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Michelle Obama speech writing lessons

Image source: US Magazine

Commentators and commenters praised Michelle Obama’s speech at the Democratic National Convention. Listeners called it electrifying and compared it to Martin Luther King’s “I have a dream speech.”

The Mirror said she destroyed Donald Trump without even mentioning his name. The Daily Beast called it a “speech of a lifetime.” MSNBC reported that her speech prompted the New York Daily News to drop its original plan for the paper’s front page – that featured disgruntled Bernie Sanders backers — and replace it with the headline “The Lady Is Her Champ.”

A few observers parsed the speech to explain its success and reveal its writing lessons.

Be Brief, Be Memorable

Brevity was major factor, said former Obama speechwriter Jon Favreau. “It was shorter than any of the other prime-time speeches, which all could have lost a couple minutes,” Favreau said on a Keepin’ It 1600 podcast.  Favreau also said:

The speech lacked policy references. Maintaining interest while explaining details of tax plans is challenging. Not everyone can deliver a speech without mentioning policies, of course, but the First Lady can.

She kept her focus. She stuck to the story line of how her daughters came to the White House and how they grew up there. Speech writers too often try to include too many ideas. A memorable speech has room for one central idea.

She took a risk. She started by saying, “And I remember that first day of school when they were in this big, black SUV with all these men with guns and I thought to myself, ‘What have we done?’” That line was unexpected.

A Scholarly Examination

Roy Peter Clark, senior scholar at the Poynter Institute, cited eight writing lessons. Here are the most interesting.

The power of pronouns. First person, second person and third person can create specific effects. “I” or “me” or “my” makes a personal appeal. “We” or “us” proclaims collective power. “You” makes prose sound conversational. The third person points the camera away from the speaker.

Consider this paragraph from her speech: “It is hard to believe that it has been eight years since I first came to this convention to talk with you about why I thought my husband should be president. Remember how I told you about his character and his conviction? His decency and grace? The traits we have seen every day as he served our country in the White House.”

Visual images help. Well-chosen images imprint themselves on the memory of the audience. This juxtaposition of elements — little girls with noses pressed against the glass in a scary car filled with men with guns — creates an emotional tension.

The power of three. A pattern of three helps make the point. “Of the people, by the people, for the people.” “Four examples or 40 become an inventory. Three encompasses the world, creating the illusion we know everything we need to know,” Clark writes.

Notice the pattern of three in this passage: “How we urged them to ignore those who question their father’s citizenship or faith. How we insist that the hateful language they hear from public figures on TV does not represent the true spirit of this country. How we explain that when someone is cruel or acts like a bully, you don’t stoop to their level.”

Bottom Line: Michelle Obama’s much-lauded speech at the Democratic National Convention revealed many superb speech writing techniques. Corporate speech writers as well as PR pros and other communications professionals can include many of those practices in their own writing.