Sep 22, 2022 - Economy & Business

Representation in speechwriting is increasing but still behind

Illustration of four unique hands with pens contributing to the same hand-written scribble
Illustration: Annelise Capossela/Axios

Speechwriting is a niche but impactful profession. Those with the pen are essential to recording history, and their words offer a snapshot in time.

Why it matters: The most pressing issues of the day — economics, climate change, education and social justice — disproportionately affect communities of color, yet those crafting the message rarely come from these communities.

By the numbers: According to the Professional Speechwriters Association (PSA), white writers made up 92% of the profession in 2015 and make up about 73% now.

What they’re saying: Terry Edmonds — the first Black White House speechwriter and the only to serve as chief of speechwriting — says it’s “a tricky thing. No matter what color you are, finding the voice of your principal is an art more than a science.”

  • But that’s a small part of the job, he explains. “It's even more important that you enlighten your principal to things they may not know because of their lived experience and make sure they are considering the audience first.”

For example, Edmonds once wrestled with a speech for then-President Clinton announcing welfare reform.

  • According to reports, he ultimately agreed to write the speech because he knew he could write it more thoughtfully than anyone else.

Between the lines: Lack of representation is holding back the profession, said Dan Gerstein, CEO of Gotham Ghostwriters, and it’s a problem everyone wants to solve.

  • “The more diverse your team and the more life experiences they bring to the table, the better your writing is and the more impact you can have,” Fenway Strategies CEO Ben Krauss says. “There aren't a ton of firms that specialize in speechwriting. As one of them, we have an obligation to steer things toward a more equitable place.”
  • Fenway offers paid fellowship programs and uses its network to connect diverse writers to paid opportunities — as does Gotham Ghostwriters — and PSA partners with HBCUs to offer scholarship opportunities and training.

Yes, but: “There’s not a formulated pipeline in speechwriting — most fall into it,” Gerstein says.

  • Michael Franklin realized it was a problem while attending a speechwriter conference where no one else in the room looked like him.

Enter Speechwriters of Color. In 2020, Franklin and Mintaro Oba founded the organization to amplify diverse voices and strengthen recruitment efforts.

  • Since then, Speechwriters of Color has developed a network of 400 writers and placed them in roles at the White House, state and local offices, nonprofits and in corporate America.
  • “We have the ability to reach audiences in a dynamic way because of our lived experiences — and we shouldn’t only be asked to write for principals of color or solely on issues related to race,” Franklin says. “We are more than capable of delivering important information in an authentic and clear way about any topic in any industry.”

The bottom line: Communicators have to be intentional about crafting messaging that speaks to all of America.

  • “Our country is 40% diverse. Public figures and corporate leaders are unlikely to speak effectively on these issues without more speechwriters of color,” Edmonds says.
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