Friday, November 2, 2012

Famous Speech Friday: Michelle Obama at the 2012 Democratic National Convention

(Editor's note: Right after this speech, freelance writer Walker Wooding emailed me to say how much he thought this speech resonated--so I asked him to share his thoughts with you for our Famous Speech Friday series. Here's his take.) 

Storytelling can turn an invitation to speak into an invitation to engage. First Lady Michelle Obama provided an example of this when she recently spoke at the 2012 Democratic National Convention. Sure, like some Democrats, and like some Republicans in their convention the prior week, she touched on political character and on partisan concerns. Her speech, however, epitomized the touch of personal connection. That connection began with immersing the audience into her world, illustrating life as a mother, a wife, and eyewitness to President Barack Obama as a father, a husband, and a man. She connected that world to the world of millions of Americans with the power of story.

Stories are our DNA. They carry from one generation to the next our beliefs, struggles, and dreams. So when a number of folks sat down, tuned in, or clicked on for Michelle Obama’s speech given that September Tuesday night in Charlotte, N.C., they found themselves captured with a story. That’s what engagement is, a moving dialogue that moves us, connecting what the speaker wants to say to what she wants the audience to think, feel, or do. The key to this speech was matching the message to the moment, which, according to Twitter’s blog, peaked at 28,003 Tweets per minute at its conclusion.

For a blueprint of capturing the moment, let’s look at three of the four qualities the late Ted Sorensen, President John F. Kennedy’s speechwriter, said characterizes a memorable speech—clarity, charity, brevity, and levity. Here’s what you can learn from the First Lady's example of speaking to engage:

Clarity—to clearly set out a road map for the audience. Michelle Obama championed examples of the American spirit. She proclaimed how struggle doesn’t change that spirit but defines it. She explained how becoming First Lady hasn’t changed who she is but has made her stronger in her most important role, a mother. She laid out the theme of her husband’s bid for reelection—to stay the course in a struggle to help Americans with their struggles in achieving their quests. Parallelism, the technique of using similar ideas in a balanced construction, helped the First Lady frame the President’s drive to make it possible for everyone to fulfill their lives. “Barack knows the American Dream because he’s lived it...and he wants everyone in this country to have that same opportunity, no matter who we are, or where we’re from, or what we look like, or who we love.”

Charity—to praise the audience for what they’re contributing. Here, the First Lady credited people for paving the way for others to attain their aspirations. For example, she honored members of the military for their sacrifice. She also gave voice to everyday people who, in their own ways, also suit up, gear up, and get after it. “We get there because of folks like my Dad...folks like Barack’s grandmother...men and women who said to themselves, ‘I may not have a chance to fulfill my dreams, but maybe my children will...maybe my grandchildren will.’ So many of us stand here tonight because of their sacrifice, and longing, and steadfast love...because time and again, they swallowed their fears and doubts and did what was hard.”

Levity—to endear yourself to the crowd. The First Lady unified her chronicles about love, family, and ambitions with emotion and body language that resonated with some of the audience. It resonated with me, too. For a moment, I forgot that she was speaking at a political convention. In that moment, I remembered growing up in New Jersey. There, I often sat with my mom and her four sisters congregating in the kitchen or living room. That was their convention center, their town hall, to signify about living, loving, and looking to the future for their children. “And I say all of this tonight not just as First Lady...and not just as a wife. You see, at the end of the day, my most important title is still ‘mom-in-chief.’ My daughters are still the heart of my heart and the center of my world. But today, I have none of those worries from four years ago about whether Barack and I were doing what’s best for our girls.” In the end, Michelle Obama’s speech was much more than about her or about the President. It was a story much about love and about struggle. Both involve character, commitment, and courage—just some of the makings of what it takes to prevail in the pursuit of our dreams.


A link to the transcript is above and the video is below. What do you think of this famous speech?


(Photo from Barack Obama's stream on Flickr)