Friday, July 29, 2016

Famous Speech Friday: Michelle Obama's 'a house built by slaves'

Michelle Obama has been giving a lot of "last" speeches lately, like her last commencement speech as First Lady, and many more. But I doubt that her turn at the U.S. Democratic National Convention as a speaker this week will be her last convention speech, because she took a fractured audience and made it not only unified, but eager to follow where she was leading them in endorsing Hillary Clinton as the next U.S. president.

The speech was loaded with understatement. Donald Trump was never mentioned by name, a tactic which served both as slight and sleight-of-hand. Before you knew what was happening, she'd delivered critique after critique. but failed to name the outsized egotist who puts his name everywhere. That might be the ultimate insult, but not mentioning his name also may have serve a useful purpose in giving the crowd fewer opportunities to boo during her speech. Unlike many other prominent speakers, her speech was relatively free of interruptions other than cheering.

Here's a great example of the understatement in this speech: Obama opened talking about how she and the President have tried to raise their daughters, who essentially grew up in the White House. And in listing the lessons for her daughters, she was listing lessons for the nation:
How we urge them to ignore those who question their father’s citizenship or faith. How we insist that the hateful language they hear from public figures on TV does not represent the true spirit of this country. How we explain that when someone is cruel or acts like a bully, you don’t stoop to their level. No, our motto is: ‘When they go low, we go high.
Most-quoted was the part that begins "I wake up every morning...", but as powerful as that is, its true power momentum came from the words that preceded it. Here it is in full:
The story of generations of people who have felt the lash of bondage, the shame of servitude, the sting of segregation but who kept on striving and doing what needed to be done so that today I wake up every morning in a house that was built by slaves. And I watch my daughters, two beautiful intelligent black young women, play with the dog on the White House lawn.
I often tell you to aim for a signature talk, one that only you can give--otherwise, we are doomed as listeners to hearing the same thing over and over again. Well, here is an intensely personal passage, one uniquely spoken by the first black First Lady of the United States to a world not used to hearing the White House described in just that way. That adds to its power. As actor Mia Farrow tweeted:
Most important of all, this speech did what it set out to do--unlike many convention speeches--and gave a full-throated endorsement of the candidate. The quote above about living in the White House and its point about people of color "who kept on striving" is echoed in this passage that artfully tackles every criticism leveled at the candidate, from how she looks to why she didn't leave her husband when his affair was found out:
And look, there were plenty of moments when Hillary could have decided that this work was too hard, that the price of public service was too high, that she was tired of being picked apart for how she looks or how she talks or even how she laughs. But here’s the thing -- what I admire most about Hillary is that she never buckles under pressure. She never takes the easy way out. And Hillary Clinton has never quit on anything in her life. 
Michelle Obama's role as First Lady means she mostly has to stay above the political fray; there are legal limits to how much, where, and when she may campaign. So when she had the opportunity to do so, she made this political speech frankly feminist, in favor of making a woman president, and unabashedly patriotic, saying, "So don’t let anyone ever tell you that this country isn’t great, that somehow we need to make it great again. Because this, right now, is the greatest country on earth." It was the perfect riposte, rhetorically and emotionally, to the Trump campaign's "Make America great again" slogan. This speech prompted an enthusiastic response in the hall and around the world, from all political sides; some called it a "speech for the ages." Let's also give credit to Obama's speechwriter, Sarah Hurwitz; their partnership is described in this article. What can you learn from this famous speech?
  • Be a uniter, not a divider: In addition to standing in stark contrast to the negative themes of last week's Republican Convention and the protestors on the floor of her own convention, Obama was able to unite the audience--in the hall and beyond it--with an upbeat, briskly paced talk that emphasized areas of commonality. Read the text a couple of times: You'll notice lines that appeal to, but don't mention, specific audiences, and describe what "we" do, so the message that "we're all in this together" comes through clearly.
  • Don't pull your punches: Despite not mentioning the opponent, there's nothing hesitant about this speech, which levels its criticisms in an artful way. It takes extra effort to write a speech this way, but it is all the more powerful.
  • Remember the job of your speech: The road is littered with endorsers who come to convention and barely mention or endorse the candidate. But as we coaches like to say, every speech has a job to do. By accomplishing what she came to accomplish, there was none of the anxiety and drama around Obama's convention speech--and that meant we were free to hear her words and their meaning. I wish more politicians would take this approach.
You can read the full text here, and watch the video here and below:


Join me in Edinburgh, Scotland, on October 20 for a new workshop, Add Meaning with Metaphor: Improve your Speeches with the Most Powerful Figure of Speech. It's a pre-conference workshop at the Edinburgh Speechwriters and Business Communicators Conference, designed to help both speakers and speechwriters use this powerful tool. You can register here for just the workshop, the conference, or both, and you'll get the best discount if you sign up by August 1.

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