. Smaller organizations at an early stage are often your best bet. If I had just walked up to Parliament Hill and into the Leader’s Office and said “Hi, I want to write speeches,” I wouldn’t have had nearly the same warm reception as I did from a leadership campaign that was just getting going.
- Consider — cautiously — working for free. This is tricky, because there are plenty of folks out there who would be happy to exploit a novice speechwriter who’s looking for experience and, God help you, exposure. If you are going to write for free, that exposure had better be freaking spectacular… or you should be writing for an organization you care about enough that the experience will be worthwhile, regardless of whether it catapults you onto the national stage. I believed strongly in Audrey as a leader, and wanted to do whatever I could to see her elected. And often it’s the organizations that can’t afford to pay you (or pay you much) that have the opportunities for a beginner; see #2.
- Think in terms of the next step. Not in a mercenary way: there’s nothing more demoralizing than working for a cause or a company you care about, alongside someone who very clearly sees it as unworthy of their talents. But understand in your mind how this experience will prepare you to reach for the next rung on the ladder. In social movement terms, have a theory of change.
- Be your own best friend, not your own worst enemy. I could so easily have told Valorie “No, I’m not qualified. You should look for someone with more experience.” A lot of us have that little demon of doubt sitting on our shoulders, but you don’t have to give that demon voice when you’re talking to other people — and certainly not when you’re being offered a life-changing opportunity. What you owe to them is to be honest: I felt I was ready. Whether through youthful arrogance or not, I felt I could pull it off — and as it turned out, I was right.