Over the decades I have wandered in and out of the freelance door, and until finding my current path, was always left vaguely unsatisfied. In the mid-1980s I offered corporate communications/public relations services to both the government and private sectors. Annual reports, newsletters, brochures, media advisories, communications plans, etc. I was a generalist offering a broad range of products to an equally broad range of customers. And I was successful. If you measure success in terms of being able to pay the bills, and make a reasonable living. But there was something missing. As a diversion, in 1990 I went in search of a house, a sympathetic banker, and a job. I needed the latter to find the former.
The job – a communications director position – was with a good company, fine people, with a mandate that we all believed in. I stuck it out for four years, finding the banker and getting the house in the process. But in my heart of hearts I knew that a “job-job” would never satisfy me. I liked the work but hated the meetings and bureaucracy that always come with corporate structures. I wanted out of the dark side.
But I knew that I didn’t want to go back into generalist freelancing again. I knew too what I really disliked certain types of business writing. Corporate brochures and press releases headed the list. For some reason these two gave me the most grief with clients. In many ways they are the easiest of corporate documents to write. Yet because of their format, easy access, and shortness, clients take a much more hands on approach to these documents than they would to an Annual Report or a Newsletter.
The net result: it takes forever to get approvals. Those of you who write brochures will know what I mean. And because these products are the workhorse communications vehicles for clients, they don’t usually want to take a risk and be cutting edge or creative. Couple all this with the fact that they come in at the low end of the pay scale. I would lose interest and heart long before these relatively simple projects were finished. In desperation I once tripled my brochure rate hoping the client would go to someone else. They didn’t even blink and accepted the fee. And in that one second I found that the more you charge, the more they want you. (And that is a subject for an entirely different discussion.)
So my issue was this. I wanted to go back to freelancing. I wanted to be challenged creatively. I wanted lots of variety. I didn’t want to do constant revisions for the client. And I wanted to be paid at the top end of the wage bracket, not the bottom.
As I saw it then, there were two possibilities. Annual reports and speechwriting. Both paid well. With the right client both contained the possibility of bringing creativity to the process.
I chose speechwriting because I knew I would have total control over the project. No graphic design issues to deal with. No one looking over my shoulder – second guessing every little word or phrase, not to mention quick turnaround time. Over the years I had written a few speeches and edited many. I always thought I could do a better job than what I had seen come across my desk. And there was something very appealing about the idea of putting words in other peoples’ mouths.
In the late fall in winter of 1993 and early 1994 while still working in my regular job, I laid out a mental business plan of how I might become a freelance speechwriter. The challenge was that there were no models to follow. There was no speechwriter networking group, at least not on the West Coast. I didn’t know any speechwriters working on their own.
In the end there was no sophisticated business plan. I knew I would have to talk to a lot of people – especially those in charge of assigning speeches either inside or outside the corporate structure. And I supposed I should talk to PR firms part of whose mandate would be to provide speechwriting to clients as a segment of their overall communications services.
That’s about as extensive as my preplanning got. I did have the foresight to save some money before I quit my job in case it took time to get my business off the ground. As it turned out I needn’t have worried. I got work almost immediately. How I did that is perhaps a subject for still another column.
But why I was so successful so early on my best can be ascribed to the C word — Commitment. In the months leading up to leaving my job I determined in my own mind that I was going to be speechwriter. Period. There was no hesitation. No doubt. No equivocation. I made that commitment to myself, for myself.
And what happened subsequent to that self declaration opened my eyes to the wonder of that word and its application. Once I was committed to the task of being a speechwriter everything I did — consciously or unconsciously — was aimed at that goal. And the doors of opportunity just opened. Looking back, more than anything else, I believe it was my commitment at the front end of the adventure that has resulted in my now having written over 1500 speeches. All the networking, word-of-mouth referrals, cold calls, teaching, advertising, eating and breathing speechwriting — all started with that the initial Commitment to be or do something specific in my professional life.
The mountaineer/environmentalist/writer W.H. Murray once said:
“Until one is committed there is hesitancy, the chance to draw back, always ineffectiveness. Concerning all acts of initiative and creation, there is one elementary truth the ignorance of which kills countless ideas and splendid plans: that the moment one definitively commits oneself, then Providence moves too.
All sorts of things occur to help one that would never otherwise have occurred. A whole stream or events issues from the decision, raising in one’s favour all manner of unforeseen incidents and meetings and material assistance, which no man could have dreamt would have come his way.
I have learned deep respect for one of Goethe’s couplets: Whatever you can do, or dream you can, begin it. Boldness has genius, power and magic in it. Begin it now”
I think that says it all.