WINNING HEARTS AND MINDS - Say It Like Obama: The Power of Speaking with Purpose and Vision - Shel Leanne

Say It Like Obama: The Power of Speaking with Purpose and Vision - Shel Leanne (2009)


When fully harnessing the power of speaking with purpose and vision, outstanding orators can win hearts and minds, eliciting responses such as, "That was a powerful speech." "He understands." "She addressed all of my concerns."

Barack Obama has shown a notable ability to sway the hearts and minds of audiences. He knows how to wield communicative power in ways that move people and motivate them to follow his lead. He has inspired young generations of voters and reinvigorated older generations, spurring a historic grassroots campaign that has trumped political wisdom about traditional divisions around racial, class, gender, and religious lines. His ability to sway a broad swath of the American public has spurred new self named cadres: Obama Mamas, Obamacans, adherents of Obamanomics. What allows Barack Obama to connect so well with his audiences and makes oration one of his greatest strengths?

It is possible to glean important lessons from Obama's keen ability to adapt his remarks to the audience and topic at hand. He makes sure to know his audience, recognize their prevailing mood, and speak meaningfully to them about issues they most care about. Several other notable practices underlie Obama's skill in swaying hearts and minds. He acts according to the principle, "Keep things personal," employing details effectively and creating the feel of one-to-one conversation, making ample references to his personal experiences and leveraging the "I," "you," and "we" connection with skillful use of personal pronouns. The net effect: when Barack Obama speaks, the podium seems to disappear; Obama creates a two-way dialogue of sorts, as if he is standing near, speaking directly to listeners. Obama sways listeners as he speaks about issues of paramount importance to them and demonstrates understanding and empathy. He builds rapport. Given his communication style and substance, his audiences respond, feeling that they are a part of a "we," part of the same team, striving for the same goals.


In order to win hearts and minds, it is necessary to know your audience and understand the circumstances its members face. Effective leaders not only know this information, but they also convey their understanding to the audience. They use language that captures the mood and addresses the audience's key concerns, grievances, and desires. Barack Obama has demonstrated an outstanding ability to connect with his audiences in this way. He acknowledges and addresses their prevailing moods and sentiments. The issues may vary—the economy, health care, education, the Iraq War. But in his comments, Obama shows skill in conveying to his audiences that he understands their perspectives and intends to address their concerns. Consider when Obama addressed the lack of optimism (some would say, outright cynicism) that some Americans have felt recently toward government and government officials:

I chose to run because I believed that the size of these challenges had outgrown the capacity of our broken and divided politics to solve them; because I believed that Americans of every political stripe were hungry for a new kind of politics, a politics that focused not just on how to win but why we should, a politics that focused on those values and ideals that we held in common as Americans; a politics that favored common sense over ideology, straight talk over spin.

Most of all, I believed in the power of the American people to be the real agents of change in this country because we are not as divided as our politics suggests; because we are a decent, generous people willing to work hard and sacrifice for future generations; and I was certain that if we could just mobilize our voices to challenge the special interests that dominate Washington and challenge ourselves to reach for something better, there was no problem we couldn't solve—no destiny we couldn't fulfill.

Ten months later, Iowa, you have vindicated that faith. You've come out in the blistering heat and the bitter cold not just to cheer, but to challenge—to ask the tough questions; to lift the hood and kick the tires; to serve as one place in America where someone who hasn't spent their life in the Washington spotlight can get a fair hearing.

You've earned the role you play in our democracy because no one takes it more seriously. And I believe that's true this year more than ever because, like me, you feel that same sense of urgency.i

In capturing the prevailing mood, Obama succeeded in connecting with his audience and advanced his goal of swaying hearts and minds. His remarks "hit home." For leaders seeking to use excellent communication to win hearts and minds, take time to know your audiences and to come to understand what they most want to hear about. Find ways to tap into the prevailing mood and speak meaningfully to them about the things they most care about.


When seeking to win hearts and minds—pursuing the aims of inspiring and motivating people—it is important to know when not to enumerate remarks. Strikingly, orators seeking to establish a strong emotional connection to listeners rarely enumerate their points. Numbering points, ideas or themes is perceived as an emotion-dampener. Imagine the impression a speaker makes when beginning a discussion by saying, "Let me elaborate on four key components of my vision. First …"The talk will be perceived as formal, businesslike, distant, void of deep emotion, and less extemporaneous.

Certainly, enumeration has its place. It can be highly effective in business settings or in relatively formal settings such as church services. Many a professor, also, has been heard saying, "Let me elaborate on the three things that…." But for the broader aim of capturing hearts and minds, enumeration represents a stifling format. If seeking to sway hearts and minds, it is often best to provide structure to remarks without the formality of enumeration.

Barack Obama adheres to this strain of thought. Rarely in recent years has he delivered speeches to public audiences in which enumeration found a notable place in the way he conveyed his comments. This is not to say that Obama offers speeches or remarks that are void of effective structure. Quite the opposite. Obama has adopted multiple techniques for providing great structure to his remarks without enumeration, preserving his ability to make a strong visceral connection to his audiences. Consider this example:

So this will not be easy. Make no mistake about what we're up against.

We are up against the belief that it's ok for lobbyists to dominate our government—that they are just part of the system in Washington. But we know that the undue influence of lobbyists is part of the problem, and this election is our chance to say that we're not going to let them stand in our way anymore.

We are up against the conventional thinking that says your ability to lead as president comes from longevity in Washington or proximity to the White House. But we know that real leadership is about candor, and judgment and the ability to rally Americans from all walks of life around a common purpose—a higher purpose.

We are up against decades of bitter partisanship that causes politicians to demonize their opponents instead of coming together to make college affordable or energy cleaner; it's the kind of partisanship where you're not even allowed to say that a Republican had an idea, even if it's one you never agreed with. That kind of politics is bad for our party, it's bad for our country, and this is our chance to end it once and for all.

We are up against the idea that it's acceptable to say anything and do anything to win an election. We know that this is exactly what's wrong with our politics; this is why people don't believe what their leaders say anymore; this is why they tune out. And this election is our chance to give the American people a reason to believe again.

And what we've seen in these last weeks is that we're also up against forces that are not the fault of any one campaign, but feed the habits that prevent us from being who we want to be as a nation. It's the politics that uses religion as a wedge and patriotism as a bludgeon. A politics that tells us that we have to think, act, and even vote within the confines of the categories that supposedly define us. The assumption that young people are apathetic. The assumption that Republicans won't cross over. The assumption that the wealthy care nothing for the poor and that the poor don't vote. The assumption that African Americans can't support the white candidate; whites can't support the African American candidate; blacks and Latinos can't come together.

But we are here tonight to say that this is not the America we believe in. I did not travel around this state over the last year and see a white South Carolina or a black South Carolina. I saw South Carolina. I saw crumbling schools that are stealing the future of black children and white children. I saw shuttered mills and homes for sale that once belonged to Americans from all walks of life, and men and women of every color and creed who serve together, and fight together, and bleed together under the same proud flag. I saw what America is, and I believe in what this country can be.

That is the country I see. That is the country you see. But now it is up to us to help the entire nation embrace this vision. Because in the end, we are not just up against the ingrained and destructive habits of Washington; we are also struggling against our own doubts, our own fears, and our own cynicism. The change we seek has always required great struggle and sacrifice. And so this is a battle in our own hearts and minds about what kind of country we want and how hard we're willing to work for it.ii

In this example, Obama demonstrates that a message can be highly structured without sacrificing the personal touch. The way Obama frames his paragraphs—repeating, "We are up against"—serves as a source of structure, no enumeration needed.

For leaders aspiring to employ effective communication, think about whether enumeration will help you achieve your goal or hinder it. Consider the purpose of your talk and the venue, and choose to use or avoid enumeration accordingly.


Another way to capture hearts and minds is to speak meaningfully to the needs of listeners. Details matter. Important to listeners are the three Rs—recognizes, remembers, responsive. Listeners want assurance that the speaker realizes the circumstances they are facing, remembers the details of those circumstances enough to reference them, and will be responsive to those issues. In providing details, a speaker helps to answer questions that are often in the minds of audience members, such as "What do you really know about my life and my challenges? Do you care?" Details provide evidence of awareness and empathy.

Barack Obama is excellent at communicating to audiences that he is aware of their circumstances, understands those challenges, and is preparing to do something about them. In a practice he has improved over time, Obama often provides sufficient details to convey, "I offer this evidence that I understand and that I care." Consider this example:

All across this state, you've shared with me your stories. And all too often they've been stories of struggle and hardship.

I've heard from seniors who were betrayed by CEOs who dumped their pensions while pocketing bonuses and from those who still can't afford their prescriptions because Congress refused to negotiate with the drug companies for the cheapest available price.

I've met Maytag workers who labored all their lives only to see their jobs shipped overseas; who now compete with their teenagers for $7-an-hour jobs at Wal-Mart.

I've spoken with teachers who are working at donut shops after school just to make ends meet; who are still digging into their own pockets to pay for school supplies.

Just two weeks ago, I heard a young woman in Cedar Rapids who told me she only gets three hours of sleep because she works the night shift after a full day of college and still can't afford health care for a sister with cerebral palsy. She spoke not with self-pity but with determination and wonders why the government isn't doing more to help her afford the education that will allow her to live out her dreams.

I've spoken to veterans who talk with pride about what they've accomplished in Afghanistan and Iraq, but who nevertheless think of those they've left behind and question the wisdom of our mission in Iraq; the mothers weeping in my arms over the memories of their sons; the disabled or homeless vets who wonder why their service has been forgotten.

And I've spoken to Americans in every corner of the state, patriots all, who wonder why we have allowed our standing in the world to decline so badly, so quickly. They know this has not made us safer. They know that we must never negotiate out of fear but that we must never fear to negotiate with our enemies as well as our friends. They are ashamed of Abu Ghraib and Guantanamo and warrantless wiretaps and ambiguity on torture. They love their country and want its cherished values and ideals restored.iii

Imagine the difference, the flatness of the remarks, if Obama had simply stated, "I understand there are tough economic times right now. My new policy can help." There is more credibility and power to his words when he demonstrates a depth of knowledge through carefully chosen details. By adding more precise details—$7 an hour, a need to work after school—outstanding orators like Obama make greater strides toward winning hearts and minds.

For leaders aiming to strengthen their ability to use communication to win hearts and minds, take time to think about what detail can help you communicate to listeners that you recognize, remember, and will be responsive to the issues they most care about. Employing effective detail is a powerful tool in the communication process.


In using communication as a powerful tool, Barack Obama demonstrates that another important way to win hearts and minds is to personalize a message with skillful use of pronouns—the "I", "you," and "we" connection. Tapping into a prevailing mood is important, yes. Providing effective details is important, also. But sometimes it is easy to overlook what you, the speaker, believe specifically and the experiences that underpin those beliefs. Personalizing a message and referring to your own relevant experience help to personalize the message and to establish credibility. Your experiences help establish your authority. References to relevant experience, combined with skillful employment of "you," "I," and "we," help transmit the message that the speaker and the audience are part of the same team. It helps elicit the reaction, "He's been there; he knows." This, in turn, lays the foundation for swaying hearts and minds. Below, Obama demonstrates this practice:

Finally, as you and I stand here today, know that there is a generation of children growing up on the mean streets and forgotten corners of this country who are slipping away from us as we speak. They walk down Corridors of Shame in rural South Carolina and sit in battered classrooms somewhere in East L.A. They are overwhelmingly black and Latino and poor. And when they look around and see that no one has lifted a finger to fix their school since the nineteenth century; when they are pushed out the door at the sound of the last bell—some into a virtual war zone—is it any wonder they don't think their education is important? Is it any wonder that they are dropping out in rates we've never seen before?

I know these children. I know their sense of hopelessness. I began my career over two decades ago as a community organizer on the streets of Chicago's South Side. And I worked with parents and teachers and local leaders to fight for their future. We set up after-school programs, and we even protested outside government offices so that we could get those who had dropped out into alternative schools. And in time, we changed futures.

And so while I know hopelessness, I also know hope. I know that if we bring early education programs to these communities; if we stop waiting until high-school to address the dropout rate and start in earlier grades; if we bring in new, qualified teachers; if we expand college outreach programs like GEAR UP and TRIO and fight to expand summer learning opportunities like I've done in the senate; if we do all this, we can make a difference in the lives of our children and the life of this country—not just in East L.A. or the South Side of Chicago, but here in Manchester, and suburban Boston, and rural Mississippi. I know we can. I've seen it happen. And I will work every day to do it again as your president.iv [Emphases provided]


Combining references to "I" with references to "you" also personalizes a message, creating a greater sense of closeness. The distance between the podium and the audience seems to narrow. Whatever physical barriers are present (a lectern, for instance) become lesser obstacles. The speaker's words strike closer to the heart. Consider this:

My father came from thousands of miles away, in Kenya, and went back there soon after I was born. I spent a childhood adrift. I was raised in Hawaii and Indonesia .I lived with my single mom and with my grandparents from Kansas. Growing up, I wasn't always sure who I was or where I was going.

Then, when I was about your age, I decided to become a community organizer. I wrote letters to every organization in the country that I could think of. And for a while, I got no response. Finally, this small group of churches on the South Side of Chicago wrote back and offered me a job to come help neighborhoods devastated by steel-plant closings. My mother and grandparents wanted me to go to law school. My friends were applying to jobs on Wall Street. I didn't know a soul in Chicago, and the salary was about $12,000 a year, plus $2,000 to buy an old, beat-up car.

I still remember a conversation I had with an older man before I left. He looked and said, "Barack, I'll give you a bit of advice. Forget this community organizing business and do something that's gonna make you some money. You can't change the world, and people won't appreciate you trying. You've got a nice voice. What you should do is go into television broadcasting. I'm telling you, you've got a future."

Now, he may have had a point about the TV thing. And to tell you the truth, I didn't have a clear answer about what I was doing. I wanted to step into the currents of history and help people fight for their dreams but didn't know what my role would be. I was inspired by what people like Harris did in the civil rights movement, but when I got to Chicago, there were no marches, no soaring speeches. In the shadow of an empty steel plant, there were just a lot of folks struggling. Day after day, I heard no a lot more than I heard yes. I saw plenty of empty chairs in those meetings we put together.

But even as I discovered that you can't bend history to your will, I found that you could do your part to see that, in the words of Dr. King, it "bends toward justice." In church basements and around kitchen tables, block by block, we brought the community together, registered new voters, fought for new jobs, and helped people live lives with some measure of dignity.v [Emphases provided]

As Obama employed the strong use of pronouns, such as when he commented, "when I was about your age," he made the tone of this talk very personal. Combined with light-hearted humor and informal language such as, "To tell you the truth, I didn't have a clear answer," Obama succeeded in delivering an intimate address that hit close to the heart.


Employing "we" has a similar effect to the "I-you" connection. It helps to send the message that the speaker and those listening are on the same team, in the same boat, facing the same fate. Consider this example from Obama's June 3,2008 primary night speech in Minnesota:

All of you chose to support a candidate you believe in deeply. But at the end of the day, we aren't the reason you came out and waited in lines that stretched block after block to make your voice heard. You didn't do that because of me or Senator Clinton or anyone else. You did it because you know in your hearts that at this moment—a moment that will define a generation—we cannot afford to keep doing what we've been doing. We oweour children a better future. We owe our country a better future. And for all those who dream of that future tonight, I say, let u s begin the work together. Let us unite in common effort to chart a new course for[Emphases provided]

Similarly, Obama used references to "I-you-we" very effectively during his December 27,2008, "Our Moment Is Now" speech:

... 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 ….vii [Emphases provided]

Obama's excellent ability to personalize his message has enabled him to make great strides in winning hearts and minds. For leaders aiming to sway and inspire listeners, consider how you can employ pronouns effectively—leveraging the "I," "you," "we" connection. Personalizing messages can add great power to communication.


Obama's success demonstrates many best practices with regard to winning hearts and minds. When seeking to use communicative power to sway others, it is advisable to adapt remarks to the audience, speaking meaningfully to audience members about the issues they most care about. The skilled communicator keeps things personal by leveraging personal pronouns—"I," "you," and "we"—to connect more closely with audience members, establishing a sense of one-to-one conversation. They talk about their own experiences to give power and authority to their words, so listeners understand, "She's been there; she knows." Excellent communicators use details skillfully to demonstrate that they understand the experiences and perspectives of audience members. Empathy and action—these are things the audience seeks. A skilled communicator will use details to show that they realize, remember, and will be responsive to the needs and desires of their audiences.