3 questions with Sarah Hurwitz: The secrets of powerful and persuasive storytelling

Sarah Hurwitz is a gifted storyteller. Here, she shares experiences from her time as the chief speechwriter for First Lady Michelle Obama.

Megan Boley

Megan Boley was a content marketing writer at WSB. ...

Sarah Hurwitz knows the power of words.

As a skilled speechwriter, she’s harnessed her gift to create some of the most acclaimed speeches of our time. Over the course of her career, she’s shaped the messages of memorable figures in American history — including the Obamas and Hillary Clinton.

We asked Hurwitz to take us on a journey through her storied career. She shares insights on how to craft a narrative that resonates and has a lasting impact.

1. How did you discover and cultivate your talent for storytelling?

The summer before my senior year in college, I did an internship in Vice President Al Gore’s speechwriting office in the White House. Throughout that summer, I saw how speechwriters had the power to craft words that can cut through the noise and go straight to people’s hearts, moving them, inspiring them, helping them feel more hopeful and less alone. I was hooked.

I cultivated my storytelling skills over the course of multiple speechwriting jobs — in the U.S. Senate, on presidential campaigns, and in the White House, particularly in writing for Mrs. Obama, who is such a powerful storyteller herself. She’s always looking to create vivid pictures in people’s minds and to get to the beating heart of the issues — the places where people feel them and live them every day. Her high standards and excellent edits and feedback helped me become a much better writer.

2. What is it like crafting the stories of some of the most influential people in American history, particularly someone like Michelle Obama whose speeches have inspired millions of people worldwide? 

It was a profound honor to work for people who are such extraordinary leaders and public servants, and also such kind, caring, decent human beings. I feel like I won the lottery many times over.

As for Michelle Obama, she knows who she is, and she always knows what she wants to say and how she wants to say it. So the most important part of my job as her speechwriter happened before I started writing a speech, when I would sit down with her and ask her, “What do you want to say?” She would then dictate paragraph after paragraph of vivid, moving language, and I would do my best to capture all of it on my laptop (fortunately, I’m a fast typist) and then weave it into a draft.

The process was exciting, but also stressful. The deadlines were often tight, and I had some crazy last-minute scrambles in airplanes on the way to events — or even with teleprompter operators backstage. But I wouldn’t trade the experience for anything in the world.

3. How can women wield words to become better leaders and inspire others?

Authenticity is truly the key. I’ve found that sometimes, women feel like they have to cultivate a certain kind of voice — one that makes them sound powerful and authoritative, but that isn’t comfortable for them. Doing so simply isn’t effective. If you’re not speaking in your own, true voice, the audience will be able to tell.

It’s better to try to stick to your natural cadence and to avoid jargon and words you would never normally use in conversation. For example: “We’re going to leverage our platform to catalyze transformational outcomes for consumers.” No one actually speaks this way in real life. You would never turn to your spouse and say, “You know honey, I was thinking that we should leverage our platform to catalyze some dinner reservations for tonight.”

A good rule of thumb is that if words feel awkward coming out of your mouth, don’t say them — instead, rewrite them in your own voice. You’ll be more at ease, and so will your audience.

Looking for a practiced storyteller and message-crafter to connect with your audience? Connect directly with Sarah Hurwitz here to start a conversation.

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