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How Michelle Obama makes a speech in front of 20,000 people feel like an intimate conversation

Michelle Obama’s superpower is her ability to create intimacy at scale.

Michelle Obama Discusses Her New Book ‘Becoming’ With Sarah Jessica Parker
Michelle Obama at the Barclays Center in New York City.
Dia Dipasupil/Getty Images
Constance Grady is a senior correspondent on the Culture team for Vox, where since 2016 she has covered books, publishing, gender, celebrity analysis, and theater.

In Brooklyn’s Barclays Center a few days before Christmas, Michelle Obama invited more than 19,000 of her closest friends to join her for what was billed as “an intimate conversation.” It was the final stop of the first leg of the national tour she’s traveling on to promote her memoir, Becoming (demand for tickets was so high that the tour will pick up again in February and continue into May) — and the crowd was so large that for all intents and purposes, the line to get inside began at the steps to exit the Atlantic Avenue-Barclays Center subway stop. For a full block around the stadium, the air was electric with anticipation of a close encounter with the former first lady.

“I’m excited to see Michelle Obama in a more personal light. I haven’t read her book yet, but I’ve heard great things about it, and that she really goes in depth into her experience in being in the White House and watching the girls get raised in the White House,” said Carina Baker, waiting in line to approach a security checkpoint. “And also just this perspective of a black woman who got to hold office in the highest position in our country.”

“She’s one of my few female heroes, or just heroes overall, along with Oprah,” said Lyndora, who preferred not to give her last name. She added that her 8-year-old daughter wanted to come along to see Obama as well. “She’s at home in tears right now, but —” Lyndora addressed her absent daughter — “when Auntie Mo comes back to Brooklyn I’ll be sure to take you!”

The idea of Michelle Obama as a kind of universal aunt, the mom-in-chief, is an immensely powerful one, and it’s a key part of her image. It’s also what has allowed her to embark on a national arena tour and call it an “intimate conversation” — because the astonishing thing is, she pretty much pulls it off. Every seat in every tier at the Barclays Center was full, but nevertheless, Obama radiated warmth and charm. That’s one reason why she was such a beloved first lady, and it’s integral to the image she’s continuing to sell as she moves into the next phase of her public life: It’s intimacy, at scale.

The size and scope of Michelle Obama’s book tour is basically unprecedented

Michelle Obama Discusses Her New Book ‘Becoming’ With Sarah Jessica Parker
The view from the back of the Barclays Center on Michelle Obama’s book tour. Keep in mind there are several tiers of seats above this.
Dia Dipasupil/Getty Images

Most book tours are not like Michelle Obama’s book tour. Most book tours involve some readings at various Barnes & Nobles, maybe a stop at a speaking hall like New York’s 92nd Street Y or a major indie bookstore like Denver’s Tattered Cover. As the New York Times pointed out earlier this year, even celebrity authors like the late Anthony Bourdain or Hillary Clinton tend to max out at venues much smaller than the Barclays Center, with capacities of two or three thousand.

All 10 of the stops Obama made during the first leg of her tour were at arenas, with seating capacities hovering around 20 thousand. The whole thing was managed by the same company that promotes Beyoncé’s concert tours. Ticket prices were as high as $3,000 (for a front-row seat, with a meet-and-greet package included), and in the gift shop, you could spend $65 on a T-shirt printed with quotes from Becoming, or $35 on a “Find Your Flame” candle. (My own ticket was a free press pass.)

The high ticket prices and the merchandise don’t mean that the tour is inaccessible to all but those with cash readily available, though; if it were, it wouldn’t align with the Michelle Obama brand of universal intimacy, which requires accessibility. To that end, a spokesperson for Obama told the New York Times that 10 percent of the tickets for each stop were free, distributed to charities, schools and community groups in each city; a Girl Scout troop was in attendance at the Barclays Center appearance.

All of which is to say that the audience at the Barclays Center was packed with tens of thousands of people who had either shelled out good money or had won the proverbial ticket lottery to feel a personal connection to Michelle Obama. And she seemed well aware of that fact.

Michelle Obama is so charismatic that she really can make a speech in an arena tour feel intimate and vulnerable

Donald Trump Is Sworn In As 45th President Of The United States
The Obamas prepare to leave Washington at the inauguration of Donald Trump in 2017. Michelle Obama says she wept once she was on the plane.
Photo by Jack Gruber-Pool/Getty Images

“Can you give me a rough estimate of how many people you’ve hugged just on this tour?” asked Sarah Jessica Parker, whose onstage conversation with Obama was the main attraction of the evening.

“It’s more than a thousand people, I know for sure,” said Obama.

But she didn’t mind doing it, she said, turning to address the audience. “This end of the tour, this leg, it’s just to thank you all.”

The tour isn’t only a thank you, though. It is also serving to announce the entrance of the new Michelle Obama into public life, a Michelle Obama who had been freed from the strictures of the White House.

During her time as first lady, Obama said, she had felt obligated not to let the country see her vulnerabilities. “When you’re the president and the first lady, your job is not to nurture yourself,” she said. “There’s a lot of stuff I would have easily shared, but you don’t want the country to have to worry about us going to marriage counseling, for example. It wasn’t about us. For those eight years, it was about the service to the country.”

But now that she’s out of office, things are different. “Protocol’s gone out the window, y’all!” she crowed, to cheers and laughter.

It was because protocol was out the window that Obama was able to write in Becoming about the marriage counseling she and her husband attended after their children were born, and about the miscarriages she suffered and fertility treatments she received before then. In her book — and now on her book tour — she’s been able to get very, very personal with her base in a way that she couldn’t as first lady, but which feels like the way she always wanted to talk to us. After all, she’s our universal aunt.

Even her outfit at the Barclays Center — a yellow satin gown and bold, glittery thigh-high Balenciaga boots — suggested a new version of Obama, one we’d never seen before. This was a woman who finally had the space to be daring with her fashion, not a political wife whose choices were so heavily scrutinized for respectability that she made headlines when she opted to go with a bare leg rather than pantyhose.

But the new Michelle Obama, like the old Michelle Obama, is still immensely charismatic and candid with her audience. It’s just that now, she is also willing to be vulnerable, where before, she felt she had to present as perfect.

“Barack and I spent eight years trying to operate in complete perfection because we didn’t feel like we had a margin for error,” she said. “Which we were used to, because oftentimes when you’re the first or the only, the bar shifts a lot. The bar gets set, you meet it, you exceed it, they move the bar.”

She didn’t fully realize how strenuous and tiring her eight years as first lady had been, she said, until she got on Air Force One to leave the White House after Donald Trump’s inauguration in 2016. “By the time we got on that plane and closed the door, I wept,” she said. “I told Barack, ‘That was so hard. What we did, and how we had to do it, was so hard.’”

Michelle Obama is preparing her base for a candidate who hasn’t been chosen yet

Michelle Obama Discusses Her New Book ‘Becoming’ With Sarah Jessica Parker
Michelle Obama with Sarah Jessica Parker at the Barclays Center.
Dia Dipasupil/Getty Images

Michelle Obama’s ability to create intimacy at scale can translate to concrete money. It can mean book sales, ticket sales, merchandise sales. (We don’t know how much she’s made from her tour, but we do know that she and her husband received a combined advance of $65 million for their joint book deal.) But the goal of this tour is not only to cash in on her hardwon popularity.

Instead, Obama seems to be stumping for an election that hasn’t officially started yet. She’s reminding people that there is an alternative to Donald Trump, even if the Democratic Party hasn’t quite decided on who that alternative is yet. And she’s priming her base to fight for whoever that candidate is.

“We miss a more civilized time. We miss grace and dignity,” Parker said at the Barclays Center tour stop. “I think we feel a bit adrift, because it’s what we expect of the office.”

“Well, we have to demand it,” said Obama. “It exists in us. That grace is there. You don’t just lose it in a couple of years. It’s there, but it can be buried by fear and doubt and hate and greed. It’s up to each of us.”

Her voice warmed, and she seemed to switch seamlessly into the mode of a campaign speech. “Because I’ve seen this country,” she went on. “I’ve seen it in its glory and in its grace, and I know it’s out there. But hope isn’t a passive word. It doesn’t just happen. You have to actively work for hope.”

“Can’t hope be unearthed on election night?” ventured Parker.

If people vote!” Obama proclaimed. The crowd applauded wildly.

It was the kind of moment that might have felt overwrought or hokey in less capable hands. But because Obama had spent the night being vulnerable in front of an audience, delving frankly into the problems she’s had with her marriage and parenthood and ambitions, she had earned the freedom to let her rhetoric get heightened and abstract. She effectively grounded the conversation in an emotional connection, which meant that when she started to talk about patriotism and American values, she still felt genuine.

In other words, Michelle Obama can get so vulnerable in public that she makes her fans feel as though, by sitting in an arena with 20,000 other people, they have had an intimate conversation with her. And then she can channel that intimacy into political energy.

That’s what is currently making Michelle Obama an extremely lucrative brand name — and what can also make her a formidable political influencer as we move closer and closer to the 2020 election.