Tips for Writing Effectively, from the Obamas’ Speechwriter
Political speeches are often meant to inspire hope and change. The effectiveness of a speech depends on a politician’s delivery, but also the way the speech is written. To ensure a speech conveys a message in the best way possible, speechwriters, such as Sarah Hurwitz, are hired to work behind the scenes.
Hurwitz was a White House speechwriter from 2009 to 2017, starting out as a senior speechwriter for former President Barack Obama and then serving as head speechwriter for former First Lady Michelle Obama. Before that, Hurwitz was a senior speechwriter for Obama’s 2008 campaign, a chief speechwriter for Hillary Clinton during her 2008 presidential primary campaign, and a deputy chief speechwriter for Senator John Kerry’s 2004 presidential campaign.
CircleAround reached out to Hurwitz to learn what it’s like being a White House speechwriter, and what new generations of communications experts can learn from her experience.
CA: How did you come to work for former President Obama and First Lady Michelle Obama?
SH: I got my start in speechwriting as a college intern in the speechwriting office of Vice President Al Gore in the summer of 1998. The speechwriters I worked for helped me get my first two jobs out of college — as an assistant to the speechwriter for the Lt. Governor of Maryland, and then as a speechwriter for Senator Tom Harkin of Iowa. After those experiences, I went to law school and worked on several losing presidential campaigns, and then I got hired on a winning one — that of then-Senator Barack Obama in 2008.
I wrote speeches for him, but I also helped Mrs. Obama on her 2008 Democratic National Convention speech. When Obama won, I got to go to the White House as a speechwriter for him, but I would help Mrs. Obama out occasionally. After about 1.5 years, I realized I was better at writing for her and more interested in the topics she was speaking about, so I switched over to being her head speechwriter.
CA: What were some exciting moments in your career?
SH: There were so many! I think working with Mrs. Obama on her 2016 Democratic National Convention speech was a real highlight. Though, "When they go low, we go high" was her line — not mine. She came up with it. But that speech was such a special moment when she got to articulate a clear, powerful vision for who we are as a nation and what we want for our children.
I also loved working on her 2016 commencement speech at the City College of New York. This one was very personal for me because when my great grandparents first came to America and settled in New York City, my great grandmother was so excited because New York City had the city college system which accepted women, Jews, and people without much money and she was hoping that her four daughters could get an education. But unfortunately, the family left New York, and my grandmother, one of those four daughters, never got to go to college.
This was a source of much sadness throughout her life because she dreamed of being a lawyer and going into politics. So it was incredibly moving to show up at the City College of New York two generations later with the First Lady of the United States and think about how I have a college degree, a law degree, became a lawyer and went into politics — everything my grandmother dreamed of but never got to do herself. And it was inspiring to look out at the extraordinary graduates — so many of whom are first- or second-generation immigrants themselves — and think about how much my own grandmother yearned to sit on those seats.
CA: When it came to working for the Obama administration, what were the biggest challenges and the biggest rewards?
SH: The biggest challenge was probably the unpredictability of the hours and the lack of control over my schedule. But that was nothing compared to the rewards! I loved working for the Obamas whose brilliance, integrity, decency, compassion, and patriotism I so deeply admired. I loved learning from Mrs. Obama — she knows who she is and always knows what she wants to say and she has an impeccable sense of what makes an excellent speech, so she was always pushing me to be a clearer, more vivid, more powerful writer.
I loved how she was always trying to reach people who never dreamed they'd have a First Lady come to their community — military families who make tremendous sacrifices for our country, girls in developing countries who dreamed of going to school, kids in underserved communities. I also loved working with the Girl Scouts, which I had the chance to do on several occasions to plan conferences focused on girls' and women's issues. And I was thrilled when the Girl Scouts held a campout on the White House lawn!
CA: Do you have any tips for the next generation of speechwriters?
SH: Here are my best tips for powerful, persuasive communication:
1. Always Strive to Say Something True
Ask yourself: What is the deepest, most important, most helpful truth I can tell at this particular moment, and how can I tell it in a way that's respectful and persuasive?
2. Talk Like a Human Being
Avoid jargon ("we need to leverage our platform to catalyze transformational results for...") and cutesy soundbites, which often sound awkward and fake. You would never talk like that to your friends, or spouse, or colleagues. If you wouldn't say something to one person, don't say it to many people — it doesn't get better. Instead, speak in your own authentic voice — if you feel like you're reading a script, then go back and rewrite it so that it feels natural.
3. Show Don't Tell
I can tell you that my friend is really exacting, precise, obsessive, uptight, and organized. Or I can tell you that I left him alone in my kitchen for 20 minutes, and when I returned, he'd alphabetize my spice rack and was centering the magnets on my refrigerator with a ruler. Which will you remember — the five adjectives or the two images?