Obama writer: Crafting speeches with authenticity

A former White House speechwriter offers tips on finding stories and considers the upside of audiences with smartphones.

In her speech to the 2016 Democratic National Convention, First Lady Michelle Obama recalled the time her family headed for the White House seven and a half years earlier.

Her daughters, seven and 10 years old, piled into black SUVs guarded by big men with guns, she told the convention. “And I saw their little faces pressed up against the window, and the only thing I could think was, ‘What have we done?'”

Repeatedly referring to her children, the speech framed the coming election as an opportunity to stand against hateful rhetoric and for the coming generation.

“This election, and every election, is about who will have the power to shape our children for the next four or eight years of their lives,” Obama said.

Behind the scenes of that memorable address was speechwriter Sarah Hurwitz, who will keynote Ragan’s 2017 Leadership and Executive Communications Conference in September. Hurwitz plans to offer advice on how to tell vivid stories, make compelling arguments and convey truths that move audiences to action.

Measuring the impact

The convention speech was one of many Hurwitz worked on from 2009 to 2017 as a senior speechwriter for President Barack Obama and then chief speechwriter for the first lady.

“I measure the impact of a speech by how deeply it moves and inspires people, and I think what made that speech a success was its authenticity,” Hurwitz says. “Mrs. Obama knows who she is and she always knows what she wants to say, and that speech reflected deep truths that she wished to convey about the American experience—truths that resonated with people across the country and around the world.”

In the speech, Michelle Obama recalled that she woke up every morning in a White House built by slaves. Yet she watched her daughters—”two beautiful, intelligent, black young women”—playing with their dogs on the lawn. The address included the memorable line that “when someone is cruel, or acts like a bully, you don’t stoop to their level—no, our motto is, when they go low, we go high.”

Now a fellow at Harvard’s Institute of Politics, Hurwitz traveled with the Obamas to five continents. Her wordsmithing experience is extensive. She was chief speechwriter for Hillary Clinton during her 2008 presidential campaign, and held similar roles for General Wesley Clark and Senator John Kerry. Previously, Hurwitz was an attorney in Washington, D.C.

Where to find a story?

Asked for tips on finding stories or anecdotes, Hurwitz says it ‘s best to start with the principal for whom you write. “Ask them about people they’ve met recently who’ve moved and inspired them,” she says. “That way, the story will have a real emotional resonance for the speaker.”

Speechwriting has evolved since the early 20th century, when crowds would throng public spaces to listen to 90-minute stemwinders. But the changes have been more substantial than mere length, Hurwitz says. Audiences these days are looking for authenticity.

“People are increasingly turned off by the bland, sound-bitey language that has defined political rhetoric in recent years-‘We need to stand up for hardworking American middle class family values!'” Hurwitz says. “It sounds fake, and people often just tune it out. I think people listen to speeches when the speaker talks like an actual human being, and says something deeply true that reflects who they really are and what they really stand for.”

Another change every speaker must contend with is competition from that portable distraction device in everybody’s pocket. Audiences who are answering email or posting to Twitter can drive speakers up the wall.

But Hurwitz doesn’t fear competition for listeners’ attention. Rather, she sees smartphones as a tool for spreading speeches to a far broader audience than was possible just a decade ago.

“People often share good speeches via text and social media,” she says. “Really powerful speeches—from commencement speeches given by corporate leaders to remarks given on the campaign trail by political leaders—can easily go viral.”

In the midst of the 2016 primary a Ragan panel of professionals wrestled with the phenomenon of then-candidate Donald Trump, given his off-the-cuff ruminations and tendency to launch artillery barrages of insults.

Asked what Trump means for speechwriters, Hurwitz says, “I think there is a tremendous need for inspiring, moving speeches in the Trump era, particularly speeches that articulate core American values like equality, inclusion, optimism, honesty and courage.”


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