Golden tips on public speaking from a former presidential speechwriter

Sarah Hurwitz spent over eight years working as a speechwriter, first for former President Barack Obama and then for the former First Lady, Michelle Obama...

She recently joined the Institute of Politics at the Harvard Kennedy School of Government as a Fellow and gave a talk on the most important lessons she learned as a speechwriter, here’s what she had to say.

1. Say something true. Instead of asking yourself "what would make me sound smart?" or "what do they want to hear?", ask yourself: "what is the deepest, most truthful thing I can say at this moment?". Name it and tell a glaring truth, however uncomfortable. Hurwitz mentioned the example of when President Obama spoke at the Democratic National Convention in 2004, when he started his speech by saying, "It is unlikely that I should be here…".

2. Talk like a human being. Speak the same way you would speak to a friend - people will tune out if you don’t. If you would not turn to a colleague and say what you want to say in your speech, then rephrase it.

3. Show, don’t tell. Instead of saying, "My friend John is very obsessed with cleaning," say, "I once left my friend John in my kitchen for 20 minutes. When I came back, he had organised all my refrigerator magnets and washed all my dishes, one by one." Hurwitz made the speeches she wrote for the First Lady much more powerful and relatable when by using this descriptive mechanism. When, for example, the first lady made the vivid remark that her first doll was a Malibu barbie.

4. Cut 10 per cent of your talk. In the words of the French philosopher Blaise Pascal, "I would have written a shorter letter, but I did not have the time." A concise speech tells the audience that you have done your work in terms of carefully thinking about your words. Keep editing your speech until it says exactly what it is meant to say.

5. Fact-check your speech. Are the statistics you cite credible? How are you justifying your claims? In a world of alternative facts and "fake news", it is ever-so-important to do a thorough fact-check of what you communicate to the public.

At the end, make sure you wrote a love letter. This advice came from her colleague, former Chief Strategist David Axelrod when he said, "just write a love letter to America", when writing political speeches. Sarah says that your work should lend itself to a love letter; and that you should make it a priority that your passion, when you speak about your work, comes through in everything you say.

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