From John F. Kennedy’s inaugural address in 1961 to Barack Obama’s “Yes We Can” speech in 2008, history has been colored by powerful rhetoric that is never forgotten.
But behind the epoch-making speeches have been strategists who construct memorable phrases, coach the speakers’ stage actions and dream up scenarios that motivate people to take action.
Yosuke Kageyama, 36, makes his living as a speechwriter — a profession that, although widely known in the West, has only recently drawn attention in Japan.
“The demand for the skills to deliver a good speech has increased steeply in the past two or three years, especially among people in high-ranking positions,” said Kageyama, a lecturer and public speaking instructor who runs a Tokyo-based consultancy called Communis Co.
Kageyama has written hundreds of speeches for executives, politicians and other leaders to deliver at shareholder meetings, inaugural ceremonies and even wedding receptions, though he doesn’t reveal their names out of respect for their privacy.
Japanese companies traditionally use in-house staff to write their executives’ speeches, he said, while those given by politicians are largely prepared by bureaucrats, with journalists, playwrights and copywriters sometimes getting a shot.
But when it comes to the professional speechwriter, a specialist paid to take charge of a client’s speech as an outsourcing business, Kageyama said there is “less than 10″ nationwide because there is no clear career path to the profession.
His job is not just to write a script, he said.
“The most important thing for a professional speechwriter is whether you can be a good communicator yourself,” he said, adding that the key to writing a good script is to understand what your clients want to say — even though they sometimes can’t express their ideas in words — while not hewing too closely to their orders.
“Anyone can write a good speech if trained properly. But if you are deemed incompetent by first-class clients, then the game is over,” he said. “You need to stand on even ground with them, otherwise your script will be boring.”
For Kageyama, what led him to embark on one of the most underrepresented careers in Japan was his immersion in theater at a young age.
Born in June 1980 in Himeji, Hyogo Prefecture, Kageyama described himself as a “cheerful and pleasant” kid who, under the influence of his older brother, became fascinated by the world of performing arts.
“My brother graduated from university and became a theater director. So I, too, wanted to pursue the same profession,” he said.
So Kageyama joined a theater club in high school in which he had the chance to both act and direct.
His love of theater continued after he entered Kanazawa Institute of Technology, where he studied robotics among other disciplines like psychology and brain science.
“I think people who have been involved in any kind of artistic work have all sought answers to the question, ‘What is humanity?’ I thought these disciplines would help me get closer to the answer,” he said.
While enrolled in a master’s course in Kanazawa, Kageyama used the school’s exchange program in 2003 to enter the University of Illinois, where he studied acting methodology, theater history and speech science — a field involving the anatomic, physiological analyses of how utterances are made and perceived.
But while continuing a career as a professional stage writer, he said he wasn’t sure his knowledge of theater would translate into a viable livelihood.
After returning from a year of study in the U.S., Kageyama decided to start his own business teaching people how to deliver speeches, using his knowledge of theater and acting methodology.
In 2004, he drafted a business plan for entry into the Campus Venture Grand Prix, a business competition for college entrepreneurs hosted by business daily Nikkan Kogyo Shimbun with backing from major Japanese companies.
After clearing the regional selection process, his submission won the Most Valuable Plan prize in the competition in 2005.
Brimming with confidence, he established his public speaking consultancy Communis Co. in 2006. But everything didn’t go according to plan.
“I started it by targeting young businesspeople. But I realized young people had few opportunities to express their opinion in front of people,” he said. “So I changed my strategy and shifted the target to company executives and the business gradually began to bear fruit.”
Kageyama began to call himself a speechwriter in 2009 after U.S. speechwriter Jonathan E. Favreau — famed for writing Obama’s speeches in 2008 at the age of 27 — began making headlines in Japan.
“It was groundbreaking in the sense that the personality of a speechwriter, including his age, was brought under the spotlight in Japan,” especially given that Japan had usually paid little attention to the importance of speeches, Kageyama said.
“This is because Japan has long valued tight, vertical relationships among people — similar to the one between a parent and a child,” he said. In such a society, many people didn’t need to express their own opinion because, unlike in the United States, where speech is considered an essential skill that directly affects one’s success, people in Japan can earn a decent living simply by quietly obeying their bosses, he said.
But Kageyama says that close-knit relationship collapsed after Japan’s bubble economy imploded in 1991. He now sees society moving toward an “age of individualism,” where people need to polish their own skills to succeed rather than depend on the traditional system of lifetime employment.
“The change going on in our society today is irreversible, and I believe speeches will be an indispensable skill to live in this ever more volatile society,” he said.
“People can no longer survive without expressing their opinions.”
“Generational Change” is a series of interviews that appear on the first Monday of each month, profiling people in various fields who are taking a leading role in bringing about changes in society. Readers are encouraged to send ideas, questions and opinions to email@example.com
Key events in Kageyama’s life
1980 — Born in Himeji, Hyogo Prefecture
1996 — Joins a high school theater club
1999 — Enters Kanazawa Institute of Technology
2003 — Goes to the University of Illinois as an exchange student
2005 — Wins a “Most Valuable Plan” award at the Campus Venture Grand Prix
2006 — Launches public speaking consultancy Communis Co.