Michelle Obama's "Show Don't Tell" Master Class
Whatever your politics, it's kind of impossible to argue that Michelle Obama didn't give a fantastic speech at Monday night's Democratic Convention. It was a master class on that favorite writing mantra: show don't tell.
The first lady didn't start her speech by telling people her opinion on what is wrong with America or what is right with it. She didn't quote somebody else's idea as a springboard to launch into her own political philosophies. Instead, she told a story with which every parent, arguably every person, can relate. She recounted seeing her small children get into a vehicle with large secret service men and feeling the weight of her choices. Okay. Most people have never watched their children get into a vehicle with trained assassins. But, most parents have looked at the small person that they have created and felt nearly paralyzed by responsibility and the knowledge that our good days, our bad days and all of our choices impact our children. And, I'd argue, most people without children have looked at a spouse, a friend, a niece or nephew, a parent, a coworker, a patient, a neighbor and also felt that way. We all have had times where we've become aware of how our present actions will indelibly mark our future and future generations.
Instead of demanding that her audience reflect on the future impact of their decisions, Michelle Obama told a story that encouraged everyone watching to consider how their upcoming vote will reverberate in the future. Then, after priming the audience to think about future generations and, if applicable, their own children, she talked about the ideals she personally wanted to impart to her kids. She wanted her kids to be respectful, to shun bullies, to disregard mocking and be the best people they can be. "To go high when other people go low." Who hasn't shared a similar message with their children, friends, nephews, nieces, etc.? Who hasn't had that message shared with them and found it to be inspiring?
By telling a story about her own children and the future she wanted for them, she encouraged her audience to think about how much the future they want for future generations is the same as the one she laid out. She did this by painting a picture with her history, not just with her ideas.
As a writer, when I sit down to a blank screen, I must remember to tell a story that gets my ideas across and not have my character blather on about his or her opinions. And I appreciate that Michelle Obama and her speech writer Sarah Hurwitz reminded me last night how to do this well.