Speeches provoke cultural change, memorialize human achievement, and shape monumental events. In the right hands, with the right voice, under the right circumstances, spoken words can inspire, motivate, persuade, or inform the world.
Before the words of a speech are spoken, they are written. Words delivered in a public setting can be powerful. However, to reach their full potential, the words must be considered, measured, and crafted to suit the message and the audience.
This is the mission of a speech writer: to help a speaker effectively deliver a message. Sometimes, the message resonates through history:
“Four score and seven years ago …”
“Ask not what your country can do for you — ask what you can do for your country …”
“I have a dream …”
“Mr. Gorbachev, tear down this wall!”
These words commemorate significant moments in American history: the Civil War, generational upheaval in the 1960s, the civil rights movement, and the end of the Cold War. The words and the associated turning points forever are linked with the famous speakers — Abraham Lincoln, John F. Kennedy, Martin Luther King Jr., and Ronald Reagan.
However, only two of them actually wrote the words they spoke: Lincoln and King. Kennedy, Reagan, and countless other historical figures breathed life into speeches written by others.
Not every speech writer has the opportunity to write for a president or a legendary civil rights leader. A wedding toast, commencement address, keynote presentation at a conference — these speeches won’t necessarily change the course of history, but they’re important to the people delivering them.
Professional speech writers work in every industry to help people in all walks of life deliver clear, concise messages that resonate with an audience. It’s a career that requires a deft touch with words; a passion for digging into the facts; and a desire to help others inform, entertain, or persuade an audience.
More Than Words: Speech Writer Job Description
A speech writer’s professional focus is communication. Depending on the size and scope of the organization, a speech writer might be responsible for multiple communication-related duties.
These duties might include the following:
No matter how broad the duties of a writer or communications professional, there are aspects of the job that translate across disciplines. It begins with a mastery of language and the written word.
Writing and Editing
Strong writing and editing skills are a must for anyone who wishes to pursue a speech writing career. Fortunately, while there is an art to writing and editing, the craft can be taught and improved over time.
Grammar, spelling, and sentence structure count. To effectively deliver a message, a writer must understand the effect words have when delivered out loud in a particular sequence. In this regard, it’s as much about the writer’s “ear” as about the thought process.
While writing and editing a speech, the writer must ask whether the words will elicit the desired emotional response from the audience. Experienced writers have knowledge of the power of certain words and phrases to move listeners. Reading great speeches and other writings can help writers develop an ear for what works.
Knowing how to write and edit well is only the beginning. A speech must be grounded in facts to reach its full potential.
Facts that support the message should be researched first. For example, Peter Robinson, one of Reagan’s speech writers, spent time in Berlin before he wrote Reagan’s “Tear Down This Wall” speech in 1987. During his preliminary research, Robinson spoke with a U.S. diplomat in West Berlin, took a helicopter flight over the city, and conversed with German citizens.
Robinson devised the famous challenge — “Mr. Gorbachev, tear down this wall!” — after noticing the bleak conditions on the East Berlin side of the wall and hearing the sentiment expressed by a German dinner companion.
The work Robinson put into the research led to one of the most memorable public statements by a U.S. president in the 20th century. By 1989, the people of Berlin were free to cross the once-formidable barrier.
Robinson’s work on the speech was an excellent example of how thorough research became the foundation for a speech that marked a historical turning point.
In addition to learning as much as possible about the topic through research, a speech writer must know how a speaker talks and what message the speaker wishes to deliver. One way to learn this is to conduct an interview.
There are two types of interview questions: fact-finding and open-ended.
Fact-finding questions are intended to learn details about the speaker’s expertise in the topic. This can include education, work experience, or research projects.
Open-ended questions are intended to provide detail, color, and anecdotes that might provide the audience with emotional access to the speaker’s point of view. This might include information about how and why the speaker became interested in the topic, or it might be a relevant story about the topic drawn from the speaker’s life.
An interview with the speaker also gives the writer insight into the speaker’s speech patterns and personality. This kind of information enables the writer to capture the rhythm of the speaker’s voice.
Many speech writers begin their careers either as communications specialists (public relations, journalism, academia) or as experts in a particular industry with a flair for writing. Rarely will someone step into the job and start writing for heads of state or CEOs.
As with any career, there’s a known trajectory to follow as regards educational requirements, work experience, and soft skills needed to succeed. The important thing for an aspiring speech writer to remember is to set career goals early and take the appropriate steps along the way to achieve those goals.
Educational Requirements for Speech Writers
Speech writers may benefit from a bachelor’s degree in journalism, communications, or English, as well as a liberal studies degree with a concentration in writing or marketing. It’s important to study writing, editing, rhetoric, debate techniques, and other topics related to public speaking and speech writing.
In addition to honing the craft of writing, an aspiring speech writer might pursue a course of study related to a specific topic. This could entail earning a minor in a broad topic, such as history or political science. Another educational route might be in-depth study of a specialized topic, such as a technical field or law.
Recommended Work Experience for Speech Writers
Work experience is particularly important for an aspiring speech writer. A writer with a high level of expertise in a topic brings authority to the job.
Some of the finest speech writers in American history were lawyers: Ted Sorenson (JFK) was one. Others, such as Peggy Noonan (Reagan), were journalists or ghostwriters before they entered the inner circle of world leaders.
Professional speech writer Brent Kerrigan, writing an essay on speech writing as a career for the public relations firm Ragan, said that the best way to get started with speech writing work experience is to “find somebody who needs a speech written, and write it for them.”
Kerrigan went on to write that “becoming an expert in anything takes practice.” His advice is to seek out busy public officials and company leaders who regularly make speeches but lack the time to write them, and offer your services.
Nonwriting Skills to Cultivate
It’s not enough for an aspiring speech writer to perfect the craft of writing and to learn as much as possible about a relevant topic. As with all careers, finding the right job requires building a well-connected professional network.
According to the Labor Department’s Occupational Outlook Handbook entry for writers and authors, the soft skills writers should cultivate include adaptability, creativity, determination, critical thinking, social perceptiveness, and the ability to persuade others.
Writing begins with a plan. Sometimes the plan is depicted by an outline. Sometimes it’s simply a set of notes on a piece of paper.
The beginning stages of writing a speech require a lot of thinking. It helps to have a solid foundation of knowledge about the topic and the speaker going into the process.
Here are a few tips for developing a speech that can resonate with an audience.
Determine the Message
Why is a speech necessary? What does the speaker want to say? What action is intended for audience members to take after they hear the speech?
Answering these questions in the early stages of speech writing will allow the writer to find clarity of purpose. Reagan’s “Tear Down This Wall” speech provides an excellent example of how a writer worked to develop a concise, compelling message.
According to Robinson, the speech was originally intended to commemorate the 750th anniversary of the city of Berlin. In 1987, the Cold War between the U.S. and the Soviet Union was coming to a head, but the Berlin Wall remained a symbol of oppression.
Robinson, as well as Reagan’s other advisors, chose that moment to send a message of support for the people of East Germany. It was a seminal moment in the Reagan presidency and a powerful milestone in U.S.-Soviet relations.
Understand the Audience
An important factor in determining the message is understanding the makeup of the intended audience. In most cases, the audience for a speech will consist of the people present for the event. However, all speeches have multiple audiences: those present, those who will read the text only, those who will view some or all of the speech later on video, and all future generations.
Each element of the larger “audience” should be taken into consideration when a writer sits down to determine the tone, voice, and length of a speech. Audience makeup determines not only the words that are written but also the way a speaker is intended to deliver those words.
Will the message be couched in humor? Will the tone be completely serious? How big is the in-person audience? How knowledgeable are the audience members about the topic? Are the audience members sympathetic or adversarial toward the speaker?
All of these questions and more are important to answer when creating the framework and shaping the message of a speech.
Use Research to Support the Message
Research forms the core of the speech. It’s as simple as no research, no speech.
However, supporting the message with research isn’t merely a matter of throwing together a list of related facts. The information gathered during the research process must be organized so the message can be supported logically, clearly, and convincingly.
One way to effectively use research is to create a list of questions related to the topic and use examples pulled from the research to provide the answers. The questions should be prioritized based on urgency: What does the audience most want or need to hear?
The structure of the speech will depend, in part, on how the writer and speaker decide to present the facts learned through research. A well-researched fact presented at the right time can capture attention and provide an air of authority to the speaker.
Show Personality to Connect
Attorney and author Sarah Hurwitz was the primary speech writer for former first lady Michelle Obama. Prior to that, Hurwitz wrote speeches for former President Barack Obama when he was a presidential candidate, Hillary Clinton, and other prominent politicians.
“I think details are so incredibly important,” Hurwitz told the Wharton interviewer. “When she tells the story of her father who had multiple sclerosis and worked at the city water plant, she could say, ‘You know, my dad had MS. He worked at the plant. He worked really hard. He sacrificed a lot.’ That’s all just sort of telling. I don’t really see him. But instead what she said in some of her speeches was, ‘You know, as my dad got sicker it got harder for him to get dressed in the morning. He would wake up an hour early so that he could slowly button his shirt. He would drag himself across the room with two canes to give my mom a kiss.’”
Through the use of colorful, vivid details about an experience, Hurwitz helped her subject reveal her personality as a way of connecting to the audience.
Speeches can be categorized by delivery style, writing style, and purpose. It’s important to know ahead of time what type of speech will be written, because the type has a bearing on word choice, tone, and many other elements of the speech.
To determine the type of speech to write, first answer questions such as:
Is the speech intended to elicit an emotion or trigger a specific action?
Does the speaker want to stick to the script or talk off the cuff?
Will the speaker be required to defend an opinion?
Will the speaker be alone on the podium, or will others talk?
Answers to these and other relevant questions will provide guidance about what type of speech to write. The more details writers know about the context of the event, the more likely they’ll craft an effective speech.
Here are four common types of speeches with examples of when each should be used.
Informative Speech Writing
An informative speech is used to explain a concept, describe an object or objects, or provide context for an event or a social movement. For example, a CEO might want to deliver an informative speech at a shareholder event or share details about an annual report with employees.
An effective informative speech presents facts in a concise, easily understood format. One potential challenge for the writer of an informative speech is to capture and maintain the interest of the audience. A dry recitation of facts seldom makes for a memorable or an effective speech.
Persuasive Speech Writing
A persuasive speech is used in an effort to convince an audience to support an idea or take a specific action. Types of persuasive speeches include opening or closing arguments in a criminal trial, an opening or a closing statement in a debate, and a sales presentation.
Persuasive speeches use rhetorical devices to create a sense of intimacy with the audience. The words used, the tone of voice, the volume, the physical gestures, eye contact — all of these devices can create a connection and engender trust with the audience.
The greater the connection, the more likely the audience is to be persuaded by the arguments being presented.
Motivational Speech Writing
A motivational speech is used to convince an audience to take specific action, particularly action that’s designed to engineer change of some sort. This type of speech is also used to elicit an emotional response to a particular cause or purpose.
Motivational speakers know how to connect with an audience on an emotional level. They help audience members understand an obstacle, recognize how that obstacle affects them, and determine ways to overcome that obstacle.
Motivational speeches are good for commencement addresses, recruiting drives, and charity drives. Coaches and managers also make motivational speeches before games and matches to help players focus their emotions toward success on the field of play.
Demonstrative Speech Writing
A demonstrative speech is used to show the audience how to do, build, or create something. A demonstrative speaker is typically an expert in the field who’s sharing knowledge or demonstrating how audience members can attain knowledge for themselves.
A demonstrative speech often requires visual aids, such as a slideshow or stage props. The speaker typically provides context for the demonstration with an introduction, and then gives the presentation. Sometimes, the speaker will open the floor to audience questions.
A demonstrative speech might be used by a salesperson to show how a product is used, by an inventor to show how a new device was created, or by a professional instructor to show how to use a piece of equipment.
Additional Tips for Writing Different Speech Types
Salaries for speech writers vary widely in the U.S. Wages can be determined by factors such as the prominence of the client or employer, professional experience, and the complexity or relevance of the speech topics.
According to a 2011 report in TheWashington Post, Obama speech writer Jon Favreau earned $172,200 annually — the same salary as some of the former president’s top advisors. An expert freelance speech writer who crafts minor speeches for businesses or personal use might charge by the word, hour, page, or speech.
According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS), writers and authors ― speech writers among them ― were paid a median salary of $63,200 in 2019. Salaries and job opportunities are affected by factors such as geography, job market, and economic conditions.
BLS employment projections for writers and authors show that the number of positions nationwide is expected to hold steady at about 123,000 from 2018 to 2028. In a related field, media and communication workers, BLS projections indicate a 4% increase in positions from 2018 to 2028.
The history of the U.S. can be told through its famous speeches.
George Washington’s farewell address created the precedent of the peaceful transition of power in the federal government. Frederick Douglass gave voice to the enslaved and momentum to the abolitionist movement with his 1852 speech “What to the Slave Is the Fourth of July?”
The Lincoln-Douglas debates in the 1850s led to Lincoln’s victory in the 1860 presidential election, an event that helped trigger the Civil War. Then President Franklin D. Roosevelt offered motivation and encouragement with his inaugural address, with its famous line “the only thing we have to fear is fear itself.”
MLK delivered perhaps the most influential speech in American history on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial in 1963, giving impetus to the civil rights movement.
We remember the speakers, and rightfully so. They were front and center, delivering the words that shifted history.
However, before the words could be spoken, before history could be made, someone had to write the speeches. Someone had to, as Hurwitz advises, “say something true.”
That’s the role of the speech writer: to distill the facts and provide the words that allow the speaker to serve as an effective, persuasive, entertaining messenger.
“Whether you were giving a speech to 1,000 people or talking to your board or leading an informal meeting, it’s really important to say something that is clearly and glaringly true,” Hurwitz said. “I think that it makes people trust you. It makes them respect you. It shows your authenticity. I think it makes you credible and it’s a really good way to start. I’d say it’s also a good way to continue and end a speech.”