CONVEYING VISION - 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)


Barack Obama has distinguished himself as a man of vision who has dared to pursue a dream of breaking historic barriers, redefining divisions in American society, and bringing about change. But it is not enough to form a vision and to believe in it profoundly. To achieve a vision, it is necessary to communicate that vision to others in an effective and compelling manner, enabling others first to understand the vision and inspiring them ultimately to embrace it.

For years, observers have noted Barack Obama's ability to communicate his vision with great success. In 2004, Senator John Kerry observed, "Barack is an optimistic voice for America" who "knows that together we can build an America that is stronger at home and respected in the world."i But there have been other activists working earnestly on behalf of the poor and the middle class. There have been other aspiring leaders with extraordinary personal stories of triumph and success against the odds. There have been others also who have sought to use their leadership to bring goodwill and hope. Yet Barack Obama's success has been notably substantial—more substantial than many people would have imagined a mere forty-five years after Martin Luther King Jr.'s "I Have a Dream" speech. Why have so many people embraced Obama's vision of unity, responsive government, and change? What allows Obama to convey his vision so effectively? How does he use communication techniques as effectively as any visual aid as he conveys his vision? How does he frame his ideas in ways that have tremendous impact, particularly given the time constraints of a typical speech?

This chapter delves into the techniques that Obama employs to convey vision in ways that are lucid, relevant and compelling. We can learn lessons from the way Obama references history and frames ideas in familiar terms. We can glean best practices from the way he employs vivid language, relies on symbolic and dynamic imagery and uses "backward loops." We can deepen our skills as we assess how he draws on the power of corollaries, personifies ideas, and provides "just enough" detail for maximum impact. Together, these communication practices have enabled Barack Obama to communicate his vision effectively, inspiring millions of listeners to embrace it.


When Barack Obama articulates his vision to audiences, he employs many notable communication practices to present his ideas in ways that are clear, germane, and convincing. The way he references history serves as one of his techniques. Obama has demonstrated that when placing key ideas in a historical context, they can become more digestible because they are placed in a context that listeners understand. When Obama communicates his ideas as part of the cherished traditions with which audience members are familiar, the ideas can become perceived as a natural extension of or progression from those traditions. Consider this example, when Barack Obama articulates his vision of an America committed to addressing social issues such as homelessness, violence, living wages, health care, and education. Obama skillfully places his ideas in a historical context, referencing the iconic American leader Robert Kennedy:

I was only seven when Bobby Kennedy died. Many of the people in this room knew him as brother, as husband, as father, as friend….

[T]he idealism of Robert Kennedy—the unfinished legacy that calls us still—is a fundamental belief in the continued perfection of American ideals.

It's a belief that says if this nation was truly founded on the principles of freedom and equality, it could not sit idly by while millions were shackled because of the color of their skin. That if we are to shine as a beacon of hope to the rest of the world, we must be respected not just for the might of our military, but for the reach of our ideals. That if this is a land where destiny is not determined by birth or circumstance, we have a duty to ensure that the child of a millionaire and the child of a welfare mom have the same chance in life. That if out of many, we are truly one. Then we must not limit ourselves to the pursuit of selfish gain, but that which will help all Americans rise together....

[O]ur greatness as a nation has depended on individual initiative, on a belief in the free market. But it has also depended on our sense of mutual regard for each other, the idea that everybody has a stake in the country, that we're all in it together and everybody's got a shot at opportunity.

Robert Kennedy reminded us of this. He reminds us still. He reminds us that we don't need to wait for a hurricane to know that third world living conditions in the middle of an American city make us all poorer. We don't need to wait for the 3000th death of someone else's child in Iraq to make us realize that a war without an exit strategy puts all of our families in jeopardy. We don't have to accept the diminishment of the American Dream in this country now, or ever.

It's time for us to meet the whys of today with the why nots we often quote but rarely live—to answer "why hunger" and "why homeless," "why violence" and "why despair" with "why not good jobs and living wages," "why not better health care and world class schools," "why not a country where we make possible the potential that exists in every human being?"ii

In linking his ideas not only to history but also to a laudable historic American leader, Obama helps to substantiate his ideas as well as to make them more understandable and acceptable. He strengthens his ability to present a vision that will be embraced. Leaders seeking to convey vision effectively can learn from his successes. Are there ways in which you can reference history to make your ideas and your vision more understandable to listeners? Take time to consider how you might reference history and the familiar in ways that enhance your communication.


Another important practice that allows Barack Obama to convey his vision effectively is his excellent use of descriptive words. In many cases, speakers present their talks in settings in which they cannot, or should not, use visual aids such as overhead slides or electronic presentations. For some speakers, the lack of visual aids might be a significant handicap. But outstanding orators master the art of using well-chosen descriptive words in lieu of visual aids. They paint pictures with vivid words, focusing at key points on words that call to mind rich images. When chosen carefully, rich language can affect a listener as significantly as any visual aid: a listener will visualize ideas and themes, which become more memorable.

Several things make certain words rich in descriptive power—their precision or the specific image they call forth, for instance. Consider the difference in these two statements:

In this campaign, we won't employ harsh politicking.


What you won't hear from this campaign or this party is the kind of politics that uses religion as a wedge and patriotism as a bludgeon. (Obama, June 2008)iii

In the latter statement, the use of the words "wedge" and "bludgeon" conjure up specific images that make a stronger impact. They are rich in descriptive power; they don't simply "tell," they "show." In creating imagery, the words help to convey vision. Similarly, compare these remarks:

You came out to support us in large numbers.


They said this country was too divided; too disillusioned to ever come together around a common purpose.

But on this January night—at this defining moment in history—you have done what the cynics said we couldn't do. You have done what the state of New Hampshire can do in five days. You have done what America can do in this New Year, 2008. In lines that stretched around schools and churches; in small towns and big cities; you came together as Democrats, Republicans, and Independents to stand up and say that we are one nation; we are one people; and our time for change has come." (Obama, January 2008) iv

Obama's reference above to "lines that stretched around schools and churches" brings forth images of people huddled for hours, perhaps cold and uncomfortable, yet willing to endure the long lines in order to have a chance to support him. This, in turn, implies that what Obama represents, the value of his candidacy and the importance of casting a vote for him, are all worth waiting for. That is, the word choice invoking "lines of people" implies many other things in addition to what is actually said, with all implied ideas contributing positively to Obama's image. The words serve as an excellent example of well-chosen, richly descriptive words.

Obama illustrates that leaders who desire to use communication to convey vision in a compelling manner can benefit from employing words that evoke rich imagery. Words filled with descriptive power can deepen the impact of speech. Drawing on richly descriptive words can create multilayered communication that enables a speaker to make greater strides toward articulating their vision with great efficacy.


Obama is also very good at conveying vision by employing words rich with symbolism. Symbolic images often elicit emotional reactions. For example, referring to a flag draped over a coffin evokes patriotism and notions of loyalty and sacrifice to country. When Obama mentions that his grandfather was buried in a coffin draped with a flag, therefore, he connects himself to all those positive elements. This represents an excellent choice of words. The net effect: those well-chosen words enhance Obama's standing. Drawing on symbolism when it will enhance your image can be considered a best practice.


A practice closely related to the excellent use of symbolism is the practice of choosing words rich in corollary meaning. Obama does this with great skill. Unlike symbolic words, a word rich in corollary meaning is not necessarily laden with patriotic or emotional meanings. Nonetheless, such a word is multidimensional in the ideas and images it evokes. The effectiveness of Obama's communication demonstrates that, in choosing key words, selecting a word that "implies 20 others" can prove worthwhile. Think about this example:

In the year I was born, President Kennedy let out word that the torch had been passed to a new generation of Americans. He was right. It had. It was passed to his youngest brother.

From the battles of the 1960s to the battles of today, he has carried that torch, lighting the way for all who share his American ideals.

It's a torch he's carried as a champion for working Americans, a fierce proponent of universal health care, and a tireless advocate for giving every child in this country a quality education.

It's a torch he's carried as the lion of the senate, a man whose mastery of the issues and command of the levers of government—whose determined leadership and deft political skills—are matched only by his ability to tell a good story.v

Obama could have referred to some other light-bearing object, rather than a "torch," as being passed on. A torch, however, has positive corollary value. It elicits images of Olympic athletes and is associated with great achievement, great heroism, and the quest for excellence. The word choice sets powerful imagery dancing in the mind. Obama shows that leaders seeking to convey vision excellently can leverage corollary meaning to provide greater impact to their words.


Obama also employs the technique of personification very well. I use the term "personification" to refer to the act of giving inanimate objects or ideas human characteristics, such as emotions or actions. For example:

Every house on the street was sleeping.

The wind began to moan and the clouds wept down

More often than employing a personification technique, however, Obama gives ideas physicality, such as when he sees "hope" in the "light" of eyes. In doing so, Obama ties emotions or ideas to concrete images. Giving ideas physicality is a highly effective way to present ideas in ways a listener will remember. The "embodiment" gives the imagery power; the words resonate at a deeper level and listeners are more likely to remember how the imagery makes them feel. Consider this difference: suppose if Obama had simply stated, "I know you all are hopeful; I can see this." Contrast the impression of those words with the impact when Obama uses words that confer physicality, as after the Iowa primary on January 3,2008:

But we always knew that hope is not blind optimism. It's not ignoring the enormity of the task ahead or the roadblocks that stand in our path. It's not sitting on the sidelines or shirking from a fight. Hope is that thing inside us that insists, despite all evidence to the contrary, that something better awaits us if we have the courage to reach for it and to work for it and to fight for it.

Hope is what I saw in the eyes of the young woman in Cedar Rapids who works the night shift after a full day of college and still can't afford health care for a sister who's ill; a young woman who still believes that this country will give her the chance to live out her dreams.

Hope is what I heard in the voice of the New Hampshire woman who told me that she hasn't been able to breathe since her nephew left for Iraq; who still goes to bed each night praying for his safe return.

Hope is what led a band of colonists to rise up against an empire; what led the greatest of generations to free a continent and heal a nation; what led young women and young men to sit at lunch counters and brave fire hoses and march through Selma and Montgomery for freedom's cause.

Hope. Hope is what led me here today—with a father from Kenya; a mother from Kansas; and a story that could only happen in the United States of America. Hope is the bedrock of this nation, the belief that our destiny will not be written for us, but by us, by all those men and women who are not content to settle for the world as it is—who have the courage to remake the world as it should be. [Emphases added.]

The first statement," I know you all are hopeful. I can see this," sounds unconvincing, flat, and fails to stir a listener. In contrast, Obama's elaboration on "hope" above enables the listener to visualize the notion. The listener can see hopeful eyes. The image is vivid. Similarly, when Obama ties the notion of hope to honored history, he makes the notion more memorable and enables it to resonate at a deeper level. Obama's practice of conferring physicality to ideas serves his purposes very well.


Another very instructive practice of Obama as he conveys vision involves his use of "just enough" detail. He has demonstrated on many occasions his ability to calibrate the amount of detail he provides in order to illustrate the depth of his knowledge about key issues. A master of using well-chosen detail, Obama also understands the value of vagueness. Consider the remarks below, through which Obama relates the Iraq War issue in terms of one specific soldier, Shamus:

A while back, I met a young man named Shamus at the VFW Hall in East Moline, Illinois. He was a good-looking kid, six-two or six-three, clear-eyed, with an easy smile. He told me he'd joined the marines and was heading to Iraq the following week. As I listened to him explain why he'd enlisted, his absolute faith in our country and its leaders, his devotion to duty and service, I thought this young man was all any of us might hope for in a child. But then I asked myself: Are we serving Shamus as well as he was serving us? I thought of more than 900 service men and women, sons and daughters, husbands and wives, friends and neighbors, who will not be returning to their hometowns. I thought of families I had met who were struggling to get by without a loved one's full income or whose loved ones had returned with a limb missing or with nerves shattered but who still lacked long-term health benefits because they were reservists. When we send our young men and women into harm's way, we have a solemn obligation not to fudge the numbers or shade the truth about why they're going, to care for their families while they're gone, to tend to the soldiers upon their return, and to never ever go to war without enough troops to win the war, secure the peace, and earn the respect of the world.vii

With his choice of words, Obama paints a picture. He has met a soldier named Shamus, but he outlines only a broad image—the good looks, the clear eyes, the easy smile, his height. Nothing else. Given the lack of additional details, a fascinating thing can happen in the minds of many listeners. They fill in the gaps themselves. What ethnicity is Shamus? The only clue is his name—a name unfamiliar to many, thus many listeners will attribute no specific ethnicity at all, except for the one they see fit. With scant description, they are free to imagine Shamus as they please. In many cases, a listener will imagine Shamus to look a lot like themselves, their own ethnicity. If so, the character becomes in many ways more understandable to the listener and the example can resonate closer to home. Free to imagine, the story can connect with a broad range of listeners, helping to create a powerful and lasting impact. This is effective use of "just enough" detail.


Dynamic images serve as another powerful tool for conveying vision effectively. By dynamic, I mean not static. Consider this example:

That is what we started here in Iowa, and that is the message we can now carry to New Hampshire and beyond: the same message we had when we were up and when we were down; the one that can change this country brick by brick, block by block, calloused hand by calloused hand—that together, ordinary people can do extraordinary things; because we are not a collection of red states and blue states, we are the United States of America; and at this moment, in this election, we are ready to believe again. Thank you, Iowa.viii

The words "brick by brick, block by block, calloused hand by calloused hand" create moving images—dynamic rather than static. In the mind's eye, the image becomes a moving, living thing. This helps to create a sense of forward momentum. The imagery is powerful, moving, alive. It achieves great effect.

Obama's success in employing dynamic images illustrates that leaders seeking to convey vision excellently can benefit from using words that create moving images. Imagery that becomes "alive" in the mind is likely to be remembered long after a speech is complete. Dynamic words lend great impact to communication.


A much more rare technique that Obama has leveraged to great effect is what I call the "backward loop." Obama's knowledge and use of this unique technique helps demonstrate how he has mastered the art of highly effective communication. Most speakers, when seeking to create a dynamic image, put forth a picture of what they hope the future will bring. Obama, however, has also discerned the power of looping back in time. Examine this excerpt:

The scripture tells us that when Joshua and the Israelites arrived at the gates of Jericho, they could not enter. The walls of the city were too steep for any one person to climb, too strong to be taken down with brute force. And so they sat for days, unable to pass on through.

But God had a plan for his people. He told them to stand together and march together around the city, and on the seventh day he told them that when they heard the sound of the ram's horn, they should speak with one voice. And at the chosen hour, when the horn sounded and a chorus of voices cried out together, the mighty walls of Jericho came tumbling down.

There are many lessons to take from this passage, just as there are many lessons to take from this day, just as there are many memories that fill the space of this church. As I was thinking about which ones we need to remember at this hour, my mind went back to the very beginning of the modern civil rights era.

Because before Memphis and the mountaintop; before the bridge in Selma and the march on Washington; before Birmingham and the beatings; the fire hoses and the loss of those four little girls; before there was King the icon and his magnificent dream, there was King the young preacher and a people who found themselves suffering under the yoke of oppression.ix [Emphasis added.]

This example demonstrates Obama's mastery of public speech. He skillfully uses imagery to illustrate a powerful point. Moving the motion backwards, Obama compares the launch of another significant American movement (the civil rights movement) to current-day efforts to bring positive social and political change. Obama begins with references to Memphis and Martin Luther King Jr.'s iconic "I Have a Dream" speech. The reference conjures up for many Americans images of hundreds of thousands of people marching on the Washington mall in a commendable effort to secure equality. Obama continues backward in time to Selma, and he refers to beatings and police use of water hoses against unarmed civil rights protestors. He finally rests on the image of Americans suffering amid discriminatory conditions at the very inception of the civil rights movement.

Consider how much more powerfully these remarks resonate than a more straightforward, succinct statement might have. Instead of stating, "supporters of the civil rights movement once stood like us, facing a big challenge," Obama takes listeners back in time, referencing the many accomplishments of civil rights supporters and illustrating that those protestors had once been just like his listeners, standing at the inception of a "movement." Powerfully, the backward loop asks an implied question—if they did it, why can't we? The message transmitted becomes: they did it, so can we! Given the focus on a very laudable movement—the civil rights movement—a listener can be inspired, motivated, stirred by the example. Obama makes his point with powerful effect.


Finally, Obama uses anecdotes as powerful tools for conveying vision. Anecdotes allow him to use brief narration to go into greater depth and illustrate points in memorable ways. Consider this example:

This union may never be perfect, but generation after generation has shown that it can always be perfected. And today, whenever I find myself feeling doubtful or cynical about this possibility, what gives me the most hope is the next generation—the young people whose attitudes and beliefs and openness to change have already made history in this election.

There is one story in particularly that I'd like to leave you with today—a story I told when I had the great honor of speaking on Dr. King's birthday at his home church, Ebenezer Baptist, in Atlanta.

There is a young, twenty-three-year-old white woman named Ashley Baia who organized for our campaign in Florence, South Carolina. She had been working to organize a mostly African American community since the beginning of this campaign, and one day she was at a roundtable discussion where everyone went around telling their story and why they were there.

And Ashley said that when she was nine years old, her mother got cancer. And because she had to miss days of work, she was let go and lost her health care. They had to file for bankruptcy, and that's when Ashley decided that she had to do something to help her mom.

She knew that food was one of their most expensive costs, and so Ashley convinced her mother that what she really liked and really wanted to eat more than anything else was mustard and relish sandwiches. Because that was the cheapest way to eat.

She did this for a year until her mom got better, and she told everyone at the roundtable that the reason she joined our campaign was so that she could help the millions of other children in the country who want and need to help their parents too.

Now Ashley might have made a different choice. Perhaps somebody told her along the way that the source of her mother's problems were blacks who were on welfare and too lazy to work or Hispanics who were coming into the country illegally. But she didn't. She sought out allies in her fight against injustice.

Anyway, Ashley finishes her story and then goes around the room and asks everyone else why they're supporting the campaign. They all have different stories and reasons. Many bring up a specific issue. And finally they come to this elderly black man who's been sitting there quietly the entire time. And Ashley asks him why he's there. And he does not bring up a specific issue. He does not say health care or the economy. He does not say education or the war. He does not say that he was there because of Barack Obama. He simply says to everyone in the room, "I am here because of Ashley."

"I'm here because of Ashley." 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 start. It is where our union grows stronger. And as so many generations have come to realize over the course of the two-hundred and twenty-one years since a band of patriots signed that document in Philadelphia that is where the perfection begins.x

The anecdote demonstrates in great detail the power of small changes in mindset and the choice to unite across traditional societal divisions. It conveys these points excellently by focusing on one person listeners can relate to—Ashley. Focusing the discussion in this manner, the points are well made and likely to linger with listeners.

Similarly, Obama's anecdote below is memorable while also underscoring key themes about education and social responsibility:

I was talking with a young teacher there, and I asked her what she saw as the biggest challenge facing her students. She gave me an answer that I had never heard before. She spoke about what she called "these kids syndrome"—the tendency to explain away the shortcomings and failures of our education system by saying that "these kids can't learn" or "these kids don't want to learn" or "these kids are just too far behind." And after awhile, "these kids" become somebody else's problem.

And this teacher looked at me and said, "When I hear that term, it drives me nuts. They're not 'these kids.' They're our kids. All of them."

She's absolutely right. The small child in Manchester or Nashua whose parents can't find or afford a quality preschool that we know would make him more likely to stay in school and read better and succeed later in life—he is our child.

The little girl in rural South Carolina or the South Side of Chicago whose school is literally falling down around her and can't afford new textbooks and can't attract new teachers because it can't afford to pay them a decent salary—she is our child.

The teenager in suburban Boston who needs more skills and better schooling to compete for the same jobs as the teenager in Bangalore or Beijing—he is our child.

These children are our children. Their future is our future. And it's time we understood that their education is our responsibility. All of us.xi

… Well I do not accept this future for America. I do not accept an America where we do nothing about six million students who are reading below their grade level—an America where sixty percent of African American fourth graders aren't even reading at the basic level.

I do not accept an America where only twenty percent of our students are prepared to take college-level classes in English, math, and science—where barely one in ten low-income students will ever graduate from college.

I do not accept an America where we do nothing about the fact that half of all teenagers are unable to understand basic fractions—where nearly nine in ten African American and Latino eighth-graders are not proficient in math. I do not accept an America where elementary school kids are only getting an average of twenty-five minutes of science each day when we know that over 80% of the fastest-growing jobs require a knowledge base in math and science.

This kind of America is morally unacceptable for our children. It's economically untenable for our future. And it's not who we are as a country.

We are not a "these kids" nation. We are the nation that has always understood that our future is inextricably linked to the education of our children—all of them. We are the country that has always believed in Thomas Jefferson's declaration that "… talent and virtue, needed in a free society, should be educated regardless of wealth or birth."

It's this belief that led America to set up the first free public schools in small New England towns. It's a promise we kept as we moved from a nation of farms to factories and created a system of public high schools so that everyone had the chance to succeed in a new economy. It's a promise we expanded after World War II, when America gave my grandfather and over two million returning heroes the chance to go to college on the GI Bill.

And when America has fallen short of this promise, when we forced Linda Brown to walk miles to a dilapidated Topeka school because of the color of her skin; it was ordinary Americans who marched and bled; who took to the streets and fought in the courts until the arrival of nine little children at a Little Rock school made real the decision that in America, separate can never be equal.

That's who we are. That's why I can stand here today. Because somebody stood up when it was hard; stood up when it was risky. Because even though my mother didn't have a lot of money, scholarships gave me the chance to go to some of the best schools in the country. And I am running for president of the United States because I want to give every American child the same chances that I had.

In this election—at this defining moment—we can decide that this century will be another American century by making an historic commitment to education. We can make a commitment that's more than just the rhetoric of a campaign, one that's more than another empty promise made by a politician looking for your vote.xii

...Over the course of two centuries, we have fought and struggled and overcome to expand the promise of a good education ever further—a promise that has allowed millions to transcend the barriers of race and class and background to achieve their God-given potential.

It is now our moment to keep that promise—the promise of America—alive in the twenty-first century. It's our generation's turn to stand up and say to the little girl in Chicago or the little boy in Manchester or the millions like them all across the country that they are not "these kids."' They are our kids. They do not want to let us down, and we cannot let them down either.xiii

Leaders seeking to use communication to convey vision excellently should consider whether an anecdote will allow them to crystallize a point or make a theme more memorable. Will listeners relate to the issues or key themes more readily? Carefully narrated anecdotes can enrich communication, enhancing a speaker's ability to convey their vision.


Leaders have much to learn from the way Barack Obama conveys vision so effectively to audiences. Obama has shown a keen ability to convey vision in a compelling manner, which enables others to understand his vision and inspires them to ultimately embrace it. Leaders can draw on the techniques that enable Obama to do this so well.

When seeking to convey vision in a compelling manner, referencing history can make ideas more understandable and digestible. Listeners can relate to ideas more readily from a prism of shared history and cherished tradition, and may relate better with references to admired historical figures. Efforts to convey vision are more effective, also, when leaders "show, don't tell" at crucial times. That is, effective communicators will draw on vivid language at key times to paint pictures as effectively as they might with visual aids. They know to employ richly descriptive words—a torch instead of a light; a wedge; a bludgeon. They draw on symbolic language for emotional impact. They leverage the power of corollaries to bring about multilayered communication, saying one word while implying twenty others.

The practice of giving ideas physicality can also play a role in conveying vision effectively. "Embodiment" makes ideas more memorable, such as seeing "hope in the eyes." Highly skilled communicators also employ detail effectively, calibrating the ideal amount of detail they provide as they convey their vision. At times, ample detail establishes a depth of knowledge. But skillful speakers also recognize the value of vagueness, allowing listeners to imagine when appropriate with "just enough" detail.

Use of dynamic imagery represents another useful communication technique. Effective communicators find ways to make pictures move in the mind—"brick by brick, block by block, calloused hand by calloused hand." Similarly, backward loops can be powerful, as a speaker takes listeners back in time to imagine how it once was, comparing and contrasting the past with the present with great effect. Finally, effective communicators often offer anecdotes, providing brief narration and short tales to breathe life into key themes. Together, these techniques enable leaders to use communication to convey their vision in highly compelling ways.