Telling Powerful Truths Through Speeches

June 9, 2018

Think of the deepest, most powerful truth you can tell your audience.

For President Barack Obama, this was on July 27, 2004, when he began his keynote address at the DNC Convention by telling the nation “my presence on this stage is pretty unlikely.”

This speech communicated the narrative arch of Obama’s life as an allusion to the American Dream, a story which resonates with all Americans. From Barack’s father leaving his home of Kenya to study in the United States, to his parents working hard to build a better life for their family, culminating in Barack standing on the stage that night, and years later reaching the climax of this speech’s arch by becoming the 44th President of the United States.

As Sarah Hurwitz discovered, Barack and Michelle Obama know who they are and what they want to say. It was her role as the speechwriter for Michelle Obama to distill her narrative arch and powerful truths into stories that resonate with her fellow Americans.

This involves understanding how to write for the ear as speeches are a powerful form of oral communication. Speeches are about telling stories and—to the chagrin of many technical writers—the most effective stories are not structured in technical prose and perfect grammar.

Keeping the aural tradition in mind, Hurwitz provides her three most important lessons for crafting a compelling and engaging speech:

  1. Show Don’t Tell. Instead of listing off adjectives and nouns such as 10,000 people at a factory or 4,000 potholes in a road, use your words to bring them to life. Tell the stories of Scott and Anne who were recently laid off at the factory or describe the beach-ball sized potholes filling the main street of town.
  2. Talk Like a Human Being. If you would explain it that way to your mother, don’t say it that way to an audience. Avoid jargon and speak in simple, relatable, and understandable terms.
  3. You Don’t Know what you Don’t Know. Double and triple-check your information. When Sarah was preparing a speech that Michelle Obama would be delivering in Japan, she found the following proverb for her to end on: “No road is long with a good companion.” She wouldn’t have known this was a proverb about suicide without the review from a colleague in the Japanese embassy.

All of this comes down to authenticity, which Hurwitz says is still the core tenant of successful speeches. While it may seem counterintuitive, President Trump’s speeches are just as authentic as the Obamas’. While their speeches differ significantly in terms of tone and messaging Trump has nothing to hide and speaks authentically, demonstrating further proof of the power of authenticity.

For Herwitz, speeches are the canvases where messages are shaped and delivered. As we see with the rise of disinformation through traditional and social media channels, this has both positive and negative impacts on our social and political culture. Speechwriters and citizens on social must be even more aggressive in combatting alternative facts and telling authentic stories.

A version of this article may also be found on