The Perfect Speech: An Appreciation of Michelle Obama's DNC Address

The Revolution, My Senior Class from the Illinois State University Speech Team, Circa 2005

The Revolution, My Senior Class from the Illinois State University Speech Team, Circa 2005

As a college speech coach, I spent hours pursuing the "perfect speech."  One that from start to finish captivates and moves a crowd with equal parts perfect diction and substance.  In the years after my time as a competitor, I dedicated another three years to helping my students balance rhetoric with delivery that was equal parts ethos, pathos, and logos.  

The concept of a perfect speech in competitive forensics was so ingrained in our heads that any vocal stumble or imperfect inflection might make you feel like you would "lose the round."  Or, even worse yet, that might have cost you the opportunity to deliver the "oh-so-rare" perfect speech.

To put it in modern terms, think of coming close to catching the world's most rare Pokemon on your phone, only to throw the opportunity to catch a Pikachu because you sloppily timed the throw of your Pokeball.

Kind of like that (I'm told Pokemon Go references are the only ways to make metaphors these days).  

Hey nerds, look, it's that thing.

Hey nerds, look, it's that thing.

In the years since my time in forensics, I have loosened up on my criteria for perfect delivery.  I distinctly remember my good friend Shannon Maney-Mugnuson one time yelling out in a speech room "VOCAL STUMBLES ARE FUCKING NORMAL, WE'RE NOT ROBOTS!"  And Shannon would know, she was a national champion (on top of being a phenomenal human being).  

As someone who has worked live crowds in improv and limited-script form, I can tell you, vocal stumbles are indeed a real part of natural conversation.  People use the words, "like," "um," and "ya know" because they serve as transitional language to help us connect thoughts in the moment.  They are also often are used as a means of completing a thought, rather than saying any random nonsense that comes to your head (*cough* Donald Trump *cough*). 

Which is why, the search for a perfect speech is much more than just getting through it without stammering or perfect diction.  For me, a perfect speech is more about passion, authenticity, persuasive (or informative) value.

And that, my friends, brings me to the magnificent speech given by the First Lady last night at the Democratic National Convention.

Uploaded by PBS NewsHour on 2016-07-26.

I didn't plan to write anything about it after my initial viewing, but close to 24 hours after she gave that speech, I can't stop thinking about it.  

In many ways, Michelle Obama was able to do more than any politician, musician or comedian could do on that stage (although, Sarah Silverman definitely made an effort that was actually more convincing than most). 

Mrs. Obama gave a powerful speech despite the fact that the odds were most certainly stacked against her.

It was only within the last week that her name was brought up as both a victim of plagiarism and also as a thief (the Trump campaign hilariously attempted to blame the First Lady from lifting a "memorable" passage from My Little Pony).  Somehow, in the course of Melania Trump's lifting of Mrs. Obama's words, the current First Lady came under fire for her own integrity suggesting that she and her speechwriting team are just as guilty (a type of absurd rhetorical character assassination that can only be found during a political season).  

Further complicating matters for Mrs. Obama was the possibility of a contested convention looming over the floor of the DNC and a series of emails that suggests the Democratic party plays favorites.  Granted, the First Lady's warm-up acts did little to quell the anger of Bernie Sanders supporters who were disrupting speeches throughout the evening.  

Then again, overcoming adversity has never been a big hurdle for Mrs. Obama.  Her approval ratings are among the highest of any First Lady or notable figure in politics  and her popularity has always seemed to eclipse her husband's Q-ratings.  But while the First Lady has always been a secret weapon for the Obama administration, last night was something even more than that.  She managed to not only make the best plead for unity among the party, but she also managed to lay out the most convincing argument for Hillary Clinton we've seen yet.

Some of you may not like Secretary Clinton and what she stands for, but endorsement aside, the persuasive value of Mrs. Obama's speech was one that transcended politics.  It even prompted responses like this and the ones seen below.


Below, I outline a few of the reasons why I believe the speech resonated so well with audiences: 

1. Empathetic Narratives

Other people have certainly tried to humanize Secretary Clinton.  Sometimes it works, other times people remember, "oh yeah, she hates America and everything I stand for."  Secretary Clinton is, without question, a divisive individual in American politics.  Her mere name immediately results in extremes, as there are few people who don't have an opinion about her or her policies.  Mrs. Obama, however, has never really had that problem with the American public while in the White House.  

By vouching for her fellow First Lady, Mrs. Obama did more than just tell people Hillary Clinton was a good mother (and grandmother), she made the appeal that our children would be better off under her guidance.  In doing so, she was able to talk about her toughness, her commitment to public service, and encouraged people to see a leader who has always stepped up to the job even when people have made it their mission to tear her down.  

A gesture that showed the First Lady was willing to lend Secretary Clinton some of her very own political pathos.

2. She Made Clear, Concise Arguments Without Having To Use Hateful Language

"When they go low, we go high."  I don't know how that hasn't already been mass produced as a t-shirt, but Mrs. Obama and her staff should get right on it.  That phrasing, however, was the night's biggest rhetorical win and was indicative of the way the First Lady would insert her perspective into this year's political proceedings.

She never had to mention Mr. Trump by name, or single out any of the people who have printed or said terrible things about her and her family.  Instead, she delivered a speech about the values that are important to her and the themes of what it means to be president (temperament, values, service).  

But don't get it twisted, Mrs. Obama isn't some idealist pushover.  She made several major comments and observations about the current state of politics that were wonderfully persuasive.

When Mrs. Obama mentioned that Secretary Clinton didn't get discouraged when she lost a previous presidential race, it was a direct way of telling the people who were trying to disrupt the convention on behalf of Bernie Sanders that the revolution doesn't die there.  That there are ways to still enact change and serve your country.  

And when Mrs. Obama made made reference to commanders-in-chief needing more than just 140-characters worth of judgment with a set of nuclear codes, the internet exploded.  I saw a number of great references to that line last night, but none stayed with me more than my fellow rhetoric nerd and Bradley University speech coach, Tanya Melendez who said: 



- Tanya Melendez, 7/25/16

The takeaway for me was simple, the FLOTUS could be classy and elegant.  She could also recite a line that burned more than any pundit on cable news. 

3. It Was Unapologetically Patriotic (On Her Terms)

Patriotism can come in many forms, but love of country can sometimes be blind to the complicated parts of our Nation's history.  In her speech, Mrs. Obama was able to acknowledge the parts of American history that once saw no problem with owning slaves or denying women the opportunity to vote, while still conveying a message of hope for the future.  

That, my friends, is a speechwriting "high-wire" act if I've ever seen one.  It was a truly remarkable way of pointing out how far our country has come while also challenging us to do even more.  

Moreover, you could hear her voice start to crack as she made the observation that Secretary Clinton's nomination was a pivotal point in a political system that has often ignored and silenced women.  It was a touching moment that has a very strong meaning coming from one of the handful of individuals who could ever understand what it's like to be a First Lady of the United States.  

The biggest reason I loved Mrs. Obama's speech is pure and simple: in a week where people asked "so what if they plagiarized one of her speeches," the First Lady made a series of compelling political arguments, but none stronger than reminding us why words matter.

If that is to be the last major speech from Mrs. Obama for some time, then let it be known she went out with political equivalent of a mic drop.  

Thank you for being a magnificent First Lady, Mrs. Obama.


NOTE: Though we give a ton of deserved credit to the First Lady, I also think it's equally important to learn more about the person who has been crafting her speeches for the past seven years.  Do yourself a favor and read a little bit about Sarah Hurwitz.