Sarah Hurwitz, former speechwriter for Michelle Obama, offers tips on becoming a better storyteller.
During her eight years at the White House, Michelle Obama became known for her frank, personal speeches that often drew upon her childhood growing up on the South Side of Chicago. For most of those eight years, the First Lady shared what was on her mind with the help of speechwriter Sarah Hurwitz, who joined the Obama campaign after working as chief speechwriter for Hillary Clinton during her 2008 run for the presidency. While on campus for a recent lecture as part of the [email protected] speakers series, Hurwitz sat down with [email protected] to talk about the elements of successful speechwriting.
An edited transcript of the conversation follows.
[email protected]: In addition to working for Michelle Obama and Hillary Clinton, you have also done speechwriting for former Vice President Al Gore and others. What are some of the first steps you take when you write for someone new?
Sarah Hurwitz: If they’ve written a book or anything like that, it’s important to read that just to get a sense of their history and how they think about things. I find it’s also very helpful to read and watch any past speeches they’ve given. But I think the best way to get to know how someone speaks is to speak with them. Just sit down with them informally and talk with them in a natural setting. You’ll really get the sense of the cadence of their voice, how they would normally speak. As a speechwriter, that’s really what you’re trying to capture — that kind of true, authentic way they speak.
[email protected]: Was there a big difference between writing for Michelle Obama versus Barack Obama?
Hurwitz: Every person I’ve written for has a unique voice. It’s really hard to compare them because they each have such a special way of speaking that’s so particular to them.
I will say the roles of president and first lady are so different because the truth is if there is some kind of crisis, people don’t turn to the first lady, they turn to the president. When you’re writing for the president, things tend to be much more last minute, more volatile. They tend to change very quickly. When you’re writing for a first lady, you tend to have a little bit more time. She can be more proactive because she doesn’t have to be reactive to things that are happening in the news. That gives you a little bit more leeway and wiggle room as a speechwriter to prepare, and I appreciated that.
[email protected]: You told The Washington Post that by the end of your time with the First Lady, you could hear her voice in your head almost critiquing the words as you were writing. With your process for writing for her, did you have a tickler file? Would she sometimes say something that you would kind of file away for later?
Hurwitz: Typically for a big speech with Mrs. Obama, I would start by sitting down with her and asking, “What do you want to say?” Michelle Obama knows who she is, and she always knows what she wants to say. She would always have a very clear idea of what the speech was going to be about. She would dictate language. She would lay out the themes that she wanted to hit. She was very clear and very prescriptive, so I would always walk away with a real sense of what the speech was going to be.
“Michelle Obama knows who she is, and she always knows what she wants to say.”
Then it’s really my job to come up with a draft. She would heavily weigh in and line edit. People often will say to me, “Oh Sarah, that was such a great speech,” and I was never really comfortable saying thank you because it’s not my speech. It came from her. She really worked on it from beginning to end. While I certainly helped, I don’t feel comfortable claiming credit for it.
She might be telling me something that she wanted to say in one speech, and for whatever reason maybe it didn’t fit in there. But a month down the road I’d think, “She mentioned that really great idea for that other speech, but it fits perfectly here.” And I would use it. If she told an interesting story or pointed to an interesting quote, I would mark it for myself and then maybe come back to it.
[email protected]: One of the most famous phrases that has come from Michelle Obama was during her speech at the 2016 Democratic National Convention, when she used the words, “When they go low, we go high.” That really caught on. What is the story of how that phrase came into being?
Hurwitz: That was her phrase. My only contribution to that phrase was literally to type it into my laptop. That was it. I remember thinking, that’s a really nice line. It’s really moving. It’s a really beautiful summary of who she is. I liked it. I had no idea it was going to catch on the way it did. I had no idea, and I was thrilled when it did.
[email protected]: You also wrote Hilary Clinton’s concession speech in 2008, when she referred to putting “18 million cracks” in what she called the “highest, hardest glass ceiling.” Can you talk about your process for writing that speech?
Hurwitz: It was a matter of balancing those competing aims, where it’s honoring what has been achieved, the history that’s been made, the excitement that she had captured across the country. It’s also making clear to people this is ongoing. This isn’t an end; it’s a beginning. It was also doing a really full-throated endorsement of Barack Obama. That was a really important part of the speech as well, and she did that beautifully. I think she really made a powerful and very passionate argument to her supporters about why they should support him. Then he hired her to be his secretary of state, and she did a magnificent job.
[email protected]: Most of us are not going to be giving speeches in front of world leaders, but we all are communicating every day. What has being a professional communicator taught you about strong, concise, direct communication that really gets you somewhere?
Hurwitz: The most important lesson I’ve learned about speechwriting is very simple: Say something true. When people are thinking about giving a speech, they’re often thinking, “What will make me sound smart or interesting or witty or powerful?” Or they’re thinking, “What does the audience want to hear?” Those really shouldn’t be your first and most foundational questions. Your first question should be, “What is the deepest and most important truth that I can tell at this moment?” Whether you were giving a speech to 1,000 people or talking to your board or leading an informal meeting, it’s really important to say something that is clearly and glaringly true. I think that it makes people trust you. It makes them respect you. It shows your authenticity. I think it makes you credible and it’s a really