Sarah Hurwitz, White House Speechwriter, in Conversation with Melanie Newman at ComNet17
Sarah Hurwitz has served as a senior speechwriter for President Barack Obama and chief speechwriter for First Lady Michelle Obama and Hillary Clinton. She knows a thing or two about communicating big ideas to the American people.
Sarah sat down with the NAACP Legal Defense Fund’s Melanie Newman at ComNet17 to talk about how to carefully choose the words you use in your communications, how to define an audience, and what it takes to craft a phenomenal speech.
Welcome everybody to ComNet17. I’m Jesse Salazar. I’m Chairman of the Board of The Communications Network, and because of that responsibility, I get to say hello and welcome you all to Miami. Bienvenidos. I’m sure that all of your colleagues back at the office are really appreciating that you’re taking one for the team by coming here and having drinks and meeting all these fantastic people, so I thank you for your sacrifice.
This morning, I got a final count on where we are with attendance, and we’re at 796, which is a historic high for the network. It’s about 200 more than we’ve ever had at a Communications Network conference. I want to start by just thanking Sean, Tristan, Emma and the whole team for the tremendous work they’ve done to organize this. Where are they? Sean. Sean. Could you stand up and just be recognized, because it is a remarkable achievement?
I often tell my colleagues on the board that the best thing I’ve ever done on the board is serve on the search committee that helped find Sean Gibbons. He has been able to help us to grow in tremendous ways, and he’s just a fantastic partner to so many of the people in the room, and thanks again.
I do want to mention though that with all of the growth that’s been happening over the last two years, we’ve had about 200 more people every year come to the conference. There’s been a lot of conversation on the board about that growth and whether or not we can maintain the quality experience that so many have really enjoyed. And on the other hand, we felt that there’s clearly a need in the social sector to provide learning, opportunity, and most importantly, community to those of us who are trying to use strategic communications to do good in the world. Given what’s been happening, I think it makes sense that we’d want to try to create as positive experience for as many people as possible.
But I ask that you please do be candid in your feedback with us so that we know if we’re hitting the mark, because we want to figure out whether or not we’ve got the right formula. So all the details … You’re communicators. You obsess about details. Let us know, because we want to make sure you have a great experience. Every communications network conference, I get very excited. There’s something about this conference and the people and the community and the energy and talent and the ideas that just thrills me. It allows me to sort of step away from the day to day work that I do and think about the field as a whole and what’s going on in the world and the big issues and what solutions might be created. Because of that, I get this sort of Christmas morning enthusiasm whenever I come here.
But when I was stepping into the lobby and seeing the glitz, I couldn’t help but feel this sense that we have to be sure that we’re tempering a little bit of our excitement because of the scale of the challenges that are happening right now. I have been trained as a historian, and so I know that there is tremendous capacity within people to create change, to innovate and to address big challenges. I have seen so many examples of people in this room stepping up in profound ways to help those around them, and so I just want to thank you for your willingness to come and be in a community of professionals so that we can increase that capacity for good.
That’s really what this is about for us. My feeling is that communications has such a unique role to play within the sector because it is the work of communicators that connects us to something bigger. So you may communicate about the institution or the brand of a program or you want to make sure the people know the particulars of what you’re doing, but communications is a profession that forces all of us to think about how these individual activities accrete into something bigger. It forces us to think how these activities connect to traditions, to history, to community values and ultimately to moral purpose.
I think that that’s been helpful for me in thinking about the work that we are trying to do. I think that this community has within it the ability to create tremendous good, and so I want to thank you all again. Have a great conference. I would encourage you to try to give as much as you get out of the experience, even if it’s your first ComNet. How many first time ComNetters do we have? Wow. That’s insane. Have a blast. Enjoy yourselves. Think hard. Share. Give. Have a great day.
We just closed a communications loop. I said something. You heard me. You understood. You said something back, and I think you guys said, “Good morning,” or “Get off the stage.” So not quite a perfect loop, but I think we’re off to a pretty good start. I’m Sean, for those of you who have not met me. It’s nice to see you all. Welcome to Miami. As you might imagine, we are grateful to be here for a whole host of reasons, and the next couple of days are gonna be, I hope for you, extraordinary.
I want to share with you just a little reflection on how I’m feeling right this minute. I’ve had a lot of feelings over the last year, since I saw many of you in Detroit. I think we all have. But right now, I am feeling hopeful and optimistic. Here’s the thing. I can’t tell you why. But I can show you. So as I’m probably gonna do a few times over the next couple days, one of my jobs is gonna be telling you to get in the room, sit down, take your seats, quiet down, all that good stuff… This is the first time we’re gonna try it as a group.
Please, stand up. If you are in the front row or the first couple of rows and you’re looking at me, you’re looking at the wrong thing. Turn around. The goal here in this little exercise is gonna be look at the most people that you can within eyesight, all right? Let me just paint a picture for you what you’re seeing. You are looking at hundreds upon hundreds upon hundreds of people who, like you, get up every day and try to make the world a better place, and who, like you, do that through the work of communications for good. You serve at foundations or nonprofits or consultancies that work alongside folks in the social sector. It’s an extraordinary thing.
Here’s the really amazing thing. The folks that you are looking at right now, and probably feeling a little awkward at this particular moment, the folks that you are looking at right now, like you, are here because they want to do their work better. That always matters, but it matters more than ever right now. It’s really an amazing thing that you have in front of you because while over the next couple of days we’re gonna have a lot of stuff that’s great and good happening up here on this stage. In fact, Melanie and Sarah are about blow you away. And the breakout sessions you’ll attend later will be extraordinary. I promise. Folks have been working on these things for months.
But the questions that you walk into the room with, the big, strategic questions, the tactical questions, the questions that you ask yourself like, “What the hell is Snapchat, and should we be using it?” Or the big strategic questions, “How do I do this work well?” or “How do I elevate the ideas that my organization is trying to bring into the world?” The answers to those questions are out there. That’s what a network is. It’s the ability to see beyond the walls where you live or work.
This guy named Bill Joy worked at a tech firm in Silicon Valley. That name might be familiar to you, or not, but he had a pretty good idea, and it was this. The most talent, experience, and expertise always, always lives outside of the places where you work, no matter how extraordinary the organization is where you serve. And obviously there are some tremendous organizations here. But the ability to see around corners and to see perspectives and experience that don’t live inside your professional experience are out here in this room. So please over the next couple days, take advantage.
All right. This now is starting to get a little awkward, so sit down. Sit down. Little bit of housekeeping, and I’ll get off the stage because I want to see Melanie and Sarah as much as you. So first, how to get around the conference. Well, did everybody get fed?
Okay. You feeling good? You feeling ready to settle in for a little while? Yeah. So that’s food. You found the food. That’s good. We’re cooking with gas. You found the keynotes. And the breakouts are gonna happen down this long hallway of doom. Has anybody been down this hallway for a pre-con yet? How many folks here are wearing an Apple Watch? I know a few of you are. I saw ’em. Raise your hand. Anyone out there? A few? Someone’s got to tell us how many steps that is, because I’m pretty sure I did about 40,000 yesterday just going up and down and up and down. All the breakouts are gonna be down there, and in fact, if you walk towards the end and you think you’ve reached the end, there will be a little jag around the corner, you’ve got to go even further still.
Everything’s in this general area, and I’m sure over the next couple of hours, you’ll get yourself oriented if you’re still thinking, “Oh my God. Does this place ever end?” That’s how to get around. To actually use the conference well, here’s the thing. You want to know what the schedule is any of that other stuff, we’ve made it really easy for you and we have multiple ways for you to do that. One is comnetwork.org, which you guys used to buy your tickets to come here. Grateful for that, so you’re probably familiar with it. Two is the app. Who does not have the app? I found that’s actually the better question to ask? Anybody in here not on the app?
Whoa. That’s awesome. Okay. Go guys. And then around your necks, anybody wearing a badge right now? Who can I pick on? Who do I see is a familiar face? Darian, is that you over there? Can’t really see. You wearing your badge? Will you stand up for a quick second? So that’s Darian. Darian’s awesome. He’s from Portland, and not only is he wearing a badge, but it’s a booklet and inside that is the schedule and a map of this joint and it won’t tell you everything you need to know. You got to go to the app or the website for that, but that will help you get around if you get stuck. And of course sometimes, look, you’re gonna run into a question where the app doesn’t answer or the booklet doesn’t answer, whatever. There are a bunch of people wearing lime green shirts. Can’t tell if that was a nice thing for us to do them or cruel, but suffice to say we’re all, except for me apparently, wearing lime green shirts. Those folks can help you get around.
All right. So that’s the conference. Any questions out there about what we’re about to do? How are you guys feeling? I told you how I was feeling. How are you guys feeling?
Really? That sounds … if you’re kind of like, “Show me. Show me what you got.” So I’ll get off the stage. My good friend Roben from Atlanta, with the Charles and Lynn Schusterman Family Foundation is going to introduce my friends Sarah and Melanie. One quick favor to ask of you before I cede the stage, which is this: Melanie Newman is a dear, personal friend of mine. I’ve known her for years. You are about to fall in love with her and Sarah. They’re both tremendous. But Melanie is a fairly new mom. Itty bitty beautiful little boy at home. She’s away from him, so give her a lot of love and affection when she comes out on this stage and take good care of them while they’re having their conversation. You guys are in a for a treat. I’ll talk to you guys again soon. Thanks.
So thank you, Sean, and to the entire Communications Network team for this incredible experience. To start, a quote. “That is the story of this country. 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 in the White House lawn.” It was Michelle Obama who spoke those incredible words at the Democratic National Convention last year. As this room knows, behind every powerful message is at least one talented, hard-working communications professional who lives and breathes every word, every note, every story, every intonation.
Today I’m honored to introduce the woman who served in that role for Michelle Obama, Sarah Hurwitz. You have Sarah’s bio in front of you, so I’m not gonna read it. Suffice to say the word speechwriter is in there a few times, alongside a few names you may have heard of, Michelle Obama, Barack Obama, Hillary Clinton, John Kerry and so on. I first met Sarah when she participated in REALITY, a leadership development program our foundation runs in Israel. The Schusterman Foundation invests in the power and potential of young people like Sarah to create positive change in their communities with particular emphasis on strengthening public education in the United States, the Jewish community, Israel and our founders’ hometown of Tulsa.
When I asked Sarah what it was like to work on that DNC speech, she said something like, “Those are Michelle’s words. Michelle’s ideas. She’s so clear on who she is and what she wants to say. I just help her capture it.” Well, if only it were that easy, right? But that humility, that eloquence is what makes Sarah so exceptional at her craft. “Eloquence,” Ralph Waldo Emerson once said, “is the power to speak a truth into language perfectly intelligible to the person to whom you speak.” Or, to modify a phrase from Nathaniel Hawthorne, “Easy listening is damn hard writing.” How better to define great speech writing and exceptional storytellers like Sarah.
Today we get to hear Sarah’s story as she’s interviewed by another fiercely accomplished woman, Melanie Newman. Melanie is the Chief Public Engagement and Communication Strategist for the NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund. She previously worked in the Obama administration in a wide variety of capacities from the Department of Justice to HUD to the White House. As her Twitter profile will attest, Melanie lives and breathes the fight for a more equitable future. From voter rights to police brutality to incarceration rights, Melanie is helping to give voice to some of the most important conversations and debates of our time.
I know you share my excitement at listening in and the conversation that’s about to unfold before us. I also know as we sit here today many of us are asking ourselves in both a personal capacity and as part of our professional organizations, “Who are we? What do we stand for? And how can we take an active role in shaping a future that reflects the best of what we have to offer?” I encourage us all to see what we can glean from Sarah and Melanie and from our conversations here this week about how we capture the truths, the stories, the eloquence that give voice to the hopes and aspirations of the communities and the issues we serve. So please join me in giving a warm welcome to Sarah and Melanie.
I am particularly excited to be here. Sean asked me to do this, and I said I get to be like Oprah. I’m excited. Are you excited?
I’m really excited. This is a very fancy setup.
It is very fancy.
We’re government campaign people, so this is like, these are the nicest chairs we have ever seen.
Not at all what we’re used to.
Seriously. It’s very classy, people. Very.
I think for those of you who were at the reception last night, Sean gave some very eloquent words about being in Miami at this time. All of you should know Hurricane Irma hit Miami not that long ago. The communities here and in the Keys and across south Florida are still struggling. This is an issue that is close to my heart. I’m originally from New Orleans. My family was impacted by Hurricane Katrina, and so I know what it is like to recover from a storm. I worked in the Obama administration at HUD for Secretary Shaun Donovan, who went on to be head of the Sandy recovery team.
So I’ve been both impacted by a storm and participated in the recovery of a storm and so even if we don’t see it here at the beautiful Fontainebleau Resort, there are people out there who may have just gotten their power back or still don’t have it or have lost jobs because the harvest didn’t come in. So I ask that we all think about them, and I wanted to use this quote from President Obama who spoke about recovery in … I believe this quote is from when he was visiting New York after Hurricane Sandy.
He said, “During difficult times like this, we’re reminded that we’re bound together and we have to look out for each other. And a lot of things that seem important, the petty differences melt away and we focus on what binds us together and that we as Americans are going to stand with each other in their hour of need.” And so I hope we will stand with the community here in Miami in their hour of need as well. And those beautiful words, Sarah, I don’t believe they were yours.
But you had the pleasure of providing beautiful words to the President and Mrs. Obama for many years, and before that, for several others. You and I met in 2008-
… on the campaign, so we go back a while.
So it’s gonna be like girlfriends catching up.
I know, right? For sure.
You’ll be witnessing a personal conversation here and our pasts are similarly serendipitous. Neither of us thought we would be in the White House. Tell us a little about how you went from being a Harvard undergrad and law school graduate to being a political speechwriter.
Well, I think the word serendipitous is a very good one. I often tell people that my career path really involved a lot of luck and they may think that I’m being all modest and don’t believe me, but it is true. I actually got my start as an intern in Vice President Al Gore’s speech writing office. I’d actually originally been placed in his scheduling and advance office where I made rental car reservations and heard a lot from my co-intern, this guy named Len, about his sex life, which was really entertaining but not what I personally had in mind for my summer. I ran into one of Vice President Gore’s speechwriters and just begged him to let me come work for him, and he said yes.
He and his colleagues actually helped me get my first two jobs after college, one of which was in state governments in Maryland, and I commuted three hours a day round-trip and sat next to a windowless cubicle. I was in a windowless cubicle right next to the bathroom, so that lasted nine months. I then went and I was a speechwriter for a wonderful, wonderful Democratic senator from Iowa named Tom Harkin. I could not write my way out of a paper bag at that point-
Hard to believe.
It was true, because-
You need more people.
After about nine months, his chief of staff sat me down and said, “So I hear you’re thinking about law school? You should definitely do that. Ideally this year would be great.” So I was like, “Okay.” Go to law school. Clearly have no talent for this speech writing thing, and then in law school I met this guy named Josh who had been a speechwriter for President Clinton. Josh and I started freelancing together, and he really taught me how you structure a speech, how you write to be heard as opposed to be read. He got a job on General Wesley Clark’s primary campaign in 2003. This was our third year of law school, and he somehow convinced me to move to Arkansas and help him with this campaign as a speechwriter, even though our law school was in Massachusetts, so that was a lot of back and forth.
Clark lost, and then Josh got a job on the Kerry campaign after law school and got me a job too. And then Kerry lost. And then I was like, “Okay, I need a job, so I am gonna go be a lawyer.” Which was fine, but it was clearly not my calling. A couple of years later, I get this call from Josh again, and he said, “Hillary Clinton is looking for a chief speechwriter. You should apply.” And I was like, “No, I’m not qualified. She is amazing. She’s been my hero since I was 12. No. Not qualified.” He was like, “All right. You’ve been deputy chief speechwriter for two campaigns, but don’t worry about it.”
“…that is three losing campaigns, two failed jobs, a lot of skipped law school classes and a situation where I almost didn’t even apply for the job that ultimately got me to the White House, so serendipity.”
A month later, he calls again. Asked me again. I say, “No. Too scary.” A month later, he calls and he says, “You know what, Sarah? I think they might be amenable to having co-chief speechwriters. Would that work for you?” And I was like, “Yeah. I think I could handle that.” So I apply. I interview, and Josh calls me to tell me I’ve gotten the job, except they only want one chief speechwriter. So by then I was like, “Well, I can’t … I’m kinda stuck.” Did that job for 17 months, and then as you know, she lost. It’s a pattern in my life. I then got a call from Jon Favreau, who was then Senator Obama’s chief speechwriter on the campaign. Some of you might know Jon from Pod Save America. Hope you are all friends of the pod.
Are you friends of the pod in the audience?
It’s a great show, guys. Everyone should be listening to it. Great show about politics. And he asked me to come work for him and I said, “Yes,” and then that’s where I met Mrs. Obama when I worked on her convention speech in ’08 and then Barack Obama actually won, which was … this was such a unique experience for me to actually win a campaign. I couldn’t … I was out of my mind. Who knew this was possible? And I got to go to the White House where I wrote for him and then her. So that is three losing campaigns, two failed jobs, a lot of skipped law school classes and a situation where I almost didn’t even apply for the job that ultimately got me to the White House, so serendipity.
I have a feeling your career, your path is somewhat like that too. I think it would be … I would actually like to hear how you got … How did you get to the White House?
It is fairly serendipitous. We both have some connection to the Gore campaign. I was a senior in college in Tallahassee, Florida, during the recount-
Ooh. That’s interesting.
.. of the Gore campaign and my student government did several marches to the Capitol. We sat in outside Katherine Harris’s office, because we had a number of students who were unable to vote on Election Day, around about the number of votes that Al Gore lost the election by.
So we protested and I met a guy who worked on the Hill who was in town with his boss, and he said … I was a broadcast journalism major. My intention was to be a news reporter or Oprah, and he said, “You should work on Capitol Hill. You should be in Washington.” And I was like, “Sure. Whatever. Are you gonna pay me?” And he said, “We do have an internship program that pays.” And I was like, “I’m there.”
So I interned on Capitol Hill that next summer for my congressman from New Orleans, and when I graduated from college I went to work in his office and I sort of stayed with him for a while. You may have heard of him. He is, unfortunately, now serving a 13-year prison sentence in Oklahoma. William Jefferson was my hometown congressman. Not a failed campaign, but while I was his communications director, we had an FBI investigation and Hurricane Katrina at the same time.
So I was launched into this crisis communications situation, which I am thankful for honestly, because it introduced me to a whole new world of national reporters that I would not have met working for the local congressman from New Orleans. I went to work for the Judiciary Committee for Congressman Conyers. He was an early supporter of President Barack Obama. He would go out and give speeches and talk about how he had no confidence that Barack Obama could win, but he was gonna support him anyway.
Friends like that, man.
I did not write those words for him. I got a job on the campaign and like Sarah, went into the administration and like two crazy people, we ended up staying the whole eight years-
All eight years.
… which not many people did.
For good reason, yeah.
For good reason, but we are recovering government addicts and here we are today, so serendipitous.
Let’s talk a little bit about process. So you said that you were a terrible speechwriter-
… and someone taught you how to do it. What did you learn? What are the key components of good speech writing?
So I think there are really three key components of good speech writing. The first one is talk like a person, which I know just seems like so obvious but I think so often in government at least, you get these politicians who are so dynamic and charismatic, and then they get up behind a podium and they’re like, “We need to put hard-working American middle class family values first.” What does that even mean? Those aren’t words. That doesn’t go together as a sentence. Or I think in the business or nonprofit world, you get a lot of like, “We need to use our platform to catalyze transformational change to leverage results-oriented outcomes.”
Guys, no one has ever said the words catalyze, platform or … People do not say that to their friends. No one has ever sat down with their spouse and been like, “You know honey, I just think we need to put hard-working American middle class family values first, right? I mean, don’t you … ” You don’t talk like that.
“…talk like a person, which I know just seems like so obvious but I think so often in government at least, you get these politicians who are so dynamic and charismatic, and then they get up behind a podium and they’re like, ‘We need to put hard-working American middle class family values first.’ What does that even mean? Those aren’t words. That doesn’t go together as a sentence. Or I think in the business or nonprofit world, you get a lot of like, ‘We need to use our platform to catalyze transformational change to leverage results-oriented outcomes.’ No one has ever said the words catalyze, platform or … People do not say that to their friends.”
That is definitely my dinner conversation. Just kidding.
I mean, who talks that way? Would you just talk like a human being? Talk like yourself. Don’t use the $75 word because you think it makes you sound smart. It just makes you incomprehensible. That’s number one. Also, number two. Say something true. Again, it seems so obvious, but generally when people are giving a speech, the first question they ask themselves is, “What will make me sound smart or powerful or witty?” Or “what does the audience want to hear?” Find questions … those should not be your first questions. Your first question should be, “What is the deepest, most important truth I can tell at this particular moment?” Okay. It’s not your ending point. That’s your starting point. You may have to filter, translate, whatever, but you really need to get at what is the deeper truth you’re trying to speak on that day.
You know what? Maybe it’s an edgy truth. Maybe it’s an uncomfortable truth. Good, right? You look at how Barack Obama started out his 2004 convention speech, the one that launched him into national fame. He got up on the stage and said, “Let’s face it. My presence on this stage tonight is pretty unlikely.” Now everyone in the audience is thinking this, right? What he’s saying basically, “Let’s face it. It’s unlikely that a black guy named Barack Hussein Obama is the keynote speaker at a major party convention.” He named this truth and then he just kind of owned it. It just struck me as this really powerful moment to say something true.
And then the last thing I’ll say is just show, don’t tell. So often when a speech is boring is because someone is just regaling you with a list of adjectives. Mrs. Obama could’ve started out her 2016 DNC speech by saying, “When we moved to the White House, I was worried it would be hard for my girls. I was scared that they would struggle to adjust. I was nervous about this new life.” Scared, worried, nervous, blah blah, right? Blah blah blah, you don’t remember. I don’t remember. We’ve forgotten it. It didn’t happen.
Instead, what she said, she told this story about the first day of school for her daughters where she packed them into these big SUVs with these big men with guns and saw their little faces pressed up against the window and thought, “What have I done?” Okay, that’s an image, right? She’s showing you. She didn’t tell you, “I was nervous and scared and … ” You got it, right? ‘Cause you’re in the story with her, so I think ditch the list of adjectives and really focus on concrete, specific images.
And how do you get there? How do you prepare for a speech like that? What do you read? What are your conversations like? What was it like getting that information from Michelle Obama in order to put that story together?
Yeah, I mean, she, as Roben said, she is a woman who knows who she is and she always knows what she wants to say. Step one in the process was really to sit down with her and be like, “So what do you want to say?” And she would just dictate these edgy ideas and these paragraphs and paragraphs of really vivid language and that would give me really the meat of the speech, the beating heart of the speech. And I would often enhance that by doing my own research. So if she’s speaking at a university doing a commencement address, I’m going to do research on that university. I want to know the history of that university. I want to know any kind of controversies or things that have happened at the university.
“Talk like yourself. Don’t use the $75 word because you think it makes you sound smart. It just makes you incomprehensible.”
And then I’m gonna start calling students at that university, faculty, administrators. I think it’s always helpful to talk to your potential audience so that you know what are these people thinking, what’s on their minds, where is our heads. You really want to have a real sense of where that audience is and I would use that to kind of enhance what Mrs. Obama had told me. Then I’d write a draft and then I’d get edits from colleagues. Then I’d give it to her, and she would just edit it, right? She would edit and edit, and so from start to finish, you can see really this is about her, right? Her ideas, her thoughts, her edits, her voice, and I’m kind of there to help that process along and I think it’s … we had a really great process in the White House, and I’m really grateful. She was an absolute delight to work with.
I mean, literally people say, “What is she like?” I’m telling you the woman that I saw for eight years in the White House is the same woman who you saw on TV. She is funny. She is edgy. She is warm and kind. She was unfailingly gracious. Just always saying, “Thank you.” Always offering praise-
She’s a hugger.
Oh, she’s a big hugger. Loves hugging.
And someone who just understands constructive criticism. It was never, “I don’t like this. I’m not happy.” It was like, “Okay, great start. Here’s where I think we could maybe improve it a little bit, and I think here’s how I want to … ” You know, very positive and again, knows what she wants to say, so very clear. I loved working with her.
I loved seeing her. I never got the chance to work with her, but every time I saw her, she was so pleasant and warm and she’s very tall.
Very tall. The first time I met her, I was like, “Hi.” I want to switch gears a bit and talk about messaging. So all of the people in this room are … we communicate for a living, but we’re here to learn better ways to develop messages that reach people. That’s one thing I can say about Michelle Obama is that she was a pro at capturing the sort of feeling of her audience and really reaching her audience and making an impact. What did you learn from her about messaging? So we talked about process. What did you learn from her about actually reaching and connecting with the audience?
I think there were two main things that she really taught me. Number one, and this is kind of a cliché, but still I don’t think we’ve fully learned it enough. It’s just the power of personal stories, right? Any audience she talked to, she would some point tell a story about herself that connects the audience and she would always in some way tell the story of the audience. When she spoke her last commencement speech was at the City College of New York, which is an extraordinary, extraordinary university. These students are from 150 nationalities. They speak 99 languages. Nearly all of them are commuters. They’re commuting two, three hours a day. They all work jobs to put themselves through school.
And Mrs. Obama told that story, right? She told the story of the various students and what they were struggling with, and then she told the story of her family and what she had struggled with. I think that kind of really personal connection between her and the audience, very, very powerful. That really can drive home your message. I think the second thing is she really taught me the importance of not just going out and kind of spouting policy. I think a lot of us have a tendency to do that in that, “Okay, this is the new program my organization is unveiling, and the program will do X, Y and Z, and here are the statistics on the program, and here is how we will execute the program.”
Fine. But why? Why are you doing this program? What is this program about? Is this program because we really believe that every child in this community should have a healthy meal three times a day, that that should be a basic human right for children in this country? Oh, okay. Now we’ve got a value there. And then you use the kind of details to support that. “That’s why every day we’re going to be setting up these sites.” Whatever it is … So she really taught me … use the details. Use the policy to support the broader value, the really … the message. So I really urge you to ask yourself, “What is the value here? Why are we doing this? Why do we care? What is the kind of image of a future that we’re trying to build?” I think that is very important to driving message.
That’s incredibly important and interesting, because people I don’t think have a solid understanding of how much policy Michelle Obama actually drove in the White House because she was never talking about the specific policies. I mean, healthy eating. She got laws changed-
… around healthy eating. The Reach Higher Initiative, which is still going on, encouraging people to … promote going to college. She had a way of delivering messages that I don’t think you or she get enough credit for.
And the healthy eating, I am reminded by … Sean mentioned that I have a young child. He’s almost a year old. He’s in daycare, and his daycare provides lunch and snack, and there are specific requirements on what that lunch looks like, what it’s composed of. It has to have a protein. It has to have whole grains. It has to be iron-fortified, and that’s because of Michelle Obama, and so I am personally thankful to her for that. But again, people … it’s easy to forget-
… because she told stories. I want to talk about the way the current political environment has changed messaging and what works as the best way to reach people. In particular, I think, what we see coming out of the White House and President Trump are very simple messages. Something is either very good or very bad.
There’s sort of competitive language. I think people respond to something being very good, very bad, best, worst. With that, I think the president’s been really successful in reaching at least his core audience and I think that’s what any communicator is actually trying to do. How do you think President Trump’s communication style has changed the work that we do and how we are able to break through with messaging?
Well, I think it’s made it a lot harder. I mean, it is such an insane media atmosphere right now. I mean, I think something I thought back … I’ve been thinking a lot back to the Obama White House where everything was so carefully planned out and we were so just diligent about making sure everything we were doing was right and factually true-
I mean, terrified.
Not diligent. We were terrified of getting something wrong.
They were like terrified, because you didn’t want to make a mistake that would hurt the president and we cared so much about-
… communicating honestly and clearly with the American people and the thought of getting a bad media story that said that we weren’t being honest or that we were … Terrifying. Anytime that we did do something wrong, there was a mistake, that was weeks of bad coverage and we’re in a maelstrom and it’s terrible, but with Trump-
Or if the president wore a tan suit.
Or if the president wore a tan suit. I mean, that was like a scandal. Do you remember that? Very quaint. Adorable, really. Now you have this situation where it’s like every other day there’s a new outrage, a new horror, a new thing that you’re just so shocked by and you’re shocked and there’s two days of shocked media attention, and then boom, another thing. And so each individual thing, whether it’s bragging about sexually assaulting women or Russia or … I can’t … NFL, I can’t even keep track of them because each individual thing, which would have literally taken down a previous campaign or administration, each thing becomes trivial.
That to me is deeply frightening, because I almost worry a video could be unearthed of Trump and Putin, and Trump says to Putin, “I’d like you to swing this election for me.” And Putin says, “I have. Look, here’s evidence.” And then that would air and it would be like, “Aw, that’s fake news.” “Oh, I don’t know. There’s two sides.” And then a day later, there’d be another scandal and we’d just forget about that, right?
“‘Make America Great Again,’ it’s a very simple message, but man, that’s a loaded message, right? That’s a message that’s a clear dog whistle to some people. To other people, it’s just innocuous. ‘Yeah, make the country great.’ But it fit Donald Trump quite well…”
So there’s sort of been a hacking of our brains going on here where we just can’t process everything that’s happening, and I think it makes it very hard to break through. But I think you’re right, Melanie. The clarity of his message, the simplicity of it. I mean, I think also “Make America Great Again,” it’s a very simple message, but man, that’s a loaded message, right? That’s a message that’s a clear dog whistle to some people. To other people, it’s just innocuous. “Yeah, make the country great.” But it fit Donald Trump quite well, right? It’s about greatness. It’s about kind of an implied message about, “We don’t really like these immigrants in our country.” It’s all kind of there, so I think the combination of that both simplicity and that kind of depth and richness that applied to a lot of different groups and really resonated with a lot of different groups, very powerful.
What’s the best way to compose a message like that to make something so simple, yet so loaded?
It’s really hard to do. I think it really … it starts with really getting to whatever the essence is of the thing that you’re trying to promote, whether it’s a candidate, whether it’s an organization, you really have to understand at your core, “What am I about? What is this organization about? What is our deepest value? What is our deepest goal in the world?” And then I think it’s about really coming up with language that just gets at that, language that is not generic, right? I think that’s kind of … and sunny. “Make America Great Again,” it can sound a little generic, but there’s something about it that is just … that’s fresh in that when applied to Donald Trump was very effective, right? So I think it’s about coming up with language that is particularly tailored to you and to your organization.
And I think the “Make America Great Again” is … it applies to Donald Trump. It’s very simple, but “Yes, we can” did that for Barack Obama.
Exactly, right? It was, “Yes, we can.” It was hope. It was change. It was this new kind of politics, right? These are simple things. Again, this isn’t rocket science. Hope and change. “Yes, we can.” But it is simple. That is actually the Obama version of “Make America Great Again.” Exactly.
It evokes emotion and different emotions for different people.
Exactly. Whether you want to evoke optimism, courage, determination or fear, blame, hatred, whatever. You do you, but that was … we were on the kind of optimism, courage, inspiration side of that equation.
Right. So you’ve mentioned early on telling one deep truth, and I think no matter what your politics are, I think it’s safe to admit that there are not a lot of truths coming out of our current president, and sometimes he tells an untruth, and then the next day, he tells his actual truth, then the next day, he tells both.
Does truth still matter? If that is the direction that our political communication is going, why is truth so important?
I absolutely think it does, because frankly without it, we don’t have a democracy. This is having a shared set of facts and truths is really key to having a functioning democracy, and I think that there’s some confusion between authenticity and honesty. I think that what Donald Trump does is authenticity. He is … This is-
This is authentically him. No air is being put on here. You know exactly who this guy is. He is very clear. I think anytime he’s tried to be authentic … Sorry, tried to be inauthentic by giving a scripted teleprompter speech that kind of a typical Republican would give doesn’t work for him, right? That’s just not who he is. We know who he is. Very authentic.
And that’s when he comes back and tells the truth.
“I think it really … it starts with really getting to whatever the essence is of the thing that you’re trying to promote, whether it’s a candidate, whether it’s an organization, you really have to understand at your core, “What am I about? What is this organization about? What is our deepest value? What is our deepest goal in the world?” And then I think it’s about really coming up with language that just gets at that, language that is not generic, right?”
And then he comes back … It’s very convenient. He always does come back and … share his authentic self. That is not the same as being honest, right? Because we’ve … just fact-checkers will tell you that that’s not the case, so I think that what is working for him is authenticity. I will tell you, you know what? Fair enough, right? I think people are so tired of the, “The middle class is the middle of my priorities,” kind of politician. People are done with the fake sound bites. They’re done with the kind of condescending slogans, right?
I think that that so many people are so frustrated by this kind of fake, polished, careful, measured politician talk that when someone gets up there and is just so impulsive and brazen and visceral, it does break through. It’s authentic, but I think that President and Mrs. Obama broke through too, and they showed their authenticity, but it was a different … It was the authenticity of people with good character, with good values who are trying to really promote kindness and honesty and patriotism, and I think it can work that way too.
And how important is word choice to authenticity and honesty, frankly?
I think it’s really important. If you’re saying words, and as they’re coming out of your mouth, they actually don’t feel like words you’re comfortable saying, I guarantee you the audience will know. They will know you are not being authentic. This is what Trump does so well, right? He talks and they … “We’re the best. It’s gonna be the greatest.” That’s just how he talks, and he doesn’t try to speak differently, right? He doesn’t try to speak in big, complex sentences and you know what? Good for him. He actually is demonstrating decent communication skills in that way, and I think that choosing words that are natural to you is important.
I also think just choosing words that are fresh is so important. Don’t go with the tired slogan. If you are kind of looking at your language and it kind of sounds like blah blah blah, it kind of sounds like something that people would forget, freshen it up. Use different phrases. Use images. Just really try to choose words that are kind of natural to you and that really express who you are. Don’t try to talk like what you think you’re supposed to sound like. Like, “This is what a communications director sounds like. This is what a CEO sounds like.” Talk how you sound like, and things will go much better.
I had a professor in college who would give you an automatic F on a paper if you used the word utilized.
That’s another word. Catalyzed. Utilized.
It was an automatic F if you … But he said, “Why-
“Why are you utilizing something when you can just use it?”
No one talks like that.
“…the word equity, it’s not a word. What does that mean? Draw me a picture of equity. I get equality. I get justice. I get freedom. Equity is this technocratic word that every time I see it, I’m like, “Has any human being in conversation with their spouse been like, ‘Honey, I wish there were more equity in the world.'” No. No. Don’t talk like that.”
No. Also, and this might be hitting a nerve here, so I hope I’m not overstepping, but guys, the word equity, it’s not a word. What does that mean? Draw me a picture of equity. I get equality. I get justice. I get freedom. Equity is this technocratic word that every time I see it, I’m like, “Has any human being in conversation with their spouse been like, ‘Honey, I wish there were more equity in the world.'” No. No. Don’t talk like that.
There is a diagram that explains equity, because it does take some … yeah, I could explain it, but it would … we only have eight minutes left-
Yeah, okay. We got to keep moving, but that’s just my pet peeve. I might be unfair.
There’s a diagram that explains it. I think the fact that you need a diagram to explain it probably means that it’s a word that requires more thought-
… than it needs, and so we need to find a better word.
We do, and look if you want to make-
A better way to describe it.
It’s okay to have kind of inside language and outside language. If in your organization, you use your jargon. You use your kind of industry speak. Fine. But when thinking about outside your organization, would you say this to your high school friend, to your buddy from … If you wouldn’t use that word with normal people, probably not a great idea to do so as part of your organization’s communications strategy.
I think the word equity is often used when we’re trying to … when we’re talking about inclusion. How do you develop messages that bring people into the conversation and that are inclusive? That’s something that Michelle Obama did very well.
That is such a great question. I think there’s a couple of things that she really did well, which was she told a lot of inclusive stories and used really inclusive images. So if you look at her 2016 convention speech, she talks about all the people who love their country and sort of this list of images … She talks about both protesters and police officers in Dallas. She talks about folks who were at the nightclub in Orlando who were killed. She talks about people who teach Sunday school, people who lead the scout troop, who coach little league. You’re talking right now, you’ve hit a bunch of different groups of folks in this country, right? This is a very inclusive vision of the American community, and I think that painting pictures, the images that really display the full diversity of our country and our communities is critically … it’s mandatory. It’s just mandatory, number one.
Number two, I think, “When they go low, we go high,” her line entirely. Not mine. She came up with that. That is not just a slogan. That’s really how she approached her life and her speeches in that she really gives people the benefit of the doubt, even if they’re on the other side and maybe feel very negatively to her, so I really felt like she avoided cheap shots. She avoided the kind of unnecessary insult, because inclusion means including those who opposed you as well. I think that’s kind of important.
I recently was re-reading Dr. Martin Luther King’s Letter from a Birmingham Jail. I mean, one of the most extraordinary pieces of writing I think in the world in history, and when he’s talking about people who really radically opposed him and maybe aren’t particularly respectful of him, he speaks to them with great respect. He really treats them as people of full dignity, whether or not frankly they deserved it. Probably not, but he does-
Probably not, but he does and it just reveals what a moral giant he is. It just makes the writing so powerful, because it’s not marred with any pettiness, with any smallness. It’s just largeness after largeness after largeness, and you cannot help but be persuaded by that message. So I would say those two things are the key.
“I also think just choosing words that are fresh is so important. Don’t go with the tired slogan. If you are kind of looking at your language and it kind of sounds like blah blah blah, it kind of sounds like something that people would forget, freshen it up. Use different phrases. Use images. Just really try to choose words that are kind of natural to you and that really express who you are. Don’t try to talk like what you think you’re supposed to sound like.”
And can you talk a little about why inclusion is so important today in today’s political environment, in the work that we do as social sector communicators?
Yeah, I mean, I think it’s particularly important today because so many people are feeling marginalized, right? I think when you hear the occupant of the Oval Office talking about you as if you are an outsider in your own country, I think that is devastating. It is so painful to watch, and it’s so painful to hear. I also think that if you look at a lot of people who support the president, they’re people who have felt marginalized and excluded and they have those feelings too.
So unfortunately I think this is driving a tremendous amount of polarization where so many people are feeling so marginalized and so frustrated and it’s driving this really negative, divisive kind of language and I think that when a leader rises above that, and says, “You know what? You’re part of this family, and you’re part of this family, and so are you, and we don’t all agree with each other. We don’t all get along, but we are all part of this family, and we are going to figure this out.” That is very, very powerful.
I was gonna go back to my quote from earlier from President Obama, “We’re bound together and we have to look out for each other.”
No matter what happens, we’re stuck like glue.
So thanks so much for your thoughts on speech writing. Tell us a little bit about what happens after the White House.
Where does this fabulous speech writing career take you? What are you doing now?
Well, it’s interesting. Speech writing can lead to all different kind of things. A few of my colleagues now have their own speech writing companies, and they’re doing amazing work for … actually maybe some of your organizations. I am actually writing a book about Judaism, which is the natural next step after eight years in the White House. I think it’s clearly obvious why that happened. I’m Jewish, but I grew up without a lot of Jewish background, and having in the last few years really started learning a lot about Judaism, I’ve come to feel like this amazing, wise, radical, profound religion that kind of has this epic communications problem where if you are someone like me seeking to learn as an adult, it’s actually very hard to kind of access it, right?
It’s deep. It’s rich. A lot of it’s in Hebrew, and your options for books tend to be kind of introductory books or very sophisticated books, and there’s not much in the middle where someone is saying, “Look, I get all your hangups about religion. I get that you didn’t have a great childhood experience in Hebrew School. But let me tell you what is here for you as an adult, what will be meaningful and relevant and wise for your life right now.” So I’m actually thinking about how the writer Ann Patchett talks about how when she has an idea for a book, it swirls around her head like this beautiful butterfly whose wings are like the stained-glass cathedrals of Notre Dame. Then she says, “When I’m ready to start writing, I reach up and I pluck it out of the sky and I kill that butterfly.”
And then that’s actually what I … it feels like now. My great idea about I’m gonna make this meaningful and it’s gonna be so edgy and fun. It’s hard. Writing a book is very hard. It is definitely more isolating than the White House. I miss my colleagues. I miss my … all of that, but I’m excited about it and really grateful to have the opportunity. That is what I’m doing right now.
An inclusive book-
Very inclusive book.
… about Judaism. I’m excited to read it.
I look forward to it.
It’s gonna be awhile.
It’ll be awhile? Well, we’ll be waiting with bated breath. No pressure.
So we wanted to take some questions from the audience. Sarah has so much to offer, and so-
As does Melanie.
… please raise your hand if you’d like to ask a question.
Ask us anything. We’re very, very open people.
I think we have one over here. Right there. Yep.
I’m so glad there’s a microphone. Hi. So first of all, your Judaism book sounds like a really good idea, so I support it.
I want to buy it. My question is about determining your audience. I was thinking of Michelle Obama addressing a convention, and I wondered how you determined who exactly your audience is given that it’s televised, right? So you could say it’s the conventioneers. You could say it’s the whole world. Or you could say it’s the people at the margin of being converted to her message. Who exactly are you going for, ’cause there are so many goals?
Yeah, that’s a great question.
Great question, and I will tell you for a speech like that, honestly, the audience was America. Period. This speech is going to be broadcast to everyone, and I think she was really aware of that so the people in the room obviously they’re great, but a convention speech, it is really a speech to America. I will tell you that one of the best pieces of speech writing I’ve heard actually comes from David Axelrod, who was then-Senator Obama’s Chief Strategist on his campaigns. In 2008, he was a Senior Advisor for President Obama and then Strategist again in 2012, and he once told one of my colleagues who was struggling with a speech, just looked at him and he said, “Adam, just write a love letter to America.” If you’re a struggling speech writer, it’s like, “What does that mean?”
We kind of knew what it meant when he said it, right? A speech like that, it’s got to be a love letter to America, and I think the line that Robin read about how she is … her family … back has felt the lash of bondage and the sting of servitude and the shame of segregation, and now she wakes up every morning in a house built by slaves. That’s a love letter to America, right? That is a letter about how far we have come and how much she loves this country. So I think for a speech like that, the audience is America.
Here on the front. And then we have a couple in the back as well.
Thank you so much to you both. My question for you was can you take us back to that Speech Writing 101 phase of your life with your fellow freelancer in law school and some of the early lessons that you learned that built your path forward?
“…writing to be read is very different from writing to be heard… when you write to be read, you are grammatical. You don’t start sentences with ‘Because…’ You don’t have sentence fragments, and your mind is kind of trained in that very grammatical kind of formal writing. But when you’re writing to be heard, you start sentences with all kinds of words.It’s much less formal, and I think you kind of have to train yourself by actually reading out loud what you’ve read and feeling, “Does this feel natural or kind of a little too formal?” And you’ve really got to train yourself to kind of hear in your head what it sounds like when it’s gonna be spoken, so I think that’s key.”
Sure. I think one is just writing to be read is very different from writing to be heard, and I think that’s important that’s so often … when you write to be read, you are grammatical. You don’t start sentences with because. You don’t have sentence fragments, and your mind is kind of trained in that very grammatical kind of formal writing. But when you’re writing to be heard, you start sentences with all kinds of words. Your sentences have three words. You’ve stopped in the middle of a … It’s much less formal, and I think you kind of have to train yourself by actually reading out loud what you’ve read and feeling, “Does this feel natural or kind of a little too formal?” And you’ve really got to train yourself to kind of hear in your head what it sounds like when it’s gonna be spoken, so I think that’s key.
I also just think structure is key. Structure is really destiny in a speech, because if you have a speech that’s not well-organized, it will be slow, it will be boring, you will not want to hear it. It’s really important to make sure that one point flows logically to the next and to the next, and that you really have a sense of a proper kind of order of the speech. Then you make sure that you don’t have anything in the speech that’s not proving your main point. People often take these weird, wandering asides and it’s just hard to listen to.
Also, another thing is just keep it short. Really. No one ever, ever walks away saying, “That speaker was too short. I just wish they had just gone on longer.” Really, you can do a lot in 10 minutes, 15 minutes. No one except for Dr. Martin Luther King should speak longer than 20 minutes. Really.
Did you outline your speeches?
I did. I’m a big outliner. A colleague of mine once said to me, “Sarah, your writing style is that you vomit out a bunch of crap on a page and then spend a week editing it.” Which was kind of true, but he left out the part where I take all that crap and I put it into an outline. That’s a very important part of my writing process is I … before I write, I know exactly where I’m going. So frankly, if I get stuck on a paragraph, I just abandon it and I go on to the next paragraph, because I know what it’s gonna say. Sometimes I’ll write the conclusion of the speech before I’ve even written the first paragraph, because I always know what it’s gonna say. But that’s important.
I’d like to get your advice to this audience of philanthropy and nonprofit communicators on where should we spend most of our energy. Should we focus on energizing our base or should we work more to change hearts and minds?
That’s a good question. I mean, I think you have to do both. I think that’s really critical. I actually would like to hear Melanie answer this question, because she’s the communications strategist person.
I was thinking, “God, I’m really glad he directed this question at Sarah.”
I mean, look. You need to do both. I think both are important. But you know what? Yeah, I’m gonna defer … ’cause this is more your area of the strategy and the-
“Structure is really destiny in a speech, because if you have a speech that’s not well-organized, it will be slow, it will be boring, you will not want to hear it. It’s really important to make sure that one point flows logically to the next and to the next, and that you really have a sense of a proper kind of order of the speech.”
You know, I think by sheer numbers … Well, it depends on who your base is and what you’re targeting, but by sheer numbers the base for many of the issues that we are working for, I know that my organization is working for, we outnumber the others. So energizing the base for us is most important. We need people to participate in the process, and so we spend a lot of time energizing our base and not a ton of time trying to change hearts and minds.
Working for the NAACP Legal Defense Fund can be, in this era, polarizing in itself. Our name itself can be polarizing, and so we aren’t going to change a lot of hearts and minds. But if we can energize the base, get people to show up, get people to participate in the process … and I’m not just talking about voting. In some places, we’re working with cities like Baltimore and Ferguson on their consent decrees, get people to show up to engage with the local police department in their monitoring process, get people to show up and participate, that is most important for our organization for sure.
And I think if you’re working on an issue like Mrs. Obama did with healthy eating for kids, I think that’s an issue that it doesn’t immediately have a natural base, right? So I think she really sought to build a base among parents, among educators, among medical professionals. She energized a lot of people who then became part of our base, right? So if you have an issue that might actually appeal to people if only they knew about it, I do think it’s definitely worth going outside your kind of natural base. I think that can be very helpful.
Melanie Newman: That was a great question.
Let’s go … this gentleman and this young lady, and then we … I saw a hand in the back, and I think that may be all we have time for.
Thank you. I wanted to go back to the word equity and-
I knew it. I knew it.
Melanie Newman: Controversial. Controversy.
Yeah. As I’m sure you’re thinking about your response to that line of questioning and it does have very specific meaning that’s different from equality, and as communicators we have this responsibility to educate sometimes. So I’d love to hear more about when you educate and when you choose that simpler word that people understand and how you balance that, especially on those kind of issues.
So I do think it’s really important to educate people, clearly, but I kind of think it’s also important to pick your battles and I wonder is there maybe another word that is … that people use more often that equity … that could convey that very specific meaning. Is conveying that very specific meaning really, really critical to what you’re doing? Because I think you can spend a lot of time educating people on something that ultimately doesn’t really … isn’t really the key thing that drives what you’re doing or not. So I do think it is valuable. Like we had to, with Mrs. Obama, we had to educate people about healthy eating and kind of dispel a lot of myths before we kind of got into it.
But one of the myths was the government is gonna be telling your children what to eat. No. That is not what we wanted to do, but that was kind of the first myth. What we spent a lot of time … instead of kind of picking out certain words that we were really clear we had to teach people, we more just painted … we more just went around saying, “You know what? It’s not the government’s responsibility to tell kids what to eat. This is parents’ responsibility, right? And we want to make it easier for parents to do what they want to do, which is feed their kids healthy food.”
So again, this is sort of simple language. It wasn’t trying to kind of define any jargon and explain any jargon. It was just really kind of clearly trying to drive our point. So I think educating people is key, but maybe being kind of selective in what you choose to educate about I think is important.
I think regarding equity though, because people confuse equity and equality and don’t naturally know the difference, it is probably better to describe equity than it is to use the word. So the diagram I was talking about, it’s a tall person and short person standing in front of a fence. At the beginning, they have no equity. In the next shot, they are both on equal platforms, so the tall guy can see over the fence. The short guy still can’t. But they’re equal, so that’s equality. Equity is when the short guy has a taller platform and they can both see over the fence. So how do we draw out that picture to explain equity without using the word, which many people confuse with equality and don’t naturally understand I think is also a way to get there.
“So I do think it’s really important to educate people, clearly, but I kind of think it’s also important to pick your battles and I wonder is there maybe another word that is … that people use more often that equity … that could convey that very specific meaning. Is conveying that very specific meaning really, really critical to what you’re doing? Because I think you can spend a lot of time educating people on something that ultimately doesn’t really … isn’t really the key thing that drives what you’re doing or not.”
We had a question here in the front.
Hi. Thank you so much for being here. My question has to do with your research piece that you were talking about. Sometimes we have time for that, that kind of in-depth research like you were talking about at the university. But a lot of us are small teams or teams of one or we deal in crisis communications or something just comes up, and just wondering how your process changed in those situations and how you continue to have integrity in the stories you were telling without maybe the time for that in-depth research.
I really get that. I think on campaigns, that’s very much the case, right? You’re writing so many speeches. I mean, there’s no way you’re going to spend days in the archives of a library. It’s just not happening. I think in those cases, it’s about the very quick hits of research that can yield you a lot. So skip the archival research and just call someone at the organization and be like, “I have half an hour. I need you to tell me the key things about this university. What are the best things? I need you to send me stuff. Just really tight.” And then get on Google and just … what can you Google in 20 minutes?
You’d be surprised. In less than an hour, you can actually find a fair amount and I will tell you, there were times in the campaign where it was like, “Okay, 30 minutes of research. This is what I got.” You go to war with the army you have and I would take three facts and just make a world out of them. It’s possible to do that as well, but I totally hear the concern.
Thank you, and we’ll take our last question from the gentleman in the back on the left.
You’ve done a great job describing how to write a speech and working with a principal. But there’s so many other people around the principal who have their own ideas.
How do you deal with 20 sets of comments, often contradictory — that takes almost as much time as writing the speech, right?
I so feel that in my heart. Really, we had an amazing process in the White House with the Obamas, which is why their speeches actually made sense. Unfortunately there are processes that are like … it’s sort of like speech writing summer camp where everyone’s special and everyone gets to play. So you have everyone’s comments and ends writing their own draft weirdly, even though you’re the speech writer and it’s strange. I think in those cases, it’s really important to say, “Okay, everyone can weigh in, but I have the pen. There is one draft and I control it, and I will take your edits and I will hear you out on your edits, but at the end of the day, I have to protect this speech and I have to protect our boss who has to give a speech that’s actually in coherent English that does not sound like it was written by eight people.”
So I think controlling it with process is really, really important. I also think being empowered to say … to take these edits and look at them. Some of them are gonna be good, actually. I found that sometimes people gave me great edits, and I would use those. Sometimes people gave me bad edits, and I’d reject those, and sometimes people gave me bad edits and they would make me realize that while I didn’t like their edit, they had actually kind of found a weakness in the speech that I hadn’t noticed and I needed to fix it and so I would fix it in my own way. So I think the key is control the process and make the edits work for the speech, as opposed to the other way around.
I have not heard, “I have the pen”-
… since January of this year.
That’s such a-
Such a government term.
… government term. Well, Sarah, you have had the pen-
… for Michelle Obama, for Barack Obama, for Hillary Clinton, for John Kerry and now you have the pen for Judaism. Congratulations.
Thank you. No pressure.
Thank you so much.
Thank you. You were great.