Say It Like Obama: The Power of Speaking with Purpose and Vision - Shel Leanne (2009)
"Absolutely masterful. He's a master of the craft."
Those words have described the oratorical strength of Barack Obama, who took the stage at the 2004 Democratic National Convention and electrified America with a rousing keynote address. His twenty-minute speech—less than 2,300 words—captured the imaginations of Americans and garnered praise from around the world. Obama successfully drove his points home, fused the best of rhetoric and substance, focused on a powerful message, and delivered it with great effectiveness. His words and vision inspired millions of viewers. The media instantly dubbed Obama a "Rising Star" and the stirring keynote delivery greatly accelerated the trajectory of his career, transforming him overnight into a distinguished national political figure. Obama went on to successfully build one of the most diverse political movements in American history, shattering historic barriers and becoming the presumptive 2008 Democratic presidential nominee. Few things have helped fuel Obama's rapid political ascension more than his outstanding communication skills.
Say it Like Obama focuses on the communicative power of Barack Obama and the practices and techniques that have enabled him to take his place as one of the most notable orators of recent times. Obama's political successes underscore a well-established fact: Leaders in all fields benefit when they develop outstanding communication skills, because the ability to convey vision, inspire confidence, persuade, and motivate others is key to effective leadership.
The words used to describe Obama's style—charismatic, magnetic, energizing—speak to his strength as a communicator. So, too, do the adjectives invoked to characterize his speeches: eloquent, inspiring, compelling. Many observers consider Obama such an accomplished speaker that they compare him with the great communicators of our era—Martin Luther King Jr., John F. Kennedy, Robert Kennedy, Bill Clinton, and Ronald Reagan. Even overseas, Obama's talents and vision have generated excitement. In June 2008, The Times reported that Europeans are deeply attracted to Obama's "mixture of Martin Luther King and John F. Kennedy." It observed that, "waves of euphoria swept across the Atlantic … after Mr. Obama's victory in the Democratic primary."i This enthusiasm was highly evident in July 2008, when Obama attracted an audience of 200,000 for a single speech in Berlin, Germany.
What is Barack Obama doing? What communication practices have enabled him to move rapidly from obscurity, overcoming challenges that could have thwarted another candidate—his race, his youth, his "exotic" name—to become one of the most important figures in the Democratic Party? What oratory skills account for his ability to bring such disparate segments of society together, "transcending" race, energizing millennials (Generation Y voters), and inspiring newcomers—young and old—to participate in the electoral process? How does Obama manage to break down so many barriers? How does he connect so well with listeners, moving them on both an emotional and intellectual level as he translates his vision into the impulse to act? What can leaders in all arenas—business, politics, law, nonprofit and academia—learn from him?
Regardless of what you think of his politics, Obama's achievements since the 2004 Democratic National Convention are striking. Four short years after his keynote address, the first-term junior U.S. Senator who ranked toward the very bottom in Senate seniority went up against the "Clinton machine" in an improbable quest for the Democratic presidential nomination. Obama stepped into a significant place in history when he passed the critical 2118 delegate threshold to become the presumptive Democratic presidential nominee, the first African American major party nominee for U.S. president. It was a historic victory, a watershed moment, one many people believed unthinkable during their lifetimes. Significantly, Obama will accept the Democratic presidential nomination on August 28, 2008, only forty-five years from the very day that Martin Luther King Jr. stood on the Lincoln Memorial and delivered his iconic "I Have a Dream" speech. As the late commentator Tim Russert aptly observed on June 3, 2008: "When you sit and reflect just for a … second about what we are witnessing—this young 46-year-old African American man, now the nominee of the Democratic Party. Just put that in the context of our nation and the whole issue of race—it's breathtaking."
Underpinning these notable achievements are Obama's communication abilities. His outstanding oration has helped set in motion a so-called "phenomenon," with Obama's American rallies attracting audiences as large as 75,000.iiObservers—noting Obama's accomplishment in expanding the electoral base in an unprecedented manner—have called his effort more than a campaign; they deem it a "movement." With a donor base of nearly 2 million, more individuals are believed to have contributed to Obama's campaign than to any other presidential candidate in American history. In light of Obama's influence and momentum, heavy hitters of the Democratic establishment—Bill Richardson, Edward Kennedy, John Kerry, and John Edwards—were inspired to by-pass long-term loyalties and endorse Obama for president over Hillary Clinton. Given his popularity, Obama has even affected popular parlance with newly minted words and phrases: Obama Mamas, Obamacans, Obamacize, Obamanomics, Obamamentum, Obamamania.
Many people credit Obama's astonishing success to his powerful messages of hope that transcend traditional divisions of party, economics, gender, religion, region, and race. Indeed, his speech themes appeal to significant numbers of people. Consider some of the themes: Change That Works for You, Forging a New Future for America, A More Perfect Union, Keeping America's Promise, Reclaiming the American Dream, Our Moment is Now, Change We Can Believe In, A New Beginning, Our Common Stake in America's Prosperity, A Sacred Trust, An Honest Government, A Hopeful Future, Take Back America.
Given the strength of Obama's message, Governor Bill Richardson called Obama's candidacy a "once in a lifetime opportunity for our country" and referred to Obama as "a once in a lifetime leader." Caroline Kennedy concurred in her January 27, 2008 New York Times article entitled "A President Like My Father:"
Over the years, I've been deeply moved by the people who've told me they wished they could feel inspired and hopeful about America the way people did when my father was president. … All my life, people have told me that my father changed their lives, that they got involved in public service or politics because he asked them to. And the generation he inspired has passed that spirit on to its children. I meet young people who were born long after John F. Kennedy was president, yet who ask me how to live out his ideals.
Sometimes it takes a while to recognize that someone has a special ability to get us to believe in ourselves, to tie that belief to our highest ideals and imagine that together we can do great things. In those rare moments, when such a person comes along, we need to put aside our plans and reach for what we know is possible.
We have that kind of opportunity with Senator Obama.
But there have been other advocates for the middle class and the poor. There have been other leaders with impressive personal stories. There have also been other leaders who have spoken words of unity, goodwill, and hope. What makes Obama so compelling? Why does his message resonate so powerfully? It is more than the message: it is also how the message is delivered. This is acknowledged even from across the political aisle. As Louisiana's Republican Governor Bobby Jindal commented on August 10, 2008, "Senator Obama is one of the best speakers—one of the most inspiring speakers—I've seen in a political generation. You have to go back to President Ronald Reagan to really see somebody who's that articulate." Jindal noted that through excellent communication, Obama greatly inspires and motivates people.iii
The sources of Obama's oratory strength are many. The natural resonance of Obama's deep baritone is an asset. Buttressing this is his impressive ability to control his voice, which he wields like a fine-tuned instrument. He has shown he can alter the texture of his tone to become wistful, indignant, pulsing with optimism and determination—whatever the delivery requires. He has shown skill in quickening his cadence, slowing it down, amplifying the wind beneath his words, and allowing his voice to trail when it suits his needs. He has a keen awareness of when to employ pregnant pauses, metered just right—the intervals long enough to drive points home. He is excellent at creating dynamic images and moving people with effective gestures, sometimes with just one finger. He knows how to draw on an impressive range of rhetoric, and utilizes techniques such as repetition, backward loops, and symbolism to make his pronouncements influence and endure.
Obama knows it isn't enough to form a vision or set goals—success requires an ability to articulate vision and goals in a highly compelling manner. In accounting for Obama's oratorical strength, substance cannot be divorced from style of delivery. Say it Like Obama examines the lessons to be learned from the excellent communication practices that have helped bring about Obama's successes. It illuminates how leaders in all fields—business, politics, law, nonprofit and academia—can draw from those best practices in order to develop excellent communication abilities.
Chapter 1 presents and annotates the full text of Barack Obama's 2004 Democratic Convention keynote address—the speech that started it all. An examination of this speech reveals many of the key practices Obama employs that give him such distinguished communicative power. Each subsequent chapter delves more deeply into the communication and leadership lessons that we can learn, exploring a variety of Obama's public pronouncements.
Chapter 2, "Earning Trust and Confidence," examines practices that have enabled Obama to inspire and motivate so many people so quickly, winning over many skeptics with his charisma. His success illustrates the importance of a strong first impression and how leveraging an excellent second impression helps foster trust and confidence. We'll look at how his exemplary use of nonverbal language as well as his ability to layer meaning beneath his words work together for striking results.
Chapter 3, "Breaking Down Barriers," explores Obama's exceptional skill in using oration to unify disparate groups. His forthrightness in acknowledging his unconventional background, combined with his skill in projecting this background as "quintessentially American" and his ability to establish common ground, are assets. Reinforcing this, Obama's ability to employ words that resonate has helped him build bridges, drawing out what brings people together rather than what sets them apart.
Chapter 4, "Winning Hearts and Minds," examines the best practices that have helped Barack Obama elicit reactions such as, "His words moved me," and "He understands." His speeches are far from mere recitations—he has demonstrated a remarkable ability to connect with listeners. Key has been his talent for knowing his audiences and identifying the issues they most care about. We'll discuss how he has been able to speak to those issues and how he has succeeded in communicating his empathy and personalizing his messages. What are the techniques behind his style that make the podium and lectern disappear, creating a sense of dinner table talk, as if you are speaking to him one-to-one? We will learn.
Chapter 5, "Conveying Vision," explores practices that have enabled Barack Obama to get his point across so effectively. It studies the lessons to be learned from his skill in using descriptive, multidimensional words, rich with corollary meaning. His ability to humanize ideas, themes and emotions, to employ backward loops and to recount effective anecdotes distinguish him as a speaker, as do the ways he crystallizes his points so that they're remembered long after he has delivered a speech.
Chapter 6, "Driving Points Home," delves into techniques Obama employs to distill his main issues, making them dominant in the listener's mind. Despite significant time constraints—many of his speeches are only twenty minutes long—Obama speaks very effectively, employing an impressive range of rhetorical techniques to convey powerful messages. Among these techniques are conduplicatio, anaphora, epistrophe, mesodiplosis, alliteration, and tricolon. Fancy names, remarkable impact. We show how these techniques allow Obama to hone in on key thematic ideas. We also explore how Obama communicates takeaways and slogans with such great effectiveness that many people can recite those slogans with ease.
Chapter 7, "Persuading," explores lessons to be learned about the practices Obama uses to bring others to his way of thinking. When seeking to do more than convey information, but also to impact opinion and encourage action, Obama pays particular attention to emphasizing a strong sense of logic, sequencing ideas, and addressing non-rhetorical questions. Particularly notable is his use of juxtaposition and the antithesis structure as hallmarks of his persuasion style, comparing and contrasting ideas excellently. Together, these techniques help him to elicit a "yes" response—the nod of affirmation of the persuaded listener.
Chapter 8, "Facing and Overcoming Controversy," takes a look at how Barack Obama uses his strong communication skills to weather and survive controversy, often defusing it and mitigating any damaging effects. Whether addressing a poor choice of words or dousing the fire set by the incendiary remarks of Reverend Jeremiah Wright, we see how Obama's communication practices have aided him in efforts to face and overcome controversies. His sincerity, as well as his tendency to address errors head-on and to accept responsibility while standing strong in his beliefs, offer many lessons.
Finally, Chapter 9, "Motivating Others to Action and Leaving Strong Last Impressions," explores the communication practices that have helped Obama motivate people to take action. It delves into the tools Obama uses to convey a sense of momentum and build a sense of urgency, while adopting a communication style that makes him seem more accessible to the audience, as if speaking one-to-one. It also explores how Barack Obama's communication style enables him to build to a crescendo, underscoring memorable takeaways and ending strong.
We have much to learn from these practices that, together, have helped make Barack Obama one of the most outstanding communicators of recent times.