Obama Speechwriter Shares Tips for Speaking Effectively

Events

AWE conference elevated women

“Talk like a human being. Talk in your own authentic voice. Just be real.” That was the advice Sarah Hurwitz, chief speechwriter for Michelle Obama, shared with the audience at Elevate!, Association of Women in Events’ (AWE) first one-day conference.

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This Harvard-trained lawyer and author advocated for using the building blocks of storytelling to be more effective at the negotiating table and in the boardroom. Her suggestions for the women—and men—in that ballroom in Washington, D.C., apply to event professionals advancing at all stages of their careers.

Truly, Deeply

“Say something true,” Hurwitz advised. It seems obvious, Hurwitz praised the power of talking about the proverbial elephant in the room, instead of using expensive words to paper over difficult topics. Her example was when Barack Obama stood up during the first campaign and acknowledged the fact that a man with his skin color and name running for president was unlikely, but an opportunity to approach leadership in a new way.

“Maybe it is an edgy or uncomfortable truth, but say that truth,” she counseled. It is probably what everyone is thinking anyway, so own it.

This mantra was echoed later in the day when Brad Weaber, AWE founding supporter and an event industry consultant told his authentic story of moving from farm to boardroom. He pointed to alignment of “heart, head and gut” as one way to know if you are doing it right.

Paint a Picture

“Show, don’t tell,” this wordsmith said. Often a speech is boring because it is a list of adjectives. Hurwitz used the example of First Lady Michelle Obama describing the first day of school after her family had moved into the White House. She packed her children into a big black SUV surrounded by men with radios and guns, and she wondered what she had done to her family by agreeing to support her husband in his presidential run. That image will take people to that moment and is much more powerful than using adjectives to say she was anxious, nervous or scared. The former is memorable, the latter barely causes people to look up from their smartphones.

When you tell a personal story, people identify at a deeper level than when they hear an emotional label. For planners, the lesson is that when pitching a product or an idea, don’t let the benefits get lost in the details and corporate talk. Describe the value of what you are advocating for. Focus on the “why.”

How to Be Heard

1. Use conversational language; ditch the business speak and lingo.
2. Tell personal stories that people can identify with.
3. Tell your personal truth.
4. Use your network.

Honor Your Skills

Hurwitz suggested celebrating the skills women bring to the table instead of criticizing ourselves and each other for these life-saving traits. “Women denigrate ourselves for being worriers, and I reject that. I think that worrying prevents mistakes, and we should be proud and embrace that part of ourselves,” she said.

For event professionals, imagining the worst outcome so that you can plan for the possibility is part of the job description. Don’t apologize for that skill set. Also, don’t get hung up in it. Make your contingency lists, communicate your back-up plans, pat yourself on the back for a job well done and move on to the next thing.

Hurwitz was followed on the stage by Kelsey Dixon, co-founder and president of Davies & Dixon, who talked about social media in crisis communication. “Preparation is everything,” she shared. Don’t forget the power of using sharing platforms to get accurate information in real time to the people who need it.

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Move Forward

In fact, the entire March event at Mandarin Oriental Washington, D.C., was dedicated to professional advancement of women in the events industry. Speakers shared strategies for helping women find their voice in designing their personal journey. Tahira Endean, head of events with SITE, encouraged everyone to “crawl, climb, claw and cruise” to the top. And once there, Jon’ll Boyd, CEO of Completely Yours Events, had some words of wisdom for managing an event industry dream team. “Encouraging team members to have fun actually helps yield maximum results,” she said.

Social issues also took center stage. Thought leaders addressed the topics of sexual harassment (thank you, Sarah Soliman Daudin and Courtney Stanley) and fighting human trafficking (shout-out to Michelle Guelbart from ECPAT-USA).

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All this good advice was building to a call to action. Marie-Claire Andrews, AWE’s vice president, CEO of Event Tech Tribe and founder of ShowGizmo, joined Idea Igniteur Dahlia El Gazzar on stage to call for the audience to start a movement. “Make it happen with what you have in front of you right now,” they said. Oh, and think big. By “big,” they mean working with stakeholders to start a movement community. Now that is real.

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