Tuesday, September 26, 2017

Saying Something True: Michelle Obama’s Chief Speechwriter Coaches Negotiation Workshop Students

Woman talking at the front of a classroom

Harvard Law School Negotiation Workshop Spring 2017, Special Guest speaker Sarah Hurwitz ’04.

Students of the Spring 2017 Negotiation Workshop had the privilege of hearing from Sarah Hurwitz ‘04 during their last week of the course. Hurwitz is known for the memorable speeches she has crafted with First Lady Michelle Obama ’88 during the past eight years.

Hurwitz wove together anecdotes from her path from law school to speechwriting and drew the links between her experience as a student in the Negotiation Workshop and her success as a speechwriter.

Having Hurwitz as a guest in the Negotiation Workshop provided students with a unique opportunity to hear from someone who had once sat in their seats. As a student at Harvard Law School, Hurwitz took both the Negotiation Workshop and Mediation and worked on several independent writing projects in the field. In her talk to this year’s Negotiation Workshop cohort, Hurwitz recalled the thrill of practicing negotiation skills with her peers and finding new ways to communicate more effectively as a student, tools she put to good use in her work at the White House.

Hurwitz’s path to speechwriting took its first big turn during her third year at Harvard Law School when she worked as a speechwriter on the presidential primary campaign of General Wesley Clark.  Hurwitz then wrote speeches for then-Senator John Kerry during his 2004 presidential campaign.  Four years later, she went to work as Hillary Clinton’s chief speechwriter during the 2008 Presidential race and as a senior speechwriter for then-candidate Barack Obama in 2008.  When Obama became president, she went with him to the White House, serving as a senior speechwriter and then as chief speechwriter for First Lady Michelle Obama, a job she held until the end of the Administration. Students in a classroom

Addressing the Negotiation Workshop, Hurwitz joked about how far her path has strayed from the law. But her time in law school, and in particular her time taking courses in negotiation and mediation, shaped her work and her writing.

Hurwitz emphasized that she drew upon lessons in the Negotiation Workshop in her work as a speechwriter. Not surprisingly, when she found herself on the Clinton campaign and then the Obama campaign in 2008, she had to draw on skills of persuasion and communication. She noted the importance of understanding the interest of the leaders she wrote for, and of colleagues who offered edits to the speeches, and she emphasized how crucial relationships and building rapport can be.

In the second part of her lecture, Hurwitz shared some advice from her speechwriting career that can be applied to negotiation more broadly.

Her first word of advice was, “Say something true.” Speakers should always ask themselves not “What will make me sound smart, or powerful or funny” or “What does the audience want to hear,” but “What is the deepest and truest statement that I could possibly make in this moment?” Audiences trust and respect speakers who get to the deeper truths behind the message they wish to convey.

Woman speaking at front of classroomThe second word of advice that Hurwitz offered was to “Talk like a person.” She pointed out that in speechwriting and in negotiating, there can be a tendency to use language that one imagines speechwriters or negotiators use rather than one’s actual voice. “If you wouldn’t say something in a one on one conversation, don’t say it to a group or a crowd,” she said. Her work has taught her that writing and speaking in one’s own, authentic voice matters.

Her third lesson on negotiating and communicating effectively was, “Show, don’t tell.” Images have the power to convey messages that descriptive sentences do not. Hurwitz also emphasized the importance of being “ruthless in selecting details, so that you choose ones that are most resonant with your audience.” With every detail she would include in a speech, she would ask herself, “Is this helping me to paint a persuasive picture?” She highlighted how important it is for negotiators to think about their interests, seek to understand the interests of other parties, and be purposeful in the imagery and details they employ.

Hurwitz’s fourth piece of advice was, “Be a merciless editor”. She stressed how superfluous information and language can hurt efforts to persuade or move others. She urged people to, “Cut ten percent” of their initial draft of a speech and, similarly, to cut their weakest arguments when preparing for a negotiation.

Finally, Hurwitz spoke about the necessity of passion. “Look for something to love in what you’re writing about or what you’re negotiating for,” she said. With negotiating, as with speechwriting, passion must come through for a message to be persuasive.

Sarah Hurwitz’s visit to the Spring Negotiation Workshop is the latest installment in an annual feature of the course in which a prominent real-life negotiator speaks to enrolled students about their professional negotiation experience in an area of practice. Past speakers have included Wendy Sherman, Bob Barnett, Ron Shapiro, Rose Gottemoeller, Grande Lum, and Clifford Sloan.  The Negotiation Workshop is offered each January term and spring, and combines theory and practice to improve students’ understanding of negotiation and their skills as negotiators.

To watch the speech Hurwitz worked on with former First Lady Michelle Obama for the Democratic National Convention in 2016, click here.

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