Do you have a gift for knowing what people are trying to say, and how to help them say it so they shine? Do you enjoy researching topics, and have an ability to encapsulate that research into a clear message? Is the persuasive essay your favorite assignment in English class? If so, scroll down to read more about speechwriting from a professional in the field, former speechwriter Rob Costello.
How did you get started as a speechwriter?
I never set out to become a speechwriter. In fact, when I was a teenager I didn’t really set out to be much of anything. I graduated high school not having a clue what I wanted to do with my life, and for most of my 20s I worked in a series of low-skill, low-wage jobs. I cleaned toilets and flipped burgers. I dealt cards in a casino. I processed trade documents for an international bank.
When I met my future husband, I moved to Ithaca, NY to be with him. There I got a job dispatching police and emergency services for the Cornell University Police Department. What a crazy, intense job that turned out to be! I quickly realized answering 911 calls all day long was way too stressful for me, and so after only a year of doing that, I managed to snag another job at Cornell that was much more my speed: receptionist in the Dean’s Office of the College of Agriculture and Life Sciences (CALS).
This is where I spent the next decade, working my way up from receptionist, to the dean’s administrative assistant, and finally to her executive assistant and chief of staff, where I helped her run the college. I enjoyed this experience very much. CALS is one of the leading ag and life sciences research institutions in the world. Working for the dean, I got to learn a great deal about the cutting-edge environmental, biological, and food systems research happening in the college. I also met tons of interesting people, from Nobel prize-winning scientists and Fortune 500 CEOs, to senators and members of Congress, and some of the brightest, most dedicated students in the world. Finally, I learned the ins and outs of what it takes to run a world-class research and academic institution with well over a thousand faculty and employees, and an annual budget in the hundreds of millions of dollars.
It was during this period that I first realized I could make a career out of writing. A big part of my job was helping the dean manage the huge volume of correspondence she received, literally hundreds of letters and emails a day. Because she couldn’t possibly answer all of these messages herself, I often drafted responses in “her voice,” which she would then review, edit, and sign. I’d always loved to write, and over time this became my favorite part of the job.
Eventually, I went back to school, earning my bachelors degree in English and an MFA in writing for children and young adults, while still working full-time (something I don’t recommend if you can possibly avoid it). When the position of the dean’s speechwriter became available, my educational background, extensive knowledge of the college, and deep familiarity with the “dean’s voice” made me uniquely qualified for the job.
What is a typical day like?
It’s hard for me to pin down what a typical day as a speechwriter was like, because speechwriting was only half of my job. At the same time, I was also the college’s social media manager, which meant I ran CALS’ Twitter, Facebook, Instagram, Tumblr, and YouTube platforms, and wrote articles for various college publications. Depending on the dean’s public speaking schedule, which varied widely throughout the year, I could spend as much as 80% of my time working on speeches or as little as none.
That said, when I left CALS a few years ago to pursue fiction writing and teaching full-time, the dean was giving anywhere from 90 to 120 public addresses a year, which breaks downs to something like two to three speeches a week. Of course, not all speeches are created equal, and many of these were brief remarks that required minimal research and preparation.
On the other hand, some of the major speeches, such as the annual State of the College address, could take weeks to prepare. These involved massive amounts of research and data collection, interviewing faculty about new college initiatives, reviewing financial and budgetary reports with college officers, creating graphs and gathering photographs for slide presentations, familiarizing myself with the venue and A/V equipment that would be used for the speech, and then finally crafting the speech, followed by multiple rounds of revision with the dean.
In general, when I was working on a major address like this, most of my day was spent at my desk in front of my computer, doing research, drafting the text, and preparing the slides.
What training, education or preparation would help someone to be a good speechwriter?
To be honest, the most important training I received came from my high school English teachers, who taught me how to write a persuasive essay. When you reduce them to their essence, most speeches are merely persuasive arguments read aloud. They begin with an introduction that leads to a thesis statement, followed by a series of supporting points that build to a summary conclusion. Since I was also active in speech and debate as a teen, I had experience crafting arguments about complicated issues that were accessible and easy to convey while speaking. Who knew the basic skills I learned in high school would turn out to be so important to my job years later?
In college, I did coursework in speechwriting, presentation making, and rhetoric that was all very valuable, too.
Finally, all those years working in the dean’s office furnished me with a wealth of knowledge and resources that proved invaluable to my speechwriting career. Having a basic understanding of the different kinds of scientific research conducted in the college was crucial, because so many of the dean’s speeches involved promoting that work to alumni, politicians, and other stakeholders. It also really helped that I’d become something of an expert on the institution of CALS itself. This meant I always knew just whom to ask to get my questions answered quickly and accurately. Furthermore, because I was so familiar with the college’s inner workings, I understood many of the complicated subjects the dean spoke about, such as the budget and various policies and initiatives. This enabled me to craft speeches without a lot of coaching that were coherent and authoritative on these complex matters. I can’t imagine how hard it would have been for me had I not spent so many years beforehand getting to know the dean and the college so well.
Of course, this experience was unique to me and my job in CALS. But generally speaking, I think for any aspiring speechwriter the lesson here is to become as much of an expert as you possibly can on the subjects you will be writing about. Do your research. Ask questions. Be curious. Learn as much as you can before you ever sit down to write, because all of that knowledge will lend your speeches clarity and authority.
What skills do you think helped you do the job of speechwriting well?
Writing well persuasively is the most important skill to master. Knowing how to frame an argument and anticipate counterarguments is a big part of this, as well as being able to translate complicated issues or ideas into simple, clear, compelling language. Listening is also an essential skill, as well as being able to take critical feedback. Time management and organizational skills are invaluable, especially when multiple deadlines loom. Basic research, journalism, and interviewing skills are also extremely useful. Being comfortable setting up and troubleshooting A/V equipment is important, as is proficiency with presentation and graphics software like PowerPoint, Prezi, InDesign, and Keynote.
What type of person would be a good fit to be a speechwriter?
Somebody who is tenacious about getting the facts right. Somebody who enjoys writing persuasively and changing people’s minds with words. Somebody who doesn’t seek the spotlight and who doesn’t mind having another person receive the glory for what they’ve written. Somebody who cares passionately about the agenda being pursued by the person or organization they work for. (For example, it’s probably not a great idea if you’re an environmentalist to take a job writing speeches for the President of Exxon!)
What are the down sides of speechwriting?
You spend most of your time alone at a desk! It can be a challenge to find a good speechwriting job. Your job satisfaction is often dependent on whether or not you are able to satisfy one person (the person giving the speeches), so if you have a difficult or demanding boss, it can make your life a real drag.
What are the up sides of speechwriting?
Speechwriting is a great job for an introvert! It’s also tremendously rewarding to be able to work with an influential leader to craft a speech that may change people’s minds and influence lives. In my time at CALS, I worked on several major addresses the dean gave about the environment, education, and the value of scientific research in promoting a better world, all issues I care deeply about. Speechwriting gave me the opportunity to feel that I was contributing to the academic and scientific mission of the college, without actually being an academic or a scientist. Speechwriters can often play an important role in helping to spread the word about important issues and ideas. If you care about things like politics and activism, but aren’t the kind of person who can get up in front of others and lead, being the one behind the scenes who helps those leaders be more effective in communicating their messages can be extremely empowering and satisfying.
What resources, professional journals, organizations or social media sites keep you informed about your industry?
Unfortunately, I’ve been away from speechwriting for a while now, so I haven’t kept up with current resources. However, I do know that the Professional Speechwriters Association was founded in 2013 and offers information and links to non-members on their website.
Any words of advice for people interested in speechwriting?
I think it’s most important to develop a good rapport with the person you’re writing speeches for. After all, you are essentially putting words into their mouth. Words they will be speaking in public. Words they may be judged on and/or criticized for later on. By the very nature of the job, speechwriters are often working for influential public figures, such as politicians and other leaders. It can be a strangely intimate experience to see these powerful people with their guard down, expressing fears, anxieties, and vulnerabilities that don’t always correspond to their well-honed public images. It’s important, therefore, that you earn their trust by doing everything you possibly can to make their job easier. This means listening to how they speak, their unique speech patterns, vocabulary choices, and sentence structure. It means familiarizing yourself with the kinds of jokes and anecdotes they’re comfortable telling, as well as the subjects they wish to avoid. It means being scrupulously well-prepared and always having your facts straight, so that they are not embarrassed by giving out bad information or saying something inadvertently offensive or disrespectful to their audience. Finally, it means understanding what’s most important to them about the speech they are giving, what their goals are for it, and what message(s) they are trying to convey. After all, it isn’t about you and your pretty words. Your number one priority is to make sure they shine!
If readers have follow up questions, what is the best way for them to reach out to you?
I’m always happy to answer questions via email: email@example.com
Rob Costello writes fiction for and about queer youth. He holds an MFA in Writing from the Writing for Children and Young Adults Program at the Vermont College of Fine Arts. An alumnus of the Millay Colony for the Arts and the New York State Summer Writers Institute, his short fiction has appeared in Hunger Mountain, Stone Canoe, Eclectica, and Narrative, and is forthcoming in Rural Voices: YA Stories of Growing Up in Remote Communities (Candlewick, Fall 2020). He teaches creative writing to teens and adults, and has been on the faculty of the Whole Novel Workshop at the Highlights Foundation since 2014. He recently finished work on his debut young adult novel entitled An Ugly World for Beautiful Boys, and lives with his husband and various four-legged companions on top of a wide and windy hill in upstate NY.
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