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Five Rules of Storytelling from Obama's Speechwriter


Freek Janssen
Published on March 19, 2014
By Freek Janssen

President Obama with his speechwriter, Jon Favreau
Tomorrow we celebrate World Storytelling Day, to honour the art of oral storytelling. There is no such thing as an award for the greatest storyteller alive. But if there were, US president Barack Obama would stand a very good chance. Ironically, there is a great story behind Obama's excellence in speeches. Did you know that one of his most important speechwriters is only 32 years old? Jon Favreau played a key role during the 2008 'Yes We Can' campaign and has been Obama's Director of Speechwriting until recently. I was in the fortunate position to see Jon Favreau giving a presentation this week during a seminar on the art of persuasion. This is where he shared five golden rules of storytelling that certainly do not only apply in politics.

1. The story is more important than the words

"In my experience communications too often focuses on finding the right words. Of course words are important at some point in the process. But the first question you have to ask yourself is: what is the story I'm trying to sell? That is essential, and should be the starting point." Before Favreau started writing a speech, he would always start with simply talking to Obama. "He would give me a few random thoughts off the top of his head of what he wanted to say. The interesting thing about the President is that he always instantly gave the most logical outline of a speech I had ever heard. I was always impressed by his ability to start with clear rhetoric and add arguments and anecdotes later."

2. Keep it simple

"Long speeches are the easiest to write. They are also the most forgettable", Favreau explained. "Audiences today can only handle so much information before they start losing focus. You should aim at twenty minutes max. That requires tremendous discipline, especially if you're in an organisation with a lot of people in the mix. But remember that a speech about everything is a speech about nothing. Narrow your story down to the essential point."

3. Always address the arguments against your position during your presentation, not after

Especially in politics it is important to think about the objections you will encounter. "You should find them and address them during your speech. When Obama was trying to deliver his Health Care Reform Plan in 2009, the most important part of his speech was to find the arguments that the Republicans would think of and contradict them."

4. Empathy is key

Just knowing your audience is not enough, Favreau said. "You have to know what the world looks like when you are in their shoes. One of the reasons why Obama's speeches are so successful is because they are written in the language that his audience understands, addressing the issues they are facing."

5. There is no persuasion without inspiration

Emotion is the most important element of motivating an audience, according to Favreau: "The best way to connect with people is through stories that are important to people's lives. In the victory speech in 2008 we had a clear message: sometimes change can come slow, but change is always possible and history has proved that."  

Favreau and Obama decided to use a special story about a woman named Ann Nixon Cooper:

She's a lot like the millions of others who stood in line to make their voice heard in this election except for one thing - Ann Nixon Cooper is 106 years old.


She was born just a generation past slavery; a time when there were no cars on the road or planes in the sky; when someone like her couldn't vote for two reasons - because she was a woman and because of the colour of her skin.

And tonight, I think about all that she's seen throughout her century in America - the heartache and the hope; the struggle and the progress; the times we were told that we can't, and the people who pressed on with that American creed: Yes, we can.


Favreau decided to give Ann Nixon Cooper a call before using her story in the speech: "I told her that man who was about to become President wanted to name her in his victory speech. She paused for a while and asked: 'Will it be on television?' I said 'yes'. She waited a little longer. 'Which channel will it be on?', she asked, so I told her. That was when she said 'I'm so proud of him, I'm so proud of us'. She started crying and so did I and at exactly that moment the results from Ohio came in.

That was when I realised that it would always be difficult to bring about change but that it can happen if we believe."

Image source: Wikimedia Commons and DenkProducties Flickr page.


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