Write winning speeches with expert tips from the Obamas’ speechwriter

SOURCE: Nicholas Kamm / AFP
Writing for the spoken word is a special discipline.

By U2B Staff 

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At some point in your life, you might have to write and deliver a speech. Speeches can inform, persuade, instruct, motivate or even entertain listeners. However, they all share the same goal: to effectively and clearly communicate to an audience. Writing and delivering a speech does not have to be as scary as it sounds. Knowledge in writing speeches can be learned, and it is a great skill for professionals across sectors, especially writers, to be able to list on their resumes. 

Paying attention to the frequent delivery of public addresses by presidents, senators, representatives and more is a great place to start. For example, both Michelle and Barack Obama have delivered numerous memorable speeches, in and out of office. It’s an important element of their roles. Writing for the spoken word is a unique discipline, which is why congressional staff members are employed and are called upon to prepare drafts that are written specifically to be heard and not read.

Sarah Hurwitz has extraordinary experience in the practice, having written speeches for Vice President Al Gore, First Lady Hillary Clinton and the Obamas throughout their tenures in office. Hurwitz spoke with Vogue recently, sharing knowledge to help individuals shine in their upcoming public addresses — whether it be a debate, work presentation or a toast at a wedding. Here are her tips:

Channel the speaker

“The true art of speechwriting isn’t scripting someone, it’s channeling their voice”, Hurwitz shares. When writing a speech for Mrs. Obama, she would sit down with her and ask her what she would like to say. 

A gifted speaker and writer herself, Mrs. Obama would speak and Hurwitz would transcribe, forming the basis of the first draft. 


Research and understand your audience

Some important questions Hurwitz would ask herself to understand the audience she is writing for, “Who are you talking to? What are they concerned about? Why are you speaking to them? How well do they know you? What’s the venue?.” 

For example if Mrs. Obama was speaking at a university, Hurwitz would make it a priority to understand the history and student body of that university. Much like giving a toast at a wedding, where it is important to know if the story you’re telling is edgy or possibly offensive to family members.

Know that structure is destiny

There cannot be a good speech with a bad structure. “Every paragraph should flow logically from one to the next. When I’m trying to figure out the structure of a speech, I’ll often print it out and cut it up with scissors so I can move parts around”, she shares.

Doing this helps Hurwitz get a clearer picture and to quickly identify if her order is wrong, if she’s repeating herself or if certain passages could be combined.

Seek multiple opinions 

It is important to ask as many people as possible to look at your speech, especially if you are about to speak to a community that you do not know well. 

“You need to find someone from that audience who understands its cultural sensitivities and norms, so you speak in a way that inspires people rather than causing offence”, Hurwitz suggests.

Throw away the rulebook

“Writing to be read and writing to be heard are two very different skills. Spoken language doesn’t need to conform to grammar and punctuation norms”, she says. 

Hurwitz often uses ellipses instead of commas to indicate pauses because they’re easier to see. She ensures that it is fine to space things weirdly on the page or add notations if it helps, all that matters is how the words sound when spoken. “With that in mind, you should edit out loud. Print the speech out, practice delivering it and edit as you go.”

Listening is the key to great speaking

Mrs. Obama has given Hurwitz feedback on hundreds of occasions, in the form of handwritten edits.

“As I write, I hear her voice in my head saying things like, ‘this part is getting bogged down in the weeds; we’re missing the beating heart; we’re missing the real human side of this issue.’ Hone your ability to identify the weakest parts that aren’t working” she shares.

Speak like you usually do

When giving a speech it is important to avoid an overly formal stiff tone or slip into professional jargon, using words that no one understands. Hurwitz suggests that if something feels unnatural or awkward when you say it, rewrite it until it sounds like you. 

“All too often people focus on how they’re going to say something rather than on what they’re actually going to say”, she shares.

Show, don’t tell

If you’re bored during a speech, it’s probably because the person is telling, not showing”, Hurwitz says, suggesting that anytime you find yourself overly using adjectives, stop, step back, and think about painting a picture for people instead. Just as Mrs. Obama did in her 2016 Democratic National Convention speech.


Don’t let technology get in the way

A new set of challenges have been created in the age of Zoom, a service heavily used for virtual speeches. There’s often a disconnect which is why Hurwitz advises against a lecture-style format, and to opt for interview-style, answering a set of questions from your host to clearly convey the targeted message.

Watch the clock

Audiences today “have limited bandwidth”, explains Hurwitz, advising that it is important to focus on your message and stir the emotions you want them to feel. 

As for the length, it depends on your venue. “If you’re doing a toast at your best friend’s wedding, keep it to five minutes (it’s not your wedding!) and for a keynote speech, no longer than 20 minutes”, she says.

Consider the format

Never feel pressured to memorise your speeches by heart. With that being said, what you read from matters. “Some speakers are the most comfortable with their speech when it’s written out verbatim. For others, reading a speech word for word feels awkward.” 

Hurwitz suggests experimenting with different formats, such as bullet points or cue cards. She also suggests keeping remarks on the top two-thirds of the page, avoiding the need to look too far down, which could lead to you swallowing your words and breaking eye contact with your audience.