8 Writing Lessons from the FLOTUS

“How we urged them to ignore those who question their father’s citizenship or faith. How we insist that the hateful language they hear from public figures on TV does not represent the true spirit of this country. How we explain that when someone is cruel or acts like a bully, you don’t stoop to their level.”

Lesson four: Unleash the power of three. Notice how often the speaker relies upon a pattern of three to make her point. This is one of the oldest tricks in the orator’s book. In literature, three is always the largest number. “Of the people, by the people, for the people.” Four examples or 40 become an inventory. Three encompasses the world, creating the illusion we know everything we need to know.

“Our motto is, when they go low, we go high.”

Lesson five: Express your best thought in a short sentence. This is one of the best lines in the speech for a number of reasons. It’s a short sentence, only seven words. Each word is a single syllable. There is parallelism between “they go low” and “we go high,” emphasized by the repetition of the word “go.” The sentence is complex, that is, it begins with a subordinate clause “When they go low,” which describes the opponent’s weak move, followed by a main clause that gives greater weight to the speaker’s values.

“Kids like the little black boy who looked up at my husband, his eyes wide with hope, and he wondered, Is my hair like yours?”

Lesson six: Find a focus. Stick with it. In the story “The Lottery,” by Shirley Jackson, the winner of the town’s annual lottery gets stoned to death. It is a surprise ending, but there are several mentions of the word ‘stones’ as foreshadowing — never “rocks.”

If I had to choose one word to describe the speech, it would be “kids.” It is repeated five times on a single page. She also uses words like children, sons and daughters, but the informality of kids draws you in: “So, how are the kids?” There is a significant literature in African-American culture about the issue, the problem, the glory of hair. Of “good” hair, and “bad” hair. It feels almost daring for Michelle Obama to refer to this incident, to turn a taboo into a parable and a blessing.

See Roy Peter Clark’s full piece at Poynter here.

See Mrs. Obama’s speech here or below.

Thanks, Ed!

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