Selecting the right words for your specific audience

Sarah Hurwitz, former head speechwriter for Michelle Obama, shares how to shape and sharpen presentations and capture the voice of your subject in an authentic manner.

Writing to be heard rather than read requires a unique skillset.

Sarah Hurwitz, who was a White House speechwriter from 2009 to 2017, is perhaps one of the world’s foremost expert on the matter. She shared practical tips and fascinating tidbits gleaned from her sterling career with Ragan at a recent virtual Communication Leadership Council retreat. Here’s a slice of what she shared:

How to be a more influential, insightful speechwriter

If you’re tasked with writing on behalf of someone else, you must build a relationship and a genuine rapport. “To inhabit a person’s voice, you need to spend time with them,” Hurwitz says.

That includes in formal and informal settings to get a sense of how the person speaks and conveys information. If your subject has little time to spend with you one-on-one, ask to sit in on meetings or events to observe how they communicate and conduct themselves, Hurwitz advises. As you listen, note specific phrases they tend to use. Also be mindful of language they avoid using.

To gain a broader perspective, ask your leader for permission to speak with people in their family, social circles and networks. Learn about the person’s upbringing, as well as their personal convictions, passions and pet peeves.

Eliciting candid feedback from your subject is an essential part of the process, Hurwitz says. Asking your leader to add comments in the margins of speeches or pausing during readthroughs can correct a phony tone—or possibly make space for an iconic turn of phrase. Hurwitz notes that Michelle Obama’s famous “When they go low, we go high” line was 100% from Mrs. Obama herself.

Analyzing performances is also crucial—both for your leader and for you to identify strengths and weaknesses. Taping executives as they speak and having them watch the playback might be a painful exercise, but it’s a great way to improve. So long as they’re willing to learn and you have the guts to offer advice, of course.

For more inspiration and motivation, Hurwitz also suggests showing leaders examples of speeches that are viewed as extremely successful, genuine and authoritative.

Get to know your audience

Hurwitz states that speechwriters must go above and beyond to learn about the audience your subject is addressing. For instance, if your CEO is speaking at a school:

  • Read the campus newspaper.
  • Get background about the student body, including historical and demographic information.
  • Run drafts of the speech by diverse members of the school’s population.

If you’re not a member of the community that you’re trying to reach, then you “don’t know who you don’t know,” Hurwitz says. In this case, it is far better to first ask permission than to beg forgiveness later.

Hurwitz cites a speech she penned for Mrs. Obama that was to be delivered in Japan. The initial draft of the talk closed with an iteration of the Japanese proverb: “No road is long with a good companion.” The speech passed through an initial fact-check and approval process, but Hurwitz decided to double-check the reference with a native Japanese speaker at the U.S. Embassy in Tokyo. The embassy official immediately called back to let Hurwitz know that in Japanese culture, the proverb is understood to be about suicide—and so it was swiftly removed from the speech before the event.

The moral of the story: Whether your leader’s speaking in Tokyo, Toledo or Timbuktu, you must consider the culture, context and communication preferences of your audience. Whenever possible, run a draft by a few people in the community—or at least share the content of the speech “with a prominent leader who has a pulse on the feelings of a community,” Hurwitz says. You might also try assembling a diverse focus group to gauge their opinions on trending or potentially problematic issues.

If you have security concerns about emailing a hard copy your speech before the event, you can read it aloud over the phone to a community leader, so a copy won’t be potentially floating around the internet. You can also just provide a summary of ideas to make sure there are no potential red flags.

However you proceed, be mindful of the worth and weight of each word. And always, always double-check foreign language quotes with native speakers.

Writing for different mediums

“Content should be edited in the format in which it’ll be delivered,” Hurwitz says. Spoken language, for instance, is more informal, so speeches should look different from written communications.

Hurwitz says when tweaking written communication, “edit with your eye” to catch grammatical goofs and typos. For speeches, read the text aloud, and “edit with your ear” as you speak.

Hurwitz says it’s a painstaking process, but speechwriters should read through the text aloud, sentence by sentence, smoothing over stilted phrasing until it’s pristine. “Edit for comfort coming out of your mouth,” she says.

Advice for corporate leaders and communicators

Hurwitz says to ask yourself: “What is the deepest, most important, most helpful truth I can share at this moment?” Depending on what’s happening in your organization, that might mean constructive feedback, standing up for a colleague, or perhaps fighting for continued DE&I funding. Regardless, communicators and speechwriters alike must be willing to speak hard truths to execs if they want to exert more influence.

In terms of crisis communication, Hurwitz warns against responding with half-truths aimed at self-preservation. It’s always better to “say the whole truth from the start,” rather than spending days or weeks defending yourself and potentially worsening the crisis.

In response to Communication Leadership Council member questions, Hurwitz also offers these smart takeaways:

Put your leaders in positions where they’re likely to succeed. If your leader is terrible at a podium, set their speech in a living room or at a table. Let your leader be comfortable in how/when/where they speak. Let them speak to their passions, too. Energy and enthusiasm are contagious and help build credibility.

Beware the robot voice. Steer your subject away from platitudes, jargon and awkward openings (“Greetings and salutations, earthlings.”). Encourage people to speak in their own voice and to talk like a normal human being. Would your speech resonate with an old high school buddy or your spouse? If not, it needs work.

Don’t bore people to death on video. In this virtual world, a front-of-lectern-style solo speech isn’t the best option. No one wants to watch a 30-minute Zoom lecture. Fireside chats, interviews and Q&As are engaging and intimate for virtual platforms. Keeping things concise and incorporating breaks are helpful, too. Shoot for a sweet spot of 17 minutes. That’s the upper limit of how long people can pay attention these days.

Should you script—or shoot from the hip? If it’s a presentation at a large venue, your speech should be scripted. If it’s eight people at a roundtable, a script is not advisable. However, beware of “riffing” and impromptu rambling. It usually doesn’t end well.

Regardless of the venue, find the format of notes your exec prefers. Some excel at reading scripts verbatim, and others do better with smaller snippets, such as bullet points, cue cards or key phrases. Just keep text on the top of the page so they don’t have look down too far, which results in breaking eye contact and “swallowing their words,” as Hurwitz says.

Ultimately, it’s about the stakes of the event. If there are legal concerns or reporters watching, keep it scripted. If it’s an informal gathering, it’s fine to be a little looser. However, when in doubt, script it out.


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