Say It Like Obama: The Power of Speaking with Purpose and Vision - Shel Leanne (2009)
Chapter 9. MOTIVATING OTHERS TO ACTION AND LEAVING STRONG LAST IMPRESSIONS
Strong finishes are indispensable for communicating messages that impact listeners and endure in their minds. Ideally, during their remarks leaders will convey their visions and points effectively enough to successfully achieve the goal of their talk. Ideally also, when delivering closing remarks, leaders will succeed in motivating their listeners, wielding a strong impact and leaving a strong last impression. Barack Obama has shown considerable skill in ending his speeches and public remarks with great power and efficacy. Just as a strong start helps to capture attention and engage and direct a listener, an excellent end to a set of remarks leaves listeners with a positive impression that can influence their subsequent opinions, choices, and actions. With his strong concluding comments, Obama inspires listeners, helps build momentum, creates a sense of importance and urgency to future actions, and at times directs listeners toward "low-lying fruit"—the small actions they can take immediately to help a cause. By the time Obama finishes speaking, he has built to a crescendo, and he leaves on that high. Below, we glean some lessons from the practices that have enabled Obama to end strong and that have helped inspire not just a campaign, but his "movement."
INSPIRING OTHERS TO GREAT ACHIEVEMENTS
As Obama ends his talks "strong," he often employs words that set forth great aspirations, inspiring and motivating his listeners. Several types of language fulfill this task. Sometimes the words are simply eloquent. Other times the language incorporates patriotic words, cherished principles, or biblical truths. Most of the time, the words evoke an emotional reaction. Consider this example.
It is the light of opportunity that led my father across an ocean.
It is the founding ideals that the flag draped over my grandfather's coffin stands for—it is life, and liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.
It's the simple truth I learned all those years ago when I worked in the shadows of a shuttered steel mill on the South Side of Chicago—that in this country, justice can be won against the greatest of odds; hope can find its way back to the darkest of corners; and when we are told that we cannot bring about the change that we seek, we answer with one voice—yes we can.
So don't ever forget that this election is not about me, or any candidate. Don't ever forget that this campaign is about you—about your hopes, about your dreams, about your struggles, about securing your portion of the American Dream.
Don't ever forget that we have a choice in this country—that we can choose not to be divided; that we can choose not to be afraid; that we can still choose this moment to finally come together and solve the problems we've talked about all those other years in all those other elections.
This time can be different than all the rest. This time we can face down those who say our road is too long; that our climb is too steep; that we can no longer achieve the change that we seek. This is our time to answer the call that so many generations of Americans have answered before—by insisting that by hard work, and by sacrifice, the American Dream will endure. Thank you, and may God bless the United States of America.i[Emphasis added.]
In another example, Obama uses language to encourage audience members to respond to a call to service, to think of things bigger than themselves, and to realize this represents a legacy from America's great past. His emphasis helps lend an "aspire to great things" feel to the ending of this speech. It helps to inspire listeners:
Through service, I found a community that embraced me, a church to belong to, citizenship that was meaningful, the direction I'd been seeking. Through service, I found that my own improbable story fit into a larger American story.
In America, each of us seeks our own dreams, but the sum of those dreams must be greater than ourselves. Because the America we inherited is the legacy of those who struggled and those who served in so many ways before us.
It's the legacy of a band of unlikely patriots who overthrew the tyranny of a king.
It's the legacy of abolitionists who stood up, and soldiers who fought for a more perfect union.
It's the legacy of those who started to teach in our schools and tend to the sick in our cities; who laid the rails and volunteered to uphold the law as America moved west.
It's the legacy of men who faced the Depression by putting on the uniform of the Civilian Conservation Corps; of women who worked on that Arsenal of Democracy and built the tanks and ships and bomber aircraft to fight fascism.
It's the legacy of those women's suffragists and freedom riders who stood up for justice; and young people who answered President Kennedy's call to go forth in a Peace Corps.
The sacrifices made by previous generations have never been easy. But America is a great nation precisely because Americans have been willing to stand up when it was hard, to serve on stages both great and small, to rise above moments of great challenge and terrible trial.ii
CREATING A SENSE OF MOMENTUM AND URGENCY
Another practice Obama draws on as he ends his talks "strong," is the practice of drawing attention to successes and establishing a sense of momentum, in addition to creating a sense of importance and urgency to future actions. He employs language that adds to the sense that the stakes are high and that what each individual listener does can matter. Consider this excerpt, where his language establishes a sense of urgency:
I did not run for the presidency to fulfill some long-held ambition or because I believed it was somehow owed to me. I chose to run in this election—at this moment—because of what Dr. King called "the fierce urgency of now." Because we are at a defining moment in our history. Our nation is at war. Our planet is in peril. Our health-care system is broken, our economy is out of balance, our education system fails too many of our children, and our retirement system is in tatters.
At this defining moment, we cannot wait any longer for universal health care. We cannot wait to fix our schools. We cannot wait for good jobs, and living wages, and pensions we can count on. We cannot wait to halt global warming, and we cannot wait to end this war in Iraq.iii
Consider this additional example, in which Obama draws attention to facts that demonstrate momentum:
We can change the electoral math that's been all about division and make it about addition—about building a coalition for change and progress that stretches through blue states and red states. That's how I won some of the reddest, most Republican counties in Illinois. That's why the polls show that I do best against the Republicans running for president—because we're attracting more support from Independents and Republicans than any other candidate. That's how we'll win in November, and that's how we'll change this country over the next four years.iv
The example below is even more explicit in pointing to specific achievements that illustrate increasing momentum. Pointing to these specifics has the effect of persuading listeners that they can help continue the momentum and that their efforts will matter:
It has now been one year since we began this campaign for the presidency on the steps of the Old State Capitol in Springfield, Illinois—just me and 15,000 of my closest friends.
At the time, there weren't too many who imagined we'd be standing where we are today. I knew I wouldn't be Washington's favorite candidate. I knew we wouldn't get all the big donors or endorsements right off the bat. I knew I'd be the underdog in every contest from January to June. I knew it wouldn't be easy.
But then something started happening. As we met people in their living rooms and on their farms; in churches and town hall meetings, they all started telling a similar story about the state of our politics today. Whether they're young or old; black or white; Latino or Asian;
Democrat, Independent, or even Republican, the message is the same:
We are tired of being disappointed by our politics. We are tired of being let down. We're tired of hearing promises made and ten-point plans proposed in the heat of a campaign only to have nothing change when everyone goes back to Washington. Because the lobbyists just write another check. Or because politicians start worrying about how they'll win the next election instead of why they should. Or because they focus on who's up and who's down instead of who matters.
And while Washington is consumed with the same drama and division and distraction, another family puts up a "for sale" sign in the front yard. Another factory shuts its doors forever. Another mother declares bankruptcy because she cannot pay her child's medical bills.
And another soldier waves goodbye as he leaves on another tour of duty in a war that should've never been authorized and never been waged. It goes on and on and on, year after year after year.
But in this election—at this moment—Americans are standing up all across the country to say, not this time. Not this year. The stakes are too high and the challenges too great to play the same Washington game with the same Washington players and expect a different result. And today, voters from the West Coast to the Gulf Coast to the heart of America stood up to say that it is time to turn the page. We won Louisiana, and Nebraska, and the state of Washington, and I believe that we can win in Virginia on Tuesday if you're ready to stand for change.v
When examining the excerpt above, particular wording helps to make the language especially effective. When Obama says, "Then something started happening," he draws attention to change and momentum. When he refers to "living rooms," "churches," and "town hall meetings," he illustrates the breadth of the increasing support. Similarly, when he talks about support coming from young, old, black, white, Latino, Asian, Democrat, Independent, and Republican, he reinforces the notion that the support levels are broad and increasing. Pointing to his primary wins in Louisiana, Nebraska, and Washington helps to show that "things are rolling." Emphasizing the mood—"not this time"—and indicating that "the stakes are too high" helps underscore the urgency and importance of events and potential actions.
Below, we can see another valuable example where Obama builds a sense of momentum and urgency. In this example, he uses repetition skillfully to help create this sense:
A few weeks ago, no one imagined that we'd have accomplished what we did here tonight. For most of this campaign, we were far behind, and we always knew our climb would be steep.
But in record numbers, you came out and spoke up for change. And with your voices and your votes, you made it clear that at this moment—in this election—there is something happening in America.
There is something happening when men and women in Des Moines and Davenport; in Lebanon and Concord come out in the snows of January to wait in lines that stretch block after block because they believe in what this country can be.
There is something happening when Americans who are young in age and in spirit—who have never before participated in politics—turn out in numbers we've never seen because they know in their hearts that this time must be different.
There is something happening when people vote not just for the party they belong to but the hopes they hold in common—that whether we are rich or poor; black or white; Latino or Asian; whether we hail from Iowa or New Hampshire, Nevada or South Carolina, we are ready to take this country in a fundamentally new direction. That is what's happening in America right now. Change is what's happening in America.
You can be the new majority who can lead this nation out of a long political darkness—Democrats, Independents, and Republicans who are tired of the division and distraction that has clouded Washington; who know that we can disagree without being disagreeable; who understand that if we mobilize our voices to challenge the money and influence that's stood in our way and challenge ourselves to reach for something better, there's no problem we can't solve—no destiny we cannot fulfill.vi [Emphases added.]
BUILDING TO A CRESCENDO
In other arenas, such as in fiction writing, a good practice might be to build up to a climax and then wind down. Not so in highly effective speeches and public remarks. To end strong means to end on a high. Outstanding orators move to the peak of their comments and end there, leaving the audiences inspired, moved, motivated and focused on a memorable thought or call to action. Obama understands the importance of building to a crescendo (the climactic point) and ending a speech on a high. Consider this example from his remarks following his loss in the 2008 Pennsylvania primary. Here, Obama ends his remarks with an anecdote describing a meeting during which an old black man indicated he was choosing to support Obama because he had been inspired by the example of a young white woman, Ashley, who was already an Obama supporter. Obama uses the anecdote to underscore the possibility of transcending traditional lines of division and uniting for change. Through this narration, as Obama ends his speech, he builds to a high point:
By itself, that single moment of recognition between that young white girl and that old black man is not enough. It is not enough to give health care to the sick, or jobs to the jobless, or education to our children.
But it is where we begin. It is why the walls in that room began to crack and shake.
And if they can shake in that room, they can shake in Atlanta.
And if they can shake in Atlanta, they can shake in Georgia.
And if they can shake in Georgia, they can shake all across America. And if enough of our voices join together, we can bring those walls tumbling down. The walls of Jericho can finally come tumbling down. That is our hope—but only if we pray together, and work together, and march together.
Brothers and sisters, we cannot walk alone.
In the struggle for peace and justice, we cannot walk alone.
In the struggle for opportunity and equality, we cannot walk alone.
In the struggle to heal this nation and repair this world, we cannot walk alone.
So I ask you to walk with me, and march with me, and join your voice with mine, and together we will sing the song that tears down the walls that divide us and lift up an America that is truly indivisible, with liberty and justice, for all. May God bless the memory of the great pastor of this church, and may God bless the United States of America.vii
In the language above, we see how Obama moves to a climax through the cadence of the sentences and use of repetition techniques. In places, too, words or phrases are arranged in succession with the words of greater impact following those of lesser impact—this is also building to a crescendo. In the example above, we see how Obama ends with a call to action. Consider this additional example:
In our country, I have found that this cooperation happens not because we agree on everything, but because behind all the labels and false divisions and categories that define us; beyond all the petty bickering and point-scoring in Washington, Americans are a decent, generous, compassionate people, united by common challenges and common hopes. And every so often, there are moments which call on that fundamental goodness to make this country great again.
So it was for that band of patriots who declared in a Philadelphia hall the formation of a more perfect union; and for all those who gave on the fields of Gettysburg and Antietam their last full measure of devotion to save that same union.
So it was for the Greatest Generation that conquered fear itself, and liberated a continent from tyranny, and made this country home to untold opportunity and prosperity.
So it was for the workers who stood out on the picket lines; the women who shattered glass ceilings; the children who braved a Selma bridge for freedom's cause.
So it has been for every generation that faced down the greatest challenges and the most improbable odds to leave their children a world that's better, and kinder, and more just.
And so it must be for us.
America, this is our moment. This is our time. Our time to turn the page on the policies of the past. Our time to bring new energy and new ideas to the challenges we face. Our time to offer a new direction for the country we love.
The journey will be difficult. The road will be long. I face this challenge with profound humility and knowledge of my own limitations. But I also face it with limitless faith in the capacity of the American people. Because if we are willing to work for it, and fight for it, and believe in it, then I am absolutely certain that generations from now, we will be able to look back and tell our children that this was the moment when we began to provide care for the sick and good jobs to the jobless; this was the moment when the rise of the oceans began to slow and our planet began to heal; this was the moment when we ended a war and secured our nation and restored our image as the last, best hope on Earth. This was the moment—this was the time—when we came together to remake this great nation so that it may always reflect our very best selves and our highest ideals. Thank you, God bless you, and may God bless the United States of America.viii
REPEATING TAKEAWAYS AND SLOGANS
When ending strong, Obama takes steps to restate key themes and slogans. His efficacy in doing this is evident by how widely known some of those slogans have become: Yes we can, Change that works for you, The past versus the future, Reclaim the American Dream, Our moment is now, Change we can believe in.
As we saw in an early chapter, introducing refrains and slogans is a valuable way to drive points home. Reiterating refrains and slogans in the closing words of a speech serves as a means of keeping themes dominant in a listener's mind long after the speech concludes. Consider the earlier example, in which Obama restates the refrain "yes we can" in order to move to a climax and end the speech on an up beat. Obama also uses alliteration in many spots, which adds to the eloquence of his final words:
We have been told we cannot do this by a chorus of cynics who will only grow louder and more dissonant in the weeks to come. We've been asked to pause for a reality check. We've been warned against offering the people of this nation false hope.
But in the unlikely story that is America, there has never been anything false about hope. For when we have faced down impossible odds; when we've been told that we're not ready, or that we shouldn't try, or that we can't, generations of Americans have responded with a simple creed that sums up the spirit of a people.
Yes we can.
It was a creed written into the founding documents that declared the destiny of a nation.
Yes we can.
It was whispered by slaves and abolitionists as they blazed a trail toward freedom through the darkest of nights.
Yes we can.
It was sung by immigrants as they struck out from distant shores and pioneers who pushed westward against an unforgiving wilderness.
Yes we can.
It was the call of workers who organized; women who reached for the ballot; a president who chose the moon as our new frontier; and a King who took us to the mountain-top and pointed the way to the Promised Land.
Yes we can to justice and equality. Yes we canto opportunity and prosperity. Yes we can heal this nation. Yes we can repair this world. Yes we can.
And so tomorrow, as we take this campaign south and west; as we learn that the struggles of the textile worker in Spartanburg are not so different than the plight of the dishwasher in Las Vegas; that the hopes of the little girl who goes to a crumbling school in Dillon are the same as the dreams of the boy who learns on the streets of LA; we will remember that there is something happening in America; that we are not as divided as our politics suggests; that we are one people; we are one nation; and together, we will begin the next great chapter in America's story with three words that will ring from coast to coast; from sea to shining sea—Yes. We. Can.ix
DIRECTING TO LOW-LYING FRUIT
Another important practice that Obama sometimes uses as he "ends strong" is a call to action, directing audience members to "low-lying fruit"—the small actions they can take immediately to help a cause. Sometimes the call to action is very specific; other times, it is a general call to participate. In the speech below, Obama builds to a crescendo, underscores key points, and then ends with inspiring words and a call to action:
That is why this campaign can't only be about me. It must be about us. It must be about what we can do together. This campaign must be the occasion, the vehicle, of your hopes, and your dreams. It will take your time, your energy, and your advice to push us forward when we're doing right and to let us know when we're not. This campaign has to be about reclaiming the meaning of citizenship, restoring our sense of common purpose, and realizing that few obstacles can withstand the power of millions of voices calling for change.
By ourselves, this change will not happen. Divided, we are bound to fail.
But the life of a tall, gangly, self-made Springfield lawyer tells us that a different future is possible.
He tells us that there is power in words.
He tells us that there is power in conviction, that beneath all the differences of race and region, faith and station, we are one people.
He tells us that there is power in hope.
As Lincoln organized the forces arrayed against slavery, he was heard to say: "Of strange, discordant, and even hostile elements, we gathered from the four winds, and formed and fought to battle through."
That is our purpose here today.
That's why I'm in this race.
Not just to hold an office, but to gather with you to transform a nation.
I want to win that next battle—for justice and opportunity.
I want to win that next battle—for better schools, and better jobs, and health care for all.
I want us to take up the unfinished business of perfecting our union and building a better America.
And if you will join me in this improbable quest, if you feel destiny calling, and see as I see, a future of endless possibility stretching before us; if you sense, as I sense, that the time is now to shake off our slumber, and slough off our fear, and make good on the debt we owe past and future generations, then I'm ready to take up the cause, and march with you, and work with you. Together, starting today, let us finish the work that needs to be done, and usher in a new birth of freedom on this Earth.x [Emphasis added.]
In issuing the closing remarks above, Obama issued a challenge to generate support for future participation. This communication style has proven highly effective for Obama, as manifested by the momentum he has built and the unprecedented levels of participation he has secured.
PUTTING IT ALL TOGETHER TO END STRONG
Finally, we take a look at an excerpt from Obama's December 2007 speech titled, "Our Moment Is Now." It demonstrates how to blend some excellent communication techniques in order to "end strong." Here, Obama uses vivid language—"slash and burn politics. "He creates a sense of unity through the repetition of "If you believe". He builds a sense of forward movement through the use of dynamic language that helps create a moving picture in the mind: "the task before us of remaking this country block by block, precinct by precinct, county by county, state by state." Obama rallies the audience with patriotic words that resonate: "keep the American dream alive"; "change the course of history." He also uses words that evoke biblical references: "hunger for," "thirst for." Obama makes certain to point out the challenges that have been faced and the achievements and momentum that have resulted: "They said we wouldn't have a chance"; "we resisted;" "I know that this time can be different."He stresses the mind shift that must take place in order to achieve success, driving this home through use of triadic phrases: "to shed our fears and our doubts and our cynicism." He offers words of affirmation while also building a sense of urgency: "Because I know that when the American people believe in something, it happens…. And now, in seven days, you have a chance once again to prove the cynics wrong." Obama reiterates the takeaway slogans just before he closes: "This is the moment. This is our time." He ends with a call to action, pointing to some "low-lying fruit": "stand with me in seven days." Let's see how he brings this all together masterfully:
They said we wouldn't have a chance in this campaign unless we resorted to the same old negative attacks. But we resisted, even when we were written off, and ran a positive campaign that pointed out real differences and rejected the politics of slash and burn.
And now, in seven days, you have a chance once again to prove the cynics wrong. In seven days, what was improbable has the chance to beat what Washington said was inevitable. And that's why in these last weeks, Washington is fighting back with everything it has—with attack ads and insults; with distractions and dishonesty; with millions of dollars from outside groups and undisclosed donors to try and block our path.
We've seen this script many times before. But I know that this time can be different.
Because I know that when the American people believe in something, it happens.
If you believe, then we can tell the lobbyists that their days of setting the agenda in Washington are over.
If you believe, then we can stop making promises to America's workers and start delivering—jobs that pay, health care that's affordable, pensions you can count on, and a tax cut for working Americans instead of the companies who send their jobs overseas.
If you believe, we can offer a world-class education to every child, and pay our teachers more, and make college dreams a reality for every American.
If you believe, we can save this planet and end our dependence on foreign oil.
If you believe, we can end this war, close Guantanamo, restore our standing, renew our diplomacy, and once again respect the Constitution of the United States of America.
That's the future within our reach. That's what hope is—that thing inside us that insists, despite all evidence to the contrary, that something better is waiting for us around the corner. But only if we're willing to work for it and fight for it. To shed our fears and our doubts and our cynicism. To glory in the task before us of remaking this country block by block, precinct by precinct, county by county, state by state.
There is a moment in the life of every generation when, if we are to make our mark on history, this spirit must break through.
This is the moment.
This is our time.
And if you will stand with me in seven days, if you will stand for change so that our children have the same chance that somebody gave us; if you'll stand to keep the American dream alive for those who still hunger for opportunity and thirst for justice; if you're ready to stop settling for what the cynics tell you you must accept, and finally reach for what you know is possible, then we will win this caucus, we will win this election, we will change the course of history, and the real journey—to heal a nation and repair the world—will have truly begun.
WHAT WE'VE LEARNED—
PRACTICES FOR MOTIVATING OTHERS TO ACTION
AND LEAVING STRONG LAST IMPRESSIONS
When seeking to use communication to deliver messages that will influence listeners and endure, several techniques prove useful. A speaker can inspire others to great achievements by employing words that resonate, including words that evoke shared values, patriotic values, cherished principles, or biblical truths. Speaking in ways that create a sense of momentum and urgency to future actions can also be important. Obama has done this repeatedly with great effect as he has pointed to successes that continued to build his momentum, noted the increasing levels of support for his campaign, and demonstrated through the details he offered that "things are rolling."
Another best practice for leaving a strong last impression is to "finish strong." Outstanding orators will build to a high point and end on that high, leaving listeners stirred, inspired, motivated, and focused on key themes. Speakers can also consider repeating takeaways or slogans in the closing minutes of their talks. This helps to keep those themes and ideas dominant in the minds of audience members. Issuing a call to action or directing listeners to "low-lying fruit"—the small actions they can take to aid a cause—can also help increase the motivating impact of communication.