Afraid your speech will make you look silly? Hire a ghostwriter

Ms Alicia Ostarello (far left) and Ms Angie Sommer, writers and co-founders of Vow Muse, a writing business focused on custom marriage vows and speeches.
Ms Alicia Ostarello (left) and Ms Angie Sommer, writers and co-founders of Vow Muse, a writing business focused on custom marriage vows and speeches.PHOTO: THE NEW YORK TIMES

New York - When Mr Tom Ruggiero was asked to make a toast at the wedding of his friends Jessie and Ben last year, he panicked. The 32-year-old real estate lawyer was not used to public speaking.

"I do transactional work," he said. "Everything is over the telephone."

Adding to his anxiety, the bride had been married when she fell in love with Ben, and Mr Ruggiero did not know how to dance around that awkwardness.

"I couldn't tell a cute story about how they met," he said.

Then he had an idea: Maybe he could hire someone to help script his remarks.

He said: "Just knowing the President has speechwriters, and others hire writers for PR or press reasons, I thought I would get a little creative."

After a Google search turned up a firm in Brooklyn called Oratory Laboratory, he started working with one of its two founders, Ms Victoria Wellman.

She sent him a detailed questionnaire (Q: "Some people like to meditate to relax, some people like to kickbox, what can Ben be found doing to calm the nerves?"), forwarded him a draft two weeks later, then met him in person to hone his delivery.

Mr Ruggiero was thrilled with the outcome.

"She really went into what it means to love someone even though it might be a precarious situation," he said. "People were talking about my speech the whole wedding."

He is one of a growing number of people who turn to ghostwriters to help them prepare speeches not for professional situations but for social and family ones: weddings, birthdays - even funerals.

Toast whisperers, as they may be called, are a popular if secretive breed. In recent years, active shops have popped up in Los Angeles, New York, San Francisco and Washington, generally charging US$500 (S$666) and above. Mr Ruggiero paid US$1,000 because he officiated as well.

At a time when everything is a branding opportunity, and toasts live on for posterity in social media, few people want to be remembered going "um..." "you know..." and "remember that time..."

Lindsi Shine, a high-end lifestyle consultant in New York with more than 400 clients, mostly celebrities, athletes and Wall Street executives, has a small stable of ghostwriters she sends the tongue-tied richest 1 per cent to.

She said: "You know you are always being judged a little, so it is better to get some professional help than try to handle it on your own. I am from Indiana, and in Indiana we go to weddings and we enjoy them. In New York, we go to weddings and we review them."

Most toasters, she said, would fail such scrutiny.

It is that sentiment that led Ms Wellman, a freelance writer, and her then boyfriend (now husband), Mr Nathan Phillips, a former comedian who works in advertising, to set up shop in 2009.

"I come from the UK, where social speeches really are pretty high calibre," she said. "Nathan and I had been to all these weddings where people really needed help, and we thought we were in a unique position to do so. My husband says I've written more best-man speeches than anyone in the world."

She has also done memorial speeches, a talk about sexuality for a porn star, remarks from a son taking over his deceased father's diamond business and a eulogy for a victim of the shootings at Newtown, Connecticut.

Her most unusual job, she recalls, was when a Ukrainian man in New York hired her to write up a narrative account of his marriage proposal. It began in the morning with the ring in his pocket, continued through dinner at Daniel (a French restaurant) and culminated on the roof of the McKittrick Hotel, where Ms Wellman was hiding in the bushes to witness the moment.

But the bulk of her 100 speeches a year involves weddings. She believes anyone is capable of delivering a good speech, but most people use language that is too bland and non-specific. Her questionnaire is designed to generate details - lots of them.

"If you say the groom's favourite thing to do on a Saturday night is drink wine and watch sports, I want to know what wine he drinks, what sports he likes, and what is so crazy about his devotion to the Steelers (American football team)," she said.

People also tend to put too much emphasis on funny stories and leave out genuine emotion.

"A speech should be about 70 per cent humour, 30 per cent sincerity," she said. "When you are sincere, when you truly break down how you feel about the person, people know it is real."

Ms Angie Sommer and Ms Alicia Ostarello are childhood friends who started their ghostwriting business, Vow Muse, in San Francisco in 2010. They, too, have done birthday parties, even a dating profile, but the majority of their clients are maids of honour or fathers of the bride.

"Often the bride will say: 'Hey, dad, you need help. You're going to this person'," said Ms Sommer, a structural engineer by day. "Dad wants to talk about how much the wedding cost and the bride is, like: 'No, no, no. Don't say that.' "

Vow Muse's advice to fathers and other rookie toasters is to resist the embarrassing story. It is a toast, not a roast.

One issue that all ghostwriters seem to face is that most of their clients are embarrassed to be using their services.

Ms Ostarello said: "Some people call us and say, 'I don't want people to know that I'm using you'. Or they have their secretary call. It does make it harder to get reviews for our website, because no one wants to come out and admit they hired us."

So are these clients right to be sheepish about engaging their own private Cyrano? Is what they are doing cheating? Ms Sommer, of Vow Muse, says no.

"You don't sew your own dress," she said. "You don't bake your own cake. But those things are considered okay to ask for help with because they are less personal. For some reason, speaking has always been something you are not supposed to ask assistance for, even though it makes it better."

Ms Wendy Shanker, who specialises in scripts for big charity events and award shows, agrees, but she sees her role as fitting in with the times.

"When I tell people what I do, they're horrified and appalled," she said. "But the reason business is booming right now is that the second the bar mitzvah is over, it's getting posted on YouTube. What you say is going to live a lot longer than the centrepieces and the goody bag."

And what better way to spend your money, she said, than making sure you say the right thing to the people who matter most in your life.

"You're going to spend it on Ketel One vodka instead?" she added.

Mr Ruggiero, for his part, did feel guilty at first for hiring a professional scribe. "I wanted my remarks to come from me," he said. "But given the gravity of the situation, how many people were there, and how what I was saying was being videotaped, I decided I better do it professionally."

And would he do it again?

Mr Ruggiero, who is single with a girlfriend, said: "I would use Victoria for anything of this nature and that would include my own wedding."

Ghosts, it seems, have invaded our parties and they appear to be here to stay.

New York Times

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on June 23, 2015, with the headline 'Afraid your speech will make you look silly? Hire a ghostwriter'. Print Edition | Subscribe