Tips from one of the 21st century's most accomplished speech writers
Hurwitz started as an intern in Bill Clinton's White House
From 2010-17 Sarah Hurwitz was the principal speech writer for Michelle Obama, and on Monday morning she shared her experiences with P.E.I.'s public relations professionals.
Hurwitz was the breakfast keynote speaker at Connexions 2018 in Charlottetown.
Speaking to Mainstreet P.E.I. host Angela Walker, Hurwitz acknowledged speech writing, which was her principal occupation for about 15 years, is an unusual job.
"There isn't really a university major in speech writing," she said.
Hurwitz got her first taste of speech writing as an intern in the Clinton White House, working in Al Gore's speech writing office. After graduating she found work as deputy speech writer to Iowa Senator Tom Harkin. She worked on John Kerry's campaign and Hilary Clinton's 2008 primaries campaign, before moving into the Obama camp after Clinton conceded.
'When they go low, we go high'
Being a political speech writer can be a mix of thrills and difficult, lonely work, she said.
"A lot of the time you are spending alone in your office, sitting at a computer, just trying to come up with the right words for the moment," said Hurwitz.
"But there are also these amazing moments when you're walking by the Rose Garden and you just think, 'What a privilege it is to be here.' And it's also amazing to write for someone like Michelle Obama, who just knows who she is. She always knows what she wants to say."
The speech that stands out in her memory is one that is likely memorable for most people, Michelle Obama's speech at the 2016 Democratic National Convention.
"The line, 'When they go low, we go high.' That was her line. That was not my line. That was Mrs. Obama's line entirely," said Hurwitz.
"I just typed it into the speech. That's one I'm very proud of."
Talk like a normal person
That was fairly typical of their working relationship.
The two would meet, Obama would throw out a lot of ideas and phrases appropriate to the occasion, and Hurwitz would knit them together into a coherent whole. The first draft would see a further heavy edit by Obama's hand.
If you wouldn't say something to one person don't say it to many people.- Sarah Hurwitz
Capturing those phrases as accurately as possible, and learning the rhythm of the person giving the speech, are both crucial to her craft. Those words that struck a chord in her during the one-on-one conversation were the ones most likely to strike a chord in the audience.
"A good rule of thumb is if you wouldn't say something to one person don't say it to many people. It actually doesn't get better," said Hurwitz.
"In the political world it's all these slogans like, 'We need to put hard-working, middle-class-family values first,' or in business you get a lot of, 'We need to catalyze our platform to leverage transformational change.' You know, you never speak to your friend, your spouse, like this. That's not how normal people speak."
Try to speak the truth, counsels Hurwitz, and speak it naturally, if you really want to move your audience.
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With files from Mainstreet