Besides being former first lady, Michelle Obama is a beloved figure in her own right, a mega-bestselling author, star of a documentary and a hugely effective public speaker who can rival her orator husband. So it's no surprise that the all-online Democratic National Convention accorded her the top speaking spot on opening night.
In return, she provided a speech that was highly effective, compelling, and drew on singular emotional intelligence to drive home her points. Here's a look at how she did it.
1. She stayed away from personal attacks.
As you might expect, a lot of harsh things were said about president Donald Trump throughout the evening. Obama's comments, by contrast, were very measured and almost none of her criticisms were directed at Trump by name. She talked about chaos and a lack of leadership, but said they were coming from the White House, rather than Trump personally.
When she did mention Trump by name, after relating her observations about just how challenging it is to be president of the United States, she merely said that he was not up to the job. "He simply cannot be who we need him to be for us." Then she added, "It is what it is," -- a sly reference to Trump's infamous comment about the U.S. daily death toll from Covid-19.
2. She talked about empathy.
Empathy is the cornerstone of emotional intelligence, and Obama said in her speech it was something she'd been thinking about a lot lately. "The ability to walk in someone else's shoes; the recognition that someone else's experience has value, too. Most of us practice this without a second thought," she said. And, she added, most of us teach it to our children, too.
"But right now, kids in this country are seeing what happens when we stop requiring empathy of one another," she continued. "They see people shouting in grocery stores, unwilling to wear a mask to keep us all safe. They see people calling the police on folks minding their own business just because of the color of their skin. They see an entitlement that says only certain people belong here, that greed is good, and winning is everything because as long as you come out on top, it doesn't matter what happens to everyone else." Again, it was a masterful way to call out behavior she finds objectionable without pinning a specific criticism on any individual, not even Trump.
3. She opted for hope and praised the viewers.
You can pretty much never go wrong praising the people who are listening to your speech, and Obama did just that. So after talking about everything that seems wrong in America right now, she also talked about "the grace that is out there in households and neighborhoods all across this nation."
Toward the end of her speech, she also praised Americans for the sacrifices they'd made to fight the pandemic, do their jobs, and care for their families. "Even when you're exhausted, you're mustering up unimaginable courage to put on those scrubs and give our loved ones a fighting chance. Even when you're anxious, you're delivering those packages, stocking those shelves, and doing all that essential work so that all of us can keep moving forward. Even when it all feels so overwhelming, working parents are somehow piecing it all together without child care. Teachers are getting creative so that our kids can still learn and grow."
Because, she said, "This is who we still are: compassionate, resilient, decent people whose fortunes are bound up with one another."
4. She gave a very precise call to action (and backed it up with neckwear).
Every great speech should leave the audience fired up to go out and do...something. And Obama had a very specific something in mind -- to get out and vote for Joe Biden. In a speech that cited a fairly modest number of statistics, she made one stand out: In one of the states that decided the 2016 election Trump won only by an average two votes per precinct.
And so, she said, "We've got to request our mail-in ballots right now, tonight, and send them back immediately and follow-up to make sure they're received. And then, make sure our friends and families do the same. We have got to grab our comfortable shoes, put on our masks, pack a brown bag dinner and maybe breakfast too, because we've got to be willing to stand in line all night if we have to." To reinforce her call to action, she wore a custom-made gold necklace that spelled out the word "VOTE."
"It is up to us to add our voices and our votes to the course of history," she said, toward the end of the speech. "That is the truest form of empathy: not just feeling, but doing; not just for ourselves or our kids, but for everyone, for all our kids."
Voting as the truest form of empathy? Now there's a pretty powerful argument.