Three Lessons from Michelle Obama about Finding Your Voice
Michelle Obama’s memoir, Becoming, is not only a candid look at her journey from a cramped South Side apartment in Chicago to her position on the world stage today, it’s also full of lessons that anyone can learn from — like how to speak powerfully in public and express yourself honestly. Read on for some advice from the former First Lady.
By Dana Rubin
Michelle Obama’s memoir Becoming quickly made headlines for revelations about her infertility treatments and unfiltered comments about Donald Trump. But I see another story that will endure now that those headlines have faded: a woman who struggled and succeeded at finding her voice.
“If there’s one thing I’ve learned in life,” she writes, “it’s the power of using your voice.”
The memoir details Obama’s remarkable journey from a cautious, self-conscious girl from a working class neighborhood in Chicago to one of the most admired women in the world. One theme she returns to again and again is her desire to speak powerfully in public and express herself honestly.
And who among us doesn’t want to do that? Fortunately, Obama’s memoir gives us plenty of lessons to learn from.
First, get help
In the early days of her husband’s presidential campaign, for the first time in her life, Obama was expected to do a fair amount of public speaking. She spoke in living rooms, bookstores, union halls, and retirement homes, “energizing volunteers, and trying to win over leaders in the community.”
But she never got any guidance. “What they didn’t tell me was what my message in Iowa was supposed to be,” she writes. “I was given no script, no talking points, no advice.”
After her husband’s victory in Iowa, the crowds got bigger and the stakes got higher.
She describes her anguish when a line she tossed out while campaigning in Wisconsin — “…let me tell you something, for the first time in my adult lifetime, I’m really proud of my country” — became fodder for conservative radio and television talk shows.
That led to an surprise intervention with advisors Valerie Jarrett and David Axelrod, who sat her down and showed her videos of some of her public appearances with the volume turned down. That way she was able to focus on some less than flattering facial expressions that she would need to control.
This was a turning point. Afterwards, Obama insisted on getting support in the form of a communication specialist to help sharpen her message and delivery. In time, that helped her feel “a new ease, a new ownership of my voice.”
Like Obama, you don’t have to go it alone. Sign up for a workshop or program. Get a coach. Join a local chapter of Toastmasters or the National Speakers Association. No matter what our experience level, there’s always room to improve. Help is within reach.
Next, get ready
Obama makes it clear that even in childhood she was hyper-organized and prepared — which is an asset when it comes to public speaking.
For her 17-minute speech at the Democratic National Convention in 2008, she “rehearsed and re-rehearsed until I could pace the commas in my sleep…”
She found huge comfort in preparation. A teleprompter was set up in a corner of her office in the East Wing of the White House, and she used it. She also pushed her scheduler and advance teams to make sure every detail of her public appearances went smoothly and on time.
The truth is, rehearsing for a speaking event can be uncomfortable, in fact downright stressful. But the single biggest mistake speakers make is to wait until the last minute, or wing it.
Put aside excuses not to prepare and commit to putting in the time until you feel comfortable and confident about your delivery. Enlist a friend to rehearse with, or record yourself on your smartphone. You’ll probably see ways to improve, like Obama did.
Lastly, get real
The deeper Obama got into the experience of being First Lady, the more she felt comfortable just being herself. That brought a consistency to her communication style — whether she was speaking to college graduates, the homeless, hip-hop stars or massive, prime time audiences.
She writes that she established a strict code for herself “to only say what I absolutely believed and what I absolutely felt.” Over time, she began to feel urgency about not wasting the precious opportunity she’d been given to speak out — so she made the most of it, with lasting resonance.
Stumping for Hillary Clinton at the Democratic convention in Philadelphia in 2016, she wanted to deliver the message that “words matter.” She will forever be remembered for her eloquent call that night for civility in public discourse: “When they go low, we go high.”
Reading Obama’s memoir, you get the feeling she has a lot more to say. As she promotes her book and speaks to packed arenas around the country, she knows girls and women around the world will be watching and listening carefully. I hope she inspires more of them to step up and speak out.
What motivates you to use your voice? What issues do you care enough about to champion in public? Define your core beliefs and the causes you care about, and learn to speak about them persuasively. That’s power.
Dana Rubin is the CEO of VizibilityLab, a consultancy that develops female talent to be visible and influential thought leaders.