InsightsPOSTED June 4, 2018

Top speechwriting tips from Michelle Obama’s former speechwriter

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Sarah Hurwitz

Former First Lady Michelle Obama’s speechwriter Sarah Hurwitz joined practitioners from across the country a week ago at the Canadian Public Relations Society national conference in Charlottetown, PE.

A proponent of free press (as reported in Charlottetown’s Guardian), and offering clever tips for speechwriters (CBC), Hurwitz offered her candid views about past and current Whitehouse communications.

“Speeches are often the canvases where a lot of things get worked out,” said Hurwitz, as she shared her top three tips for speechwriting:

  1. Answer the following question: “What is the deepest, most important truth I can tell at this moment?” (Find a perspective to share.)
  2. “Show don’t tell.” (Use examples.)
  3. “Talk like a human.” (No one should ever use policy-talk in speeches.)

She also offered a few other practical tips for speeches including:

  • Print the speech only on the top half of a page so that the speaker doesn’t ever have to go to a bottom of a page (i.e. lowering his/her head, covering his/her face).
  • Write for the ear, not the eye. “There is a huge difference between writing for the eye — to be seen, versus writing for the ear — to be heard. Speeches written to be heard are not grammatical.”

One question she always gets asked about were the allegations of current First Lady’s possible plagiarism of her former boss’ previous speech.

Hurwitz said when the story broke, she felt for the speechwriter(s), because often quotes get pulled from various sources for inspiration – later to be deleted once the speech is fleshed out. She suspects a such a mistake could have been made in that instance.

Have you ever had an #epicfail?

When asked whether she had a memorable mistake of her own, Hurwitz responded with a near-miss when the former First Lady was speaking in Japan. Hurwitz found a Japanese proverb directly translating into “no road is long with a good companion.” Because the proverb seemed to be about friendship, it seemed safe.

When Hurwitz checked with the U.S. embassy in Japan, turns out the proverb is about suicide. Her advice is to always check – no matter how safe something may seem. Had this proverb slipped through, it is likely that it would have been the only thing that individuals would have focused on for the entirety of the trip.

Hurwitz was also grateful for the extensive fact-checking that was performed on her and her colleagues’ speeches. “We had a fact-checking team that scrubbed every line of every speech that we ever wrote.”

What speech of former First Lady Michelle Obama gives you goosebumps?

When asked about her favourite speech, Hurwitz shared two:

  1. 2016 Democratic Convention speech

  1. City College of New York 2016 Commencement Ceremony

Need help with your speechwriting? Drop us a lineDiane Bégin is VP, social marketing & brand communications. Follow her @dibegin.