On the latest Keepin’ It 1600, Jon Favreau and Dan Pfeiffer discuss, among many topics, Michelle Obama’s memorable speech at the Democratic National Convention on Monday. Drawing on his experience as a speechwriter, Favreau breaks down what made Obama’s speech so great, and Pfeiffer outlines the notes any aspiring speechwriter should take after hearing her address. Listen to the full podcast here. This transcript has been edited and condensed.
Jon Favreau: That speech was one of the best I’ve heard, period. Like, [of] all conventions.
The interesting thing about Michelle Obama is the first time she gave a big national speech was at the 2008 national convention. We talked about this a little because of Melaniagate last week, and I remember she was very nervous about it. She knew what she wanted to say. She wanted to work with a speechwriter. That’s where she met Sarah Hurwitz for the first time, who’s still her speechwriter today, and they worked so hard on that speech, and it showed. She gave one of the best speeches in 2008, she gave one of the best speeches in 2012, and I still think that this was probably the best one of all three.
Dan Pfeiffer: There’s an emotional thing for us who’ve been doing this for a decade together now with Barack and Michelle Obama. To see that come to an end, after being in Denver with them, being in Charlotte with them, and now being at Hillary’s convention, it’s emotional. I thought her argument about America using their story and the way people think of the Obamas whether you like their politics or not as good parents and role models … it was just great. It really was powerful. Everybody knew she’d be good — she’s always been good. She’s a superb speaker, if a reluctant one at times, but you could make a strong argument that she should have gone last.
J.F.: A few people asked me what worked about the speech … so I did some thinking about that because this is good for other people writing speeches or giving speeches. A couple things worked about her speech. Number one: It was short. It was shorter than any of the other prime-time speeches, which all could have lost a couple minutes. I say this knowing that our old boss is going to go Wednesday night and will probably give a longer-ish speech, but the idea is always to give a short speech, and FLOTUS gave the shortest. It sounds like a silly thing to argue about length, but it actually makes a huge difference, and [she] and Sarah edited that speech down to a very, very good length.
Number two: There was no policy in that speech. Not everyone can get away with no policy. Sometimes you just have to do it, and FLOTUS could get away with having no policy, but it makes a difference. When you’re up there and your speech is trying to explain Donald Trump’s tax plan, maybe think twice. Look, Hillary Clinton’s gonna have to lay out her vision. She’s gonna have to have policy in the speech. There’s no way around that, but the less it can be a laundry list that gets really wonky, the better.
Another thing that worked, and you alluded to this: She told one story in the whole speech. The theme of the speech is through her daughters’ eyes and how they came to the White House and how they grew up and what that meant. So she had a device that carried through the entire speech without going off in 10 different directions. Another problem is when you write a speech, everyone’s like, “Oh, well, there’s this good idea and that good idea and let’s put them all together in one speech.” No. A speech has room for, like, one central idea — at least a memorable speech does — and she figured that out.
Good speeches take little risks. When she started that speech by saying, “And I remember that first day of school when they were in this big, black SUV with all these men with guns and I thought to myself, ‘What have we done?’” That’s sort of a dicier line, right? That’s not a clichéd line, that’s not something you’d expect someone to say, but it really worked. You’ve got to take a few risks with the speech.
And then the last thing I’ll say is: The line we will remember from that speech is when she got to the end and said, “This right now is the greatest country on earth.” That is not some cutesy slogan line that some speechwriter worked up to be quotable in The New York Times the next day, right? That’s a very common phrase. It worked and will be a memorable line because of what she did to build up to that line, which kind of alludes to Donald Trump saying, “This country’s not great.” The whole end, “Don’t let anyone tell you this country’s not great, this, right now, is the greatest country on earth,” it used very common words. It was not like odd turns of phrase that were very unique, but it just ended the story on such an emotional high point that it really worked.
D.P.: Right. I obviously agree with all of that. I think there were two lessons for aspiring speechwriters listening. One is: No one ever said, “That speech was too short.” That’s not a phrase that’s ever uttered, right? But you often hear, “That speech was too long.” And everyone, except Michelle Obama, was guilty of that last night for a few minutes.
And the second thing is: Tell one story. I think this is the core of what you and the president of the United States have done for the last 10 years. Every speech is a story, and you make different points in that story, but it goes from beginning to end, and those were the best speeches. That’s how Michelle Obama’s speech was last night; that’s how her other two convention speeches were.
And the third one is: Don’t write speeches by committee. Because Barack Obama is a writer, the speech process in this White House is different than others. A lot of people have ideas, but it ultimately comes down to a personal conversation between the president of the United States and you, or Cody Keenan, or Ben Rhodes, or whoever’s writing it. Sometimes someone like [David] Plouffe and [David] Axelrod and [me] are there, but it’s really about you two. People try to add things in and the president gets involved to veto that stuff, but speech-by-committee is the lowest common denominator of speech, [which] will end up being too long and making too many points.