Why you should care
Because it’s not what you say, but how you say it.
To get a coveted job in Silicon Valley, you can soup up your résumé with C++ or Python. Brag about your bootstrapping startup. Or unveil the code for that sick time machine prototype you built. But before you start polishing up your GitHub, you might want to consider taking an entirely different route — ditch the keyboard and harness the power of the pen.
The next boom in Silicon Valley isn’t for coders with the gift of geek, but for writers with the gift of gab. In the last few years, a convoy of politically trained speechwriters, spokespeople and communication strategists has fled the frosty winters of the East Coast in search of greener pastures — namely, in Silicon Valley. And, as President Obama’s final days in office drop to double digits, young White House alumni increasingly are hitching their wagons to tech totems like Apple and Facebook, helping high-profile titans and startups fine-tune their messages. Now, instead of poetically singing the praises of politicians, these wordsmiths are tasked with delivering messages that are slightly different: articulating the Valley’s wonky mission statements to the layperson, putting out public relations fires when marquee products go haywire (here’s looking at you, Samsung) and, of course, avoiding Melania Trump moments.
Most people don’t use words like ‘disruption’ or ‘synergy’ or all the other ridiculous buzzwords that float around the tech industry.
Jon Favreau, former speechwriter, Obama White House
Speechwriting has long been important in the political world, but as technology companies become more influential and are expected to have a public voice, Silicon Valley has begun to appreciate the need for quality word choice — something many heads-down engineers and coders tend to lack. When twentysomethings get “spit out of the administration after working 23 hours a day and [making] shit money,” they’re “interested in working for people who are looking forward and involved in the future,” says David Murray, executive director of the Professional Speechwriters Association. “They’re not interested in writing speeches at Walmart.” For example, Matt Teper, the silver-tongued speechwriter for Vice President Joe Biden, graduated to writing for former Google CEO Eric Schmidt in Mountain View. Farther north, in San Francisco, Nick Papas, once the White House assistant press secretary, now serves as the chipper spokesperson for Airbnb, while Semonti Stephens, Michelle Obama’s former deputy communications director, currently shapes the voice of mobile-payments giant Square, which pulled in $1.27 billion last year. Likewise, Kyle O’Connor, who penned speeches for Obama as one of history’s youngest presidential speechwriters at 25, recently was hired as Mark Zuckerberg’s speechwriter, presumably for public-facing occasions like Facebook’s developer conferences and all-hands meetings. (Stephens and O’Connor, though word wizards, didn’t respond to requests for comment.)
The perks go beyond Ping-Pong tables and free lunches. While the typical presidential speechwriter earns anywhere from $50,000 to $75,000 a year, according to the White House, freelance speechwriters in Silicon Valley get paid more handsomely at $200,000, and in-house speechwriters like O’Conner and Teper can make even higher. By comparison, the average software engineer in the Bay Area rakes in only $110,000, according to Glassdoor. “It would be foolish to compare working for the leader of the free world to working for a tech company,” says Airbnb’s Papas. “Every company needs to be prepared to tell its story. Figuring out how to do that efficiently and as comprehensively as possible” is no walk in the park, he says.
Papas is right, although he may want to turn up the volume on his cliché alert. Though the pay is good, the pace is still brutal in Silicon Valley, says Google’s Teper. Here, handling comms doesn’t just mean pounding away at a laptop for some big-time CEO to deliver a stump speech. It’s also about perfecting PowerPoint presentations for sales meetings, composing clever pitches to investors and placating public backlashes with well-crafted tweets. Just as politicians face an aggrieved public exasperated by wars, a flagging economy and scandals, tech executives have to address the unintended consequences of their products and services — like breaches of user privacy, spontaneously combustible phones, allegations of exploitative labor and the growing economic inequality in San Francisco. Private companies like human-resources startup Zenefits and biotech startup Theranos faced public scorn after major scandals surrounding fudged training records and misleading reports about the effectiveness of blood tests. However, the most pressing challenge for today’s speechwriters is how to communicate in ways that rise above the buzzwords and the bullshit that assail today’s internet generation, says Jon Favreau, the former senior speechwriter behind Obama. “One of the reasons we distrust institutions is because the people who represent them often sound distant and phony, like they’re speaking a dead language the rest of us don’t recognize. Most people don’t use words like disruption or synergy or all the other ridiculous buzzwords that float around the tech industry,” Favreau tells OZY.
Obama’s first campaign may have been built on hope and change — a theme that Favreau helped to craft — but Silicon Valley is deeply rooted in measured madness, a place where insane ideas get venture-funded into reality. To wit: Elon Musk’s plan to colonize Mars, Mark Zuckerberg’s proposal to cure all diseases and Ray Kurzweil’s crusade to evade death. These tech impresarios rely on wordsmiths to craft their radical, futuristic visions — and what better people to express them than the behind-the-scenes scribes who inspired the country via its most powerful political leaders? Silicon Valley is now the “second-most fertile ground for speechwriting,” says Teper. And while Biden’s name may not ring a bell for everyone outside the U.S., with Google, “we’re talking to more or less the whole world.”
Whether delivered by King, Churchill or Lincoln, history’s most profound speeches illuminate ideas and bring them to life. Nowadays tech companies seem to be moving fast and calling the shots, so maybe it’s just a matter of time before a technolaureate delivers the “I have a virtual reality” speech.