Five hard lessons I’ve learnt from running my own speechwriting business

Posted on 28 August 2019  |   Leave a comment

1) What exactly does a speechwriter do? 

The basic principles of speechwriting are simple and obvious.

There’s a story about famous basketball coach John Wooden – a figure who is lauded by managers like Alex Ferguson.

These brilliant basketball players turn up for their first day of training. Coach Wooden says, ‘I want you to make a circle and take a seat. I’m going to teach you to tie your shoelaces.’

Cue indignation.

At first it seems as if he’s treating them like primary school children. But he’s not. He explains later that if you don’t put your socks on properly, you’re going to get blisters. If you don’t lace up your shoes correctly, you’re going to sprain your ankle. While these things may seem to be trivial, for basketball players, they’re palpably not.

Speechwriting is just like that.

It’s straightforward when you know what you’re trying to achieve, but most people are confused about what they’re trying to achieve.

2) Can you really be a specialist speechwriter?

Charlie Munger, the great investor, talks about a ‘circle of competence’. He and Warren Buffett have three baskets. IN, OUT and ‘Too Tough’.

Some journalists want to write novels, opinion pieces, film scripts, TV documentaries and become politicians. Actually, I think it’s better to focus on just one thing. It makes life so much easier.

I’ve got a Word template for writing speeches.

I’ve got 300 pages of stories, quotations and one-liners I’ve collected. I’ve written dozens of birthday, wedding and anniversary speeches.

I’ve got a headstart on anyone else – not because I’m smarter, but because I can look at one I wrote last year.

If someone wants me to do some other writing task, like copywriting, I have to start from scratch and I also have to work out what to charge.

That’s hard.

3) Do people really spend £3000 on a speech?

Epictetus said: ‘It is impossible for a man to learn what he thinks he already knows.’

I dress myself. This is a skill I’ve picked up during my life.

Am I competent at it?

In my 30s, I became unhappy with my clothes.

I employed an image consultant. She told me some harsh truths.

I was in the habit of picking up an M&S jumper or a £30 shirt probably because that’s what my dad did. But I’m not my dad.

I told her what I wanted to communicate about myself, and she told me the brands that did that. Ever since I only buy from Ted Baker and Reiss. Now I love my wardrobe.

I don’t buy lots of cheap clothes on impulse any more. I buy a small number of expensive items of clothing a few times a year.

Getting someone to write you a speech is the same.

Pay for it once and you’ll get a much better idea how it’s done. You’ll probably never write a speech in the same way; you may never need to employ a speechwriter again.

4) Do you turn away clients?

When I was young and inexperienced, I didn’t.

Now I treat all clients with suspicion.

A lot of speechmaking within organisations is about projecting status.

FT journalist, Gillian Tett, suggested that the financial crisis was caused by big swinging dicks showing each other unintelligible PowerPoint slides at fancy conventions in places like Cannes. That is usually part of an organisational culture.

What do I do when some one from a FTSE company sends me six pages of complex market analysis to edit, adding that the CEO wants to say something visionary at the end?

I say, ‘Sorry, I can’t help.’

As a speechwriter it’s my job to translate what the speaker wants to say into a language most people can understand.

A lorry driver once called me up and said: ‘I’ve got to give away my daughter. I’ve got to have a speech. I don’t know where to start.’

That’s a client I can work for.

5) How do you make sure you maintain a steady income as a self-employed writer?

If you want to be a speechwriter, it helps if you don’t have to earn a living from it.

That sounds unhelpful.

But you have to pursue every bit of work that comes in to you, you’ll be dealing with insane hedge fund managers, deluded best men and bankrupt brothel keepers (I’ve only worked for one brothel keeper, but the point stands.).

My solution has been to find a combination of my talents.

Ever since I was 11, I’ve organised events.

I put on a Blue Peter Bring and Buy Sale at primary school.

It’s my talent.

Whenever I organise parties, the way I’ve done it has been different to other people.

I can’t really explain why.

My skill as a speechwriter on its own wouldn’t pay the bills, and my skill as an event organiser on my own wouldn’t pay the bills.

But not many people in the world have those talents in combination.

There are thousands of good writers, and thousands of good event organisers, but I can only name five of us in the world who specialise in both.

My advice to anyone setting up a business is to look for combinations in your life, not pure skills.

Brian Jenner is organising the European Speechwriter Network conference in Paris on 26 & 27 September. You can buy a ticket

You can visit Brian’s speechwriting website and view his popular YouTube ‘Speechwriter Rap’ here.

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