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What You Can Learn About Communication From Obama’s Speechwriters

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In a talk at this year’s SXSW, Obama’s speechwriters, Sarada Peri and Andy Barr, shared their top tips on how to communicate more convincingly. Their talk, titled “We Help Politicians Persuade. We’ll Help You, Too”, was full of ideas that could be used for presentations, pitches, articles, or your next conference meeting. Here are their main points that will help you capture your audience’s attention and create some excitement with your next talk. 

What Is The One Thing You Are Trying To Say?

It’s hard to condense a talk to one central idea. However, if you manage it, you give your audience something to walk away with and to think about for minutes, hours, even days to come. Most people find it hard to remember more than three points from a talk, which is why successful TED talks have only one idea that an expert explores in detail. This idea is usually reflected in the title, which means it’s an idea that can be condensed into a single sentence. Examples include:

  • How to train employees to have difficult conversations 
  • What we can do about the culture of hate 
  • Can trees heal people 

The title sets up a dilemma or poses a question that the audience wants an answer to. 

The Christmas Tree Problem

An issue with many presentations and talks is what Sarada Peri calls “The Christmas Tree Problem.” You might have one central idea, but you are trying to fit more and more arguments onto that idea, Peri explains.

Suddenly there are more and more ornaments on the tree and then it collapses from its own weight. The Christmas tree problem is real, especially if you don’t have the control over the whole process.

To protect the tree from its own weight, you need to decide if an idea really helps your argument. Peri suggests cutting everything out that doesn’t add to your one central argument. This can be tough, plenty of ideas may be interesting, but you want to keep your audience focused.

How To Use Storytelling To Persuade Your Audience 

“The basis of persuasion is storytelling,” explains Peri. Stories help build empathy and provide new perspectives, and therefore they drive change.

A talk, however, should always be more than a narration of a personal story. Personal experience can be a starting point but has to connect to a more universal story later on that moves beyond the speaker’s singular experience. In the best case, this story is relevant today. When hearing a talk or presentation, we might subconsciously ask: Why now? 

Peri tells us that all successful speeches consist of three main components, which were outlined by Harvard professor and architect of Obama’s field campaign Marshall Ganz. In his article „What Is Public Narrative: Self, Us, Now“ he lists the three components of a public story: “Story of Self,” a “Story of Us,” and a “Story of Now.” A “Story of Self” should be a personal narrative. Good narratives are about decisions and the values that have led to these decisions. “A Story of Us” takes this personal narrative and personal values and applies them to society. Explaining the “Story of Us,” Peri says, “Obama was never the protagonist in his speeches. The protagonist was America”. Obama drew his audience in with the personal, but then he managed to connect his personal experiences to those of his audience. Most people can imagine having a drink and a chat with Obama. That is because he built empathy and a rapport with his audience. Once he’d done that, the audience trusted him to expand to his “Story of Us,” and finally to his “Story of Now.” The “Story of Now” illustrates why the topic is relevant today. It answers the questions, why now? What are the circumstances that make this idea pressing? Why is it relevant? Why should this audience care? 

Starting with a “Story of Self”, then transitioning to a “Story of Us”, and last to a “Story of Now” is the key structure of every political speech, explains Peri. And it can also be the structure of a talk or presentation.

Creating A Context

Presentations are most convincing when they illustrate abstract connections rather than simply presenting facts of data. Again, think about the empathy you are trying to generate and the points of view you are putting forward. No one empathizes with a pie chart. Peri explains, 

Numbers don’t mean anything. Rather talk about the individual people that are affected. Numbers are never as important as the story of a single person.

In his book TED Talks: The Official Guide to Public Speaking, Chris Anderson offers similar advice. He refers to the power of metaphors. Metaphors offer those abstract connections that are so important, often simplifying complex relationships. Anderson quotes a popular TED talk by Harvard professor Dan Gilbert on “The Surprising Science of Happiness”. In his talk, Gilbert refers to a metaphorical “psychological immune system” in order to illustrate that our mental health should be cared for just like our physical health. With the idea of this “immune system,” he is able to take an established and well-understood concept and apply it in a new context.  

Ideas Vs. Ego

The idea central to Peri and Barr’s talks at SXSW, and to Chris Anderson’s book, is that presentations are about ideas, not egos. Even if a talk is about a personal story, it should do more than just promote yourself, your product, or your company. This applies even to sales pitches. Anderson writes, 

The key principle is to remember that the speaker’s job is to give to the audience, not to take from them. (Even in a business context where you’re genuinely making a sales pitch, your goal should be to give. The most effective salespeople put themselves into their listeners’ shoes and imagine how to best serve their needs.)

Good speech writing involves building trust. The best way to do this is to think about what it is that you can offer to your audience. What idea can you share, what question can you answer that is relevant to them. Try it at your next company presentation or conference talk and see how it goes!


Welche Story erzählen Sie 2021? Von ihrem Unternehmen, ihrem Team, von sich selbst? 

In den USA habe ich gelernt: Wer eine gute Geschichte erzählen kann, kann die Welt verändern. Storytelling ist eine Superpower, die jeder nutzen kann – im Business und im Leben. Das Know-How aus dem Silicon Valley, von Netflix und Obamas Redenschreibern bringen wir jetzt mit unserer Big Picture Group nach Europa. 

Sie wollen Ihre Brand-Story neu entwickeln? Oder brauchen eine neue Story für die Geschäftsführung? Fragen Sie uns an! Sie erreichen uns per Mail unter:

Becks Vogels

Becks Vogels ist Autorin, Unternehmerin und Keynote-Speakerin. Sie hat in den USA gelernt, welche Rolle Storytelling spielen kann – für Menschen und Unternehmen.


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