How to Write – and Deliver – a Great Speech?

A powerful speech has a simple recipe: it has to be true. That’s the tip of top speechwriter Sarah Hurwitz.

Photo: Chuck Kennedy

Ville Blåfield, 31.08.2017

Long Forms

Sarah Hurwitz shares some lessons in an interview with Aalto Leaders’ Insight. Words Ville Blåfield.

It’s Saturday, 7 June 2008. Wearing a black blazer and white string of pearls around her neck, senator Hillary Rodham Clinton stands in front of a vast, roaring crowd outside the National Building Museum in Washington, D.C. 

It’s time to admit defeat. Against all odds, Barack Obama, a young senator from Illinois, has risen as the Democratic nominee for President. The dream of America’s first female president won’t be turning into reality quite yet.

"Well, this isn’t exactly the party I’d planned, but I sure like the company”, Rodham Clinton begins her speech.

“Although we weren’t able to shatter that highest, hardest glass ceiling this time, thanks to you, it’s got about 18 million cracks in it.”

The audience bursts into applause, shouting, cheering. Rodham Clinton pauses for a moment before continuing: “And the light is shining through like never before, filling us all with the hope and the sure knowledge that the path will be a little easier next time.”

The power of words. The right sentence in the right part of the speech, uttered to the right audience, presented in the right way results in tears and masses turning up. Rodham Clinton’s “18 million cracks” referred to the 18 million votes in pre-elections. In the minds of supporters disappointed with the loss, the connotation was moving and empowering: in this slow battle for equality between men and women, in shattering the glass ceiling, this campaign played a key part despite ending in loss. “That highest, hardest glass ceiling” will be easier to shatter next time, thanks to you.

It was Sarah Hurwitz who was behind the words. As soon as Rodham Clinton’s campaign ended, she was hired by Team Obama as Michelle Obama’s speechwriter.

Barack Obama’s aide and speechwriter Jon Fabreau knew Harvard law graduate Hurwitz from four years back from John Kerry’s presidential campaign. Her first assignment for the Obama campaign was to write Michelle Obama’s first major speech to introduce her husband at the Democratic National Convention.

Hurwitz later told the Washington Post that she was nervous about first meeting Michelle Obama: how would she be received after being the go-to speechwriter for the competing team just moments before?

But the fears were unfounded, and Michelle Obama and Sarah Hurwitz hit it off from word go.

“She clearly said to me: ‘Okay, this is who I am. This is where I come from. This is my family. These are my values, and this is what I want to talk about at the convention’”, Hurwitz subsequently reminisced in the Washington Post article. "I realized then that Michelle Obama knows who she is, and she always knows what she wants to say.”

Uncovering Michelle Obama’s voice was a key factor in the success of the pair’s collaboration for many years to come. Hurwitz managed to hear and internalize Michelle Obama’s authentic, unique voice and tone for carrying her message: the Michelle Obama truth.

That’s Sarah Hurwitz’s first lesson to the readers of Aalto Leaders’ Insight.

As Barack and Michelle Obama became the presidential couple in 2008, Sarah Hurwitz became the first lady’s head speechwriter.

She worked at the White House for the Obamas’ entire eight-year term.

She now gives lectures on speechwriting all over the world, visiting Finland in June (2017) as a guest speaker at the ‘summer school of rhetoric’ seminar in Hämeenlinna.  

What is the deepest and most important truth I can tell at this particular moment?”

Aalto Leaders’ Insight asked Hurwitz what elements make a speech powerful, and whether there is a lesson we can all learn from the greatest speeches, speakers and speechwriters in history. 

“I think great speeches generally tell deep and important truths”, Hurwitz begins.

“I always advise people that the first question they should ask when writing a speech is not ‘What will make me sound smart, or powerful, or funny?’ or ’What does the audience want to hear?’ but ’What is the deepest and most important truth I can tell at this particular moment?’”

Truth also leads to finding your own voice. A powerful speech looks and sounds like the speaker – regardless of whether it was written by a multi-member team, the audience needs to believe the speaker stands behind it.

“It's important to talk in your natural, authentic voice”, Hurwitz says.

"Often when people get behind the podium, they speak in this very formal, stilted way, and it sounds fake.”

Hurwitz has a handy way of testing how authentic a speech sounds:

“If you would not feel comfortable speaking this way to your friend, or spouse, or colleague, you shouldn't speak this way to an audience of many people either.”

How does a speechwriter uncover someone else’s voice? You can easily apply Hurwitz’s test to your own speech, but how do you know what is natural and true for another person?

People who have worked with Hurwitz say her method is simple: she listens.

“It’s not that complicated”, her former colleague Jon Lovett tells Washington Post. "Sarah is very talented. She’s very good at helping the first lady find a more substantive and personal way of talking about issues. There are people that are just really well suited to write for somebody and it’s a really good match.”

Yet clever speechwriting involves a rather deep symbiosis.

“It is not simply capturing the person’s voice because that alone would be mimicry”, claims Robert Schleringer in his book White House Ghosts: Presidents and Their Speechwriters.

“It is not simply capturing the person’s voice but knowing them well enough to figure out how their mind works.”

It’s Monday, 25 July 2016.

Democrats have congregated for their historical National Convention at the Wells Fargo Center in Philadelphia. One of the last remaining glass ceilings is shattered when for the first time the party nominates a woman as a presidential candidate –  Hillary Clinton, who by now has dropped Rodham from her name. 

Outgoing first lady Michelle Obama is the key speaker on the Democratic Convention’s first day. She goes on to give a speech that becomes one of Sarah Hurwitz’s most renowned to date. The speech resonates eight years of Obama and Hurwitz working together – and a deeply ingrained sense of humor.

The speech resonates eight years of Obama and Hurwitz working together – and a deeply ingrained sense of humor."

Hurwitz understands that the audience of Democrats in Philadelphia have joined together to make history. Michelle Obama’s speech shows in a moving and empowering way what turning a new historical leaf has meant so far.

“That is the story of this country, the story that has brought me to this stage tonight, the story of generations of people who felt the lash of bondage, the shame of servitude, the sting of segregation, but who kept on striving and hoping and doing what needed to be done”, Michelle Obama asserts.

And she goes on:

“So that today I wake up every morning in a house that was built by slaves. And I watch my daughters, two beautiful, intelligent, black young women playing with their dogs on the White House lawn.”

Hurwitz’s words and Obama’s presence are powerful because they are true. The thoughts are noble, the language eloquent, but not one single word contradicts with Michelle Obama’s truth. Right-wing commentators are quick to point out errors in her speech right after, claiming that the White House hadn’t in fact been built by slaves.

But they are wrong. Hurwitz’s message stands tall.

To give a powerful speech, it helps to understand history.

It may not be so easy to see yourself as part of a historical continuum, but a clever speaker is able to impart that sense to an individual or group. The speech of the father of a bride, a director’s speech at a retirement do or the company’s centenary celebration, a politician’s election speech, or a priest’s eulogy may not require that many words, but can make the moment extra special by revealing the person’s or community’s role as part of a longer chain.

We have a shared mission."

We have a shared story. We have a shared mission. We have shared predecessors, a shared adversary, a shared future. These are strong messages, which when directed accurately and sticking to the truth move the masses.

It comes as no surprise that Hurwitz’s own role model is perhaps the most famous speaker in American political history, Dr. Martin Luther King.

“I'm incredibly inspired by many of the speeches of Dr. Martin Luther King”, Hurwitz mentions to Aalto Leaders’ Insight.

“He was a great moral and intellectual leader, and his words inspired a generation of Americans to join the civil rights movement, and they still inspire people today to stand up for what they believe and work to build a more just world.”



Learn from the best – What can every speaker learn from the greatest speeches in history?

In his treatise Rhetoric dating from the 4th century BC, Aristotle teaches that in a good speech, three elements strike a balance: ethos, i.e. authority or credibility; pathos, i.e. emotions; and logos, i.e. logic. But what can we learn from masters of rhetoric post-Aristotle?

1. Make it personal

Dr. Martin Luther King gave his famous "I have a dream” speech during mass demonstrations on 28 August 1963 outside Lincoln Memorial in Washington, D.C. He had held part of the same speech already in June the same year in Detroit. 

The speech included a string of inspiring figures of speech and persuasive messages –  "We cannot walk alone. We cannot turn back.” – but his most personal account rose above the rest:

“I have a dream that my four little children will one day live in a nation where they will not be judged by the color of their skin but by the content of their character.”

2. Be inspiring (and quote cleverly)

Ronald Reagan sold Americans a biblical allusion of a city shining on a hill both in his acceptance speech in 1980 and farewell address in 1989.

In the Bible, Jesus urges his followers: "You are the light of the world. A city that is set on a hill cannot be hidden." Ronald Reagan used the metaphor on several occasions during his presidential term when in need of an inspiring vision for the nation.

“I've spoken of the shining city all my political life, but I don't know if I ever quite communicated what I saw when I said it”, he claims in his farewell address in 1989.

“In my mind it was a tall, proud city built on rocks stronger than oceans, wind-swept, God-blessed, and teeming with people of all kinds living in harmony and peace; a city with free ports that hummed with commerce and creativity. And if there had to be city walls, the walls had doors and the doors were open to anyone with the will and the heart to get here.”

3. Set an ambitious goal

Winston Churchill held his “United States of Europe” speech in Zurich in 1946.

In the midst of the rubble of World War II, Europe was in desperate need of a new world order. On 19 September 1946, Winston Churchill gave a speech at the University of Zurich urging European countries – Germany included – to pull together.

“I am now going to say something that will astonish you. The first step in the re-creation of the European family must be a partnership between France and Germany.” In Europe of 1946, Churchill’s words were nothing short of radical.

“We must re-create the European family”, Churchill advocated. "I say to you ’Let Europe arise!’”

4. Be honest

Barack Obama received the Nobel Peace Prize in December 2009 at a time when his country was at war.

Allegedly, Obama insisted on writing his Nobel speech himself, word for word. The speech wasn’t finalized until during the flight to the award ceremony in Oslo.

"We must begin by acknowledging the hard truth that we will not eradicate violent conflict in our lifetimes. There will be times when nations – acting individually or in concert – will find the use of force not only necessary but morally justified”, the recipient of the Peace Prize remarked.

"For make no mistake: evil does exist in the world. A non-violent movement could not have halted Hitler’s armies. Negotiations cannot convince Al Qaeda’s leaders to lay down their arms. To say that force is sometimes necessary is not a call to cynicism – it is a recognition of history; the imperfections of man and the limits of reason.”

5. Show what you feel

Tony Blair’s eulogy to Princess Diana in 1997 seemed to encapsulate the sorrow of the entire nation.

As the nation mourned, the inability of the British monarchy to react to the tragic death of Princess Diana created a void which newly-elected prime minister Tony Blair managed to fill.

Clearly grief-stricken, Blair spoke to TV cameras in Trindom in County Durham, giving Lady Diana the honor stripped away from her by the monarchy following her divorce: 

“She was the people’s princess and that’s how she will stay, how she will remain in our hearts and in our memories forever.”

6. Call to action

In his inauguration speech, John F. Kennedy didn’t give promises, but an appeal.

“My fellow Americans: ask not what your country can do for you — ask what you can do for your country”, he pleaded, continuing:

"My fellow citizens of the world: ask not what America will do for you, but what together we can do for the freedom of man. Finally, whether you are citizens of America or citizens of the world, ask of us the same high standards of strength and sacrifice which we ask of you.”

7. Crystalize, be remembered

Margaret Thatcher’s speech at a party conference in Brighton in October 1980 included a powerful one-liner that crystalized her entire lengthy speech in one sentence: “The lady’s not for turning.”

To demands of a complete turnaround, Thatcher had a clear message: ”To those waiting with bated breath for that favourite media catchphrase, the U-turn, I have only one thing to say: ’You turn if you want to. The lady's not for turning.’”

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