Telling True Stories: Insights from a White House Speechwriter

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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 Authors@Wharton speakers series, Hurwitz sat down with Knowledge@Wharton to talk about the elements of successful speechwriting.

An edited transcript of the conversation follows.

Knowledge@Wharton: 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.

Knowledge@Wharton: 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.

Knowledge@Wharton: 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.

Knowledge@Wharton: 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.

Knowledge@Wharton: 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.

Knowledge@Wharton: 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 good way to start. I’d say it’s also a good way to continue and end a speech.

Knowledge@Wharton: How can we be that honest to get there?

Hurwitz: It’s a very tough question, what’s the truest thing I can say at that moment? It sounds great. It sounds very big. I think a very important way to get there is just stop writing the speech. Stop worrying about the speech. Just stop and say, “If I were giving this speech to an empty room, if I were saying the truest thing that I could say, what would it be?” Don’t worry, the speech will come. But starting out, find what is the truest thing and work from there. Maybe you don’t say 100% of that thing because people aren’t ready to hear it. Maybe you have to kind of speak it a certain way. But I think starting with that very clear thing that you know is true is a great starting point.

Knowledge@Wharton: One of the most stirring speeches from Michelle Obama came in her reaction to some of the sexual harassment claims against Donald Trump. She said some things that maybe we don’t say in public, that maybe we say to our friends or in private. Was that where she wanted to go right away?

“The most important lesson I’ve learned about speechwriting is very simple: Say something true.”

Hurwitz: She wanted to talk about the misogyny that we were seeing in this election before the “Access Hollywood” videotape in which Trump was boasting about sexually assaulting women. That speech to her was deeply personal. It was something she felt incredibly strongly about. You just saw the emotion in that speech, right? You just saw how deeply she cared about it. That speech was very much her words, her ideas. From start to finish, she knew what she wanted to say and she got out and said it.

Knowledge@Wharton: What do you do when you have speakers that want to be more private? They maybe don’t want to share as much of themselves as the First Lady or even President Obama has?

Hurwitz: When potential voters are evaluating political candidates, I think the question voters are asking is, “Do you get me? Do you understand where I’m coming from?” And I think it is important as a candidate to share a little bit of your personal story so they can begin to sense, “OK, I see myself in you.” Even if your personal story is very different from the voters you’re speaking to, which is often the case, I think that everyone can relate to certain things. People might have had a very different upbringing than Mrs. Obama, but in the Democratic National Convention speech in 2016 when she talked about her daughters’ first day of school and how intense that was for her to be sending them away in these big cars with these men, their little faces pressed up against the window — any mom, any dad, anyone who has a child in their life they care about can relate to that moment. You don’t have to be similar to her in other ways, but that’s such a relatable moment. So, I do think it’s really important for people, even if they’re not comfortable divulging a lot, to find one or two things that are relatable. If that’s still uncomfortable for you, then you can focus more on telling the stories of other people, people who you want to serve. Maybe it’s telling the stories of what voters are going through. At the end of the day, I do think you have to tie them to your story somehow because voters are trying to decide whether they want you to serve them.

Knowledge@Wharton: Most of us are never going to have our own speechwriters, but we’re probably going to make a public address at some point. What are some tricks of the trade to improve the way that we communicate?

Hurwitz: The first one is just always be sure you’re saying something that is just deeply true, something authentic that you feel strongly about. The second thing that’s really important to remember is just talk like a person. Often when people stand up behind a podium, they start using all these words and phrases that they would never normally use. In business, you hear people talking about, “We need to catalyze the leveraging of the unsiloed verticals.” It’s like people don’t know what you’re talking about. Or you see politicians doing this, “We need to put hard-working American middle-class family values first.” It’s this sort of bland, generic politician speech, and it’s not relatable. You would never say, “We need to put hard-working American family values first” to your spouse or your friend. That’s not how people communicate with each other. It’s important to talk like a person.

I also think it’s important to show and not tell. People often use a lot of adjectives as opposed to actually painting a really vivid, moving picture of something. I think that’s less memorable.

Knowledge@Wharton: When you write speeches, are there words or phrases that you’ve banned?

“It’s important to talk like a person.”

Hurwitz: There’s a lot of the kind of, “When you work hard and play by the rules you should get ahead,” or “Health care is a right, not a privilege.” Those are great sentiments and I agree with them passionately. But it’s important to find ways to express them that are more authentic to the speaker and a little bit fresher and that will more resonate with an audience.

Knowledge@Wharton: You say that people have to come from this well of what’s the most true, but do you need to change anything depending on the audience?

Hurwitz: You absolutely do. It is an important question to ask: Who is this audience? Whether you’re speaking to a bunch of high school students or a bunch of CEOs or a bunch of senior citizens, obviously these audiences have very different perspectives and needs. It’s important to take that into account. I would advise saying the same thing to each audience, but just saying it in a way that’s a little bit different so that it accounts for where they’re coming from and acknowledges who they are. I think with any audience you’re speaking to, it’s important to tell their story.

With a lot of speeches that I’ve written, both for the Obamas and for others, we often start the speech by saying, “It’s so great to be here with you today. I know what you all have been doing. You’ve been working on this issue or that issue. Or you know what, you young people here, all of you are going onto college and I know how hard that was and I know how hard you worked.” It’s really honoring them and showing that you’ve taken the time to learn about them and that you celebrate what they’ve done.

Knowledge@Wharton: Do you have a particular writing process? Do you write longhand or on a computer?

Hurwitz: A colleague once said to me, “You know Sarah, you just kind of spill out a bunch of total nonsense on a page and then spend a week editing it,” which was harsh but he was right to some extent. I’ll take the transcript that I’ve made of the meeting and add my own notes and ideas and things to it. That’s just really stream of consciousness notes. Then I’ll start arranging that into an outline, then into specific paragraphs. Then I’ll go through and edit each of those paragraphs. I sometimes get stuck, and when I get stuck I just move on. I don’t allow myself to get writer’s block because sometimes I won’t know what I’m trying to do in paragraph three, but I’ll know what paragraph four is going to say so I can go and write that. There are many times when I’ve written the end of the speech before the beginning. I’m not a super linear writer, but I do stick to an outline that’s very well-structured so I know exactly where I’m going.

Knowledge@Wharton: When you’re absolutely stuck, is there anything you do?

Hurwitz: People often ask me, “What happens when you get writer’s block?” The answer is, you get it all the time. It’s normal. But you can’t indulge it. The speech is going to be given two days from now, two weeks from now. So I will often go talk to a colleague and say, “Hey, I’m stuck. Can you help me out?” If I’m just really stuck, sometimes I’ll just stop for the night and try to get up the next morning and look at it fresh. Other times I’ve printed out my draft of the speech, spread it on the floor of the office and just looked at it that way. When you do that, you often begin to realize that your problem is structure. Things are in the wrong order. Or you have basically the same idea in two different places and you begin to realize, if I just switch this paragraph and that paragraph the transition is better, so I can get rid of all of this transition language that I’ve had to try to make it work. I think actually looking at it on paper can be very helpful.

Knowledge@Wharton: You mentioned that when you worked for the President, you often were doing things more on the fly with tighter deadlines. How does that process change when instead of having two weeks or two days, you have two hours?

Hurwitz: Yeah, that does sometimes happen. It would happen with the First Lady in the case where, sadly, there would be some kind of crisis event that Mrs. Obama would have to acknowledge. When we were in Cuba, there was a terrorist attack the night before she was speaking, dedicating this beautiful little bench in a little ceremony at a library with a bunch of children. We had to acknowledge that attack. It was serious. It was devastating. I woke up that morning, learned about it and thought, “I have to figure out a way to work this into these remarks to children.” It’s very stressful, but you get it done. You have colleagues who help you, and you just make it happen.

Knowledge@Wharton: One of the things that Michelle Obama became known for in her speeches was drawing on personal stories from her life. She would talk about growing up in Chicago. She would occasionally tell stories about her daughters. What did you do to help her tell her stories, and how can we use some of that to become better storytellers?

“In the Obama White House, we knew that every word the President and First Lady said had huge ramifications.”

Hurwitz: I think details are so incredibly important. When she tells the story of her father who had multiple sclerosis and worked at the city water plant, she could say, “You know, my dad had MS. He worked at the plant. He worked really hard. He sacrificed a lot.” That’s all just sort of telling. I don’t really see him. But instead what she said in some of her speeches was, “You know, as my dad got sicker it got harder for him to get dressed in the morning. He would wake up an hour early so that he could slowly button his shirt. He would drag himself across the room with two canes to give my mom a kiss.” In 2012 she talked about how when he would come home from work she would see him slowly going up the stairs lifting one leg and then the other leg to come up into her arms. Those are these really vivid details that show how hard working he was. They show his humanity. They show his sacrifice and his love for his family. Those specific details are just critical for storytelling.

Knowledge@Wharton: Did you find yourself asking questions like, “What color was the shirt he was wearing when he went up the stairs?”

Hurwitz: Sometimes. But she usually had the details herself. I didn’t have to ask a lot. She remembered well, and I was able to use what she gave me.

Knowledge@Wharton: You recently wrote in USA Today about the importance and rigor of fact-checking. Could you talk about that?

Hurwitz: In the Obama White House, we knew that every word the President and First Lady said had huge ramifications. They both have a huge megaphone. What they say goes around the world and is heavily scrutinized. We also felt that we are serving the American people and have such a heavy responsibility to make sure that everything we’re saying to them is 100% accurate. We had an entire team in our research department who would fact check every word of every line of every speech we wrote. That could be a really intense process because they would often come back to us with this long email saying, “We found a statistic that’s slightly different than the statistic you use. Where did your statistic come from? Let’s loop in the policy team.” The example I used in the article was the President or First Lady might say, “Oh, my friend so-and-so.” And they would say, “Well, are they really friends? What’s the evidence you have that they’re friends? What’s the nature of their relationship?”

There were times when we as speechwriters would say, “This is so frustrating. This is so silly.” But it wasn’t silly. The idea was that we had a real loyalty to the people we served. We had a loyalty to the truth, and we took it very, very seriously. We spent a lot of time on this process, and the speechwriters got very close to the research department. The fact-checkers became our really good friends because we knew they were looking out for us and looking out for the American people.

Knowledge@Wharton: There’s been a lot of talk recently about the truth, facts and alternative facts. Do you feel like the current political climate has blurred the lines of that a little bit? What do we do about that?

Hurwitz: The lines have absolutely been blurred. We have a president who repeatedly makes false claims…. What we do about it is we continuously, repeatedly call it out. We just call it out every time it happens because, unfortunately, I think a lie once repeated enough, people begin to think it’s true.

Knowledge@Wharton: What’s next for you now that your time in the White House is done?

Hurwitz: I’m a fellow at the Institute of Politics at Harvard University, which is delightful. I’m getting to work with students and teach, and it’s so much fun. As for what comes next, I have no idea. I’m really enjoying writing in my own voice, so I think I want to do more of that. I think I’ll always be involved in politics in some way, and I’m just figuring out what that will be.

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