DRIVING POINTS HOME - 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)


Highly effective leaders master the art of driving key messages home and achieving the designated goals of their speech—whether to inform, influence, persuade, motivate, or direct. Barack Obama has shown particular strength in his ability to share knowledge effectively, even amid the tight time constraints of a typical speech. In Chapter 5, we see how Obama employs communication practices that have enabled him to convey vision well; he knows how to articulate the "big picture." Obama is equally skilled in supporting the vision he puts forward with well-chosen details and themes that linger in the minds of listeners long after he has uttered a final word. Several practices have made Obama excellent at driving points home. There is much to learn about how he prioritizes, addresses rhetorical questions, employs effective repetition, leverages pace and tone, and communicates with slogans.


Barack Obama demonstrates that when sharing knowledge, effective speakers understand and bear in mind the goal of their remarks—to influence, inform, motivate to action, or defuse controversy, for instance. Obama has developed the capacity to prioritize the points he will share. He sweeps aside low-priority issues and promotes most assertively those ideas of greatest importance, shining a light on them. As he does this, Obama draws on an impressive array of rhetorical techniques to highlight his most important points and to present them memorably, with significant impact. Below, we examine many of these techniques.


Often Obama raises rhetorical questions as a useful technique for focusing attention on key information. Rhetorical questions—questions whose answers are considered obvious and therefore are not answered by a speaker explicitly—help to emphasize points and crystallize attention around important issues. Obama has demonstrated how to employ rhetorical questions effectively, using them to fix audience attention firmly on key issues or topics. He then proceeds to speak at greater length about his designated topics. Consider the example from Obama's 2004 keynote address:

In the end, that's what this election is about. Do we participate in a politics of cynicism or do we participate in a politics of hope? John Kerry calls on us to hope. John Edwards calls on us to hope. I'm not talking about blind optimism here—the almost willful ignorance that thinks unemployment will go away if we just don't think about it, or the health-care crisis will solve itself if we just ignore it. That's not what I'm talking about. I'm talking about something more substantial. It's the hope of slaves sitting around a fire singing freedom songs; the hope of immigrants setting out for distant shores; the hope of a young naval lieutenant bravely patrolling the Mekong Delta; the hope of a mill-worker's son who dares to defy the odds; the hope of a skinny kid with a funny name who believes that America has a place for him, too. Hope in the face of difficulty. Hope in the face of uncertainty. The audacity of hope! [Emphasis added.]

After drawing attention firmly to the notion of hope, Obama proceeds to elaborate on the notion. The rhetorical question serves as a valuable device for focusing attention, laying the groundwork for delving into key themes.


A notable hallmark of Barack Obama's communication style is his use of unique variations of repetition. Obama draws on a wide variety of repetition techniques that give power to his oration—conduplicatio, anaphora, epistrophe and mesodiplosis, among them. These rhetorical techniques help him to structure his key ideas and themes and drive key points home. Before delving into his remarks, however, let's take a look at definitions and examples.

Conduplicatio is the recurrence of a word or phrase found anywhere in one sentence or clause near the beginning of a successive clause or sentence. Anaphora is the recurrence of the same word, words or phrases at the start of successive sentences, phrases, and clauses. Both are excellent tools for focusing attention on key words and ideas, since those words or ideas are emphasized at the start of a successive sentence, phrase, or clause. Consider, for instance, these examples of anaphora:

To envision the goal is good. To envision the execution is necessary. To envision the victory is crucial.

To give them guidance is advisable. To give them motivation is required. To give them encouragement is imperative.

What does he want? What does he hope for? What does he seek?

Repetition techniques such as anaphora have helped enhance the communicative power of many famous speeches. We find an excellent example in Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.'s famous "I Have a Dream" speech, delivered on 28 August 1963 at the Lincoln Memorial in Washington D.C.:

I have a dream that one day this nation will rise up and live out the true meaning of its creed: "We hold these truths to be self-evident: that all men are created equal."

I have a dream that one day on the red hills of Georgia the sons of former slaves and the sons of former slaveowners will be able to sit down together at a table of brotherhood.

I have a dream that one day even the state of Mississippi, a desert state, sweltering with the heat of injustice and oppression, will be transformed into an oasis of freedom and justice.

I have a dream that my four children will one day live in a nation where they will not be judged by the color of their skin but by the content of their character.

I have a dream today.

[Emphases added.]

Epistrophe, the recurrence of the same word, words, or phrases at the end of successive sentences, phrases, or clauses, is also highly effective in focusing attention and adding emphasis to the way ideas are communicated. Think about this example:

The idea was flawed. The planning was flawed. The execution was flawed.

Epistrophe is effective in part because it fixes attention on the final word or words in a sentence, phrase, or paragraph. There are many famous examples. Consider this:

When I was a child, I spake as a child, I understood as a child, I thought as a child: but when I became a man, I put away childish things.

—I Corinthians 13:11, King James Bible

Mesodiplosis is the recurrence of a word or phrase near the midpoint of successive clauses or sentences. Here is an example:

We faced great obstacles, yet we did not give up; we felt great resistance, yet we did not give in; we grew weary from the long fight , yet we did not lie down.

Obama is famous for using variations of repetition to yield powerful oration. He draws on a full range of techniques and often extends his use of repetition to paragraphs. This gives the paragraphs parallel structure—helping him to communicate his messages with greater efficacy. We look at several excellent examples below. We begin with Obama's remarks about John McCain, delivered on the final Democratic primary night in St. Paul, Minnesota, on June 3, 2008:

John McCain has spent a lot of time talking about trips to Iraq in the last few weeks, but maybe if he spent some time taking trips to the cities and towns that have been hardest hit by this economy—cities in Michigan, and Ohio, and right here in Minnesota—he'd understand the kind of change that people are looking for.

Maybe if he went to Iowa and met the student who works the night shift after a full day of class and still can't pay the medical bills for a sister who's ill, he'd understand that she can't afford four more years of a health-care plan that only takes care of the healthy and wealthy. She needs us to pass a health-care plan that guarantees insurance to every American who wants it and brings down premiums for every family who needs it. That's the change we need.

Maybe if he went to Pennsylvania and met the man who lost his job but can't even afford the gas to drive around and look for a new one, he'd understand that we can't afford four more years of our addiction to oil from dictators. That man needs us to pass an energy policy that works with automakers to raise fuel standards and makes corporations pay for their pollution and oil companies invest their record profits in a clean energy future—an energy policy that will create millions of new jobs that pay well and can't be outsourced. That's the change we need.

And maybe if he spent some time in the schools of South Carolina or St. Paul or where he spoke tonight in New Orleans, he'd understand that we can't afford to leave the money behind for No Child Left Behind; that we owe it to our children to invest in early childhood education, to recruit an army of new teachers and give them better pay and more support, to finally decide that in this global economy the chance to get a college education should not be a privilege for the wealthy few, but the birthright of every American. That's the change we need in America. That's why I'm running for president.i [Emphases added.]

The repetition of the words "maybe if " help to provide a high level of structure to Obama's remarks and ideas. The dismissive words also focus attention on the main themes, which aim to cast doubt in the minds of listeners about McCain's credibility and the degree to which McCain is in touch with the plight of everyday Americans. Obama uses this repetition, therefore, in a way that enhances the impression he seeks to convey.

Similarly, in the remarks below, Obama skillfully uses repetition to create a sense of common identity among the diverse members of the audience, underscoring the principles they share and adding to a sense of unity:

This is our moment. This is our time for change. Our party—the Democratic party—has always been at its best when we've led not by polls, but by principle; not by calculation, but by conviction; when we've called all Americans to a common purpose—a higher purpose.

We are the party of Jefferson, who wrote the words that we are still trying to heed—that all of us are created equal, that all of us deserve the chance to pursue our happiness.

We're the party of Jackson, who took back the White House for the people of this country.

We're the party of a man who overcame his own disability to tell us that the only thing we had to fear was fear itself; who faced down fascism and liberated a continent from tyranny.

And we're the party of a young president who asked what we could do for our country and the challenged us to do it.

That is who we are. That is the party that we need to be, and can be, if we cast off our doubts and leave behind our fears and choose the America that we know is possible. Because there is a moment in the life of every generation, if it is to make its mark on history, when its spirit has to come through, when it must choose the future over the past, when it must make its own change from the bottom up.

This is our moment. This is our message—the same message we had when we were up, and when we were down. The same message that we will carry all the way to the convention. And in seven months' time we can realize this promise; we can claim this legacy; we can choose new leadership for America. Because there is nothing we cannot do if the American people decide it is time.ii [Emphases added.]

Below, Obama uses repetition to stress unity, a strong image of forward action, a sense of urgency, and the importance of action on the part of the listener:

Let us begin this hard work together. Let us transform this nation.

Let us be the generation that reshapes our economy to compete in the digital age. Let's set high standards for our schools and give them the resources they need to succeed. Let's recruit a new army of teachers and give them better pay and more support in exchange for more accountability. Let's make college more affordable, and let's invest in scientific research, and let's lay down broadband lines through the heart of inner cities and rural towns all across America.

And as our economy changes, let's be the generation that ensures our nation's workers are sharing in our prosperity. Let's protect the hard-earned benefits their companies have promised. Let's make it possible for hardworking Americans to save for retirement. And let's allow our unions and their organizers to lift up this country's middle class again.

Let's be the generation that ends poverty in America. Every single person willing to work should be able to get job training that leads to a job and earn a living wage that can pay the bills and afford child care so their kids have a safe place to go when they work. Let's do this.

Let's be the generation that finally tackles our health-care crisis. We can control costs by focusing on prevention, by providing better treatment to the chronically ill, and using technology to cut the bureaucracy. Let's bethe generation that says right here, right now, that we will have universal health care in America by the end of the next president's first term.

Let's be the generation that finally frees America from the tyranny of oil. We can harness homegrown, alternative fuels like ethanol and spur the production of more fuel-efficient cars. We can set up a system for capping greenhouse gases. We can turn this crisis of global warming into a moment of opportunity for innovation and job creation and an incentive for businesses that will serve as a model for the world. Let's be the generation that makes future generations proud of what we did here.

Most of all, let's be the generation that never forgets what happened on that September day and confront the terrorists with everything we've got. Politics doesn't have to divide us on this anymore—we can work together to keep our country safe. I've worked with Republican Senator Dick Lugar to pass a law that will secure and destroy some of the world's deadliest, unguarded weapons. We can work together to track terrorists down with a stronger military, we can tighten the net around their finances, and we can improve our intelligence capabilities. But let us also understand that ultimate victory against our enemies will come only by rebuilding our alliances and exporting those ideals that bring hope and opportunity to millions around the globe.iii [Emphases added.]


In driving points home with skill, Barack Obama also employs variations of pace and tone excellently. He draws on a full range of effective rhetorical techniques that focus the listener on his key points. A discussion of his more prominent techniques follows.

Adding Emphasis and Eloquence—Alliteration

At times, Obama uses alliteration, the repetition of the sounds of the initial consonants of words, to help drive key points home. In general, with alliteration the recurrence of initial consonant sounds may also be sprinkled throughout a sentence. For example:

In long lines that led to the ballot boxes, you demonstrated the depth of your determination.

His policy position pleased many.

The repetition of the starting consonant sound draws attention to those particular words and serves as a valuable technique for underscoring key words and ideas. Obama draws on alliteration as needed to emphasize words and concepts, and often to add eloquence to the beginning of his speeches. Alliteration can provide a musical beginning, which is pleasant to the ears. Consider how Obama began his 2004 Democratic National Convention keynote address:

On behalf of the great state of Illinois, crossroads of a nation, land of Lincoln, let me express my deep gratitude for the privilege of addressing this convention. [Emphasis added.]

Similarly, when delivering his speech, "Our Moment Is Now" on December 27, 2007, Obama began with a subtle use of alliteration:

Ten months ago, I stood on the steps of the Old State Capitol in Springfield, Illinois, and began an unlikely journey to change America.

Many of Obama's most powerful speeches are sprinkled with alliteration, adding to the sense that he is an eloquent speaker. Consider his words as he announced his candidacy for the U.S. presidency in Springfield, Illinois, on February 10, 2007:

But through his will and his words, he moved a nation and helped free a people. [Emphasis added.]

Similarly, Obama employed alliteration multiple times in his speech following his loss of the Pennsylvania primary in 2008. For example, he stated:

It was a creed written into the founding documents that declared the destiny of a nation. [Emphasis added.]

Alliteration, used even subtly, can draw attention to words and enhance the eloquence of speech.

Picking Up Speed—Asyndeton

Asyndeton occurs when a speaker deliberately omits conjunctions (such as "and,""but,""or,""nor,"and "for") between successive words, phrases, or clauses. The omission quickens the pace of spoken words. It also gives a sense than a list of words is only partial or is more far-reaching that the words appearing in the list. Specifically, the omission of the word "and" can imply that the given list is only partially representative, and in fact, goes on. Here is an example:

To win, we demonstrated vision, hard work, dedication, perseverance.

Asyndeton can also serve to emphasize or amplify a point, when successive words seem to represent the word immediately prior in an amplified form. For example:

We learned to rise, stand, brace, fight.

There are many famous examples of asyndeton, such as in Abraham Lincoln's Gettysburg Address:

But in a larger sense, we cannot dedicate, we cannot consecrate, we cannot hallow this ground.

Like many great orators before him, Obama also uses asyndeton to enhance the power of his comments. In the speech in which he announced his presidential candidacy on February 10, 2007, for instance, Obama used this technique to make his words sound more emphatic:

...you believe we can be one people, reaching for what's possible, building that more perfect union.

Amplifying Ideas—Polysyndeton

Polysyndeton occurs when a conjunction, such as "and," is used between every word, clause, or phrase. It serves as a very valuable technique for building up or amplifying a point, in part because the repetition of conjunctions stands out and hence the list of words seems to go on at greater length than normal. In the example below, for instance, the use of polysyndeton gives the impression of an arduous and extensive breadth of activity:

We brainstormed and planned and executed and achieved our goal.

We studied and shared and learned and succeeded.

This technique can be powerful when used for negations ("nor") or extended comparison ("as"):

As with the rebels, as with the slaves, as with the abolitionists, as with the freedom riders, we …

Obama uses polysyndeton with great effect. Consider these instances. In January 2008, he said:

I know this—I know this because while I may be standing here tonight, I'll never forget that my journey began on the streets of Chicago doing what so many of you have done for this campaign and all the campaigns here in Iowa—organizing and working and fighting to make people's lives just a little bit better.iv [Emphasis added.]

In the same speech, he asserted:

This was the moment when we finally beat back the politics of fear and doubt and cynicism…

Driving Points Home with the Power of Three

When seeking to drive points home and paint clear pictures, Obama sometimes uses three words, three phrases, or even three parallel paragraphs, to underscore his points. These practices are variations of "tricolon." I will refer to them here as "triadic extension." For example, on the night of his Iowa Caucus win, Obama stated:

I know how hard it is. It comes with little sleep, little pay, and a lot of sacrifice.

In an example from Obama's announcement for president, in Springfield, Illinois, on February 10, 2007, he stated:

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. [Emphases added.]

In the example above, triadic phrases help to provide structure to thoughts. They also help to underscore the breadth of what must be achieved: reclaiming, restoring, realizing.

Triadic extensions can also be used to paint a picture more fully and to add eloquence to delivery. Speaking of President Abraham Lincoln during his announcement for president in February 2007, Obama used a loose variation of triadic extension:

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. [Emphases added.]

Using Triadic Extensions for Forward Momentum

There are other, more specific uses of triadic phrases. Obama sometimes uses triadic extension to establish a sense of a continuum or a movement forward. This helps amplify his points. For example, in his announcement for president on February 10, 2007, he said:

In the face of tyranny, a band of patriots brought an empire to its knees. In the face of secession, we unified a nation and set the captives free. In the face of Depression, we put people back to work and lifted millions out of poverty. [Emphases added.]

Using Triadic Extensions to Reiterate Key Aspects

Triadic extensions are also useful for emphasizing important aspects or traits about the subject under discussion. To do this, the three words of the triadic extension should represent a succession of synonymous words that underscore similar ideas. Referred to generally as scesis onomaton, when used in a triadic extension it helps drive points home. For example:

She displayed enthusiasm, demonstrated fervor, exuded passion.

In his remarks in Des Moines, Iowa, on December 27,2007, Obama stated:

In the end, the argument we are having between the candidates in the last seven days is not just about the meaning of change. It's about the meaning of hope. Some of my opponents appear scornful of the word; they think it speaks of naïveté, passivity, and wishful thinking.v [Emphasis added.]

During his remarks following his win in the Iowa caucus on January 3,2008, Obama said:

You said the time has come to move beyond the bitterness and pettiness and anger that's consumed Washington; to end the political strategy that's been all about division and instead make it about addition; to build a coalition for change that stretches through red states and blue states. [Emphasis added.]

In this example from his announcement for president on February 10,2007, Obama combines triadic extensions with scesis ono-maton to elaborate on one idea, reiterated in three slightly varying ways. This amplifies the point he is making, causing it stand out:

That's what Abraham Lincoln understood. He had his doubts. He had his defeats. He had his setbacks. But through his will and his words, he moved a nation and helped free a people.

Using Triadic Extensions for a Multiplier Effect

To add a multiplier effect, Obama sometimes also employs extra conjunctions such as "and" along with triadic extension. In his announcement for president on February 10,2007, he stated:

[A]s people have looked away in disillusionment and frustration, we know what's filled the void. The cynics, and the lobbyists, and the special interests who've turned our government into a game only they can afford to play. [Emphases added.]

Using Triadic Extensions to Enhance the Sense of Logic

To give power to his points, Obama sometimes uses triadic words or phrases with a sequenced order. This establishes both a strong sense of logic and an amplification, underscoring a particular point of view. During his 2004 keynote address, for example, he said:

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. [Emphasis added.]

Similarly, in the same speech, he stressed:

We have real enemies in the world. These enemies must be found, they must be pursued, and they must be defeated. [Emphasis added.]

Here is an example where Obama structures paragraphs using the broad concept of triadic extension, presenting his thoughts in three sets that reinforce a theme. When conveying how intimately he understands the plight of the average American, Obama mentioned in December 2007:

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.vi


Obama also employs slogans and refrains to emphasize his key themes and takeaways. This helps focus audience attention. A slogan is a catchphrase or short sentence that reflects the themes a speaker wants people to remember. A refrain—originally a musical term, but increasingly used in the media to describe elements of public speech—can be thought of as a concise chant phrase that underscores a main idea, like a chorus emphasizes a song's theme. Obama often uses repetition as he seeks to fix the slogans or refrains in the minds of listeners. He has been so highly effective in conveying his slogans and refrains that many Americans can recite at least one with ease: "Yes we can." "Change we can believe in." "There is something happening." "Our moment is now."

We see a powerful example of the use of slogans when examining Obama's remarks following his primary loss in Pennsylvania. It was an important loss, because pundits questioned whether the loss signaled that Obama would fail to gain sufficient support among working class Americans. To quell any sense that he was losing momentum, Obama came out strong, conveying a slogan that enabled listeners to fix their sights on future possibilities and remain motivated. He also used alliteration to add power to his words, making them sound more eloquent and hopeful, and encouraging supporters to remain inspired:

[I]n 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. [Alliteration.]

Yes we can.

It was whispered by slaves and abolitionists as they blazed a trail toward freedom through the darkest of nights. [Alliteration.]

Yes we can.

It was sung by immigrants as they struck out from distant shores and pioneers who pushed westward against an unforgiving wilderness. [Alliteration.]

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 mountaintop and pointed the way to the promised land. [Alliteration.]

Yes we can to justice and equality. Yes we can to opportunity and prosperity. Yes we can heal this nation. Yes we can repair this world. Yes we can.vii [Emphasis added.]

Consider another example:

The choice in this election is not between regions or religions or genders. It's not about rich versus poor; young versus old; and it is not about black versus white.

It's about the past versus the future.

It's about whether we settle for the same divisions and distractions and drama that passes for politics today, or whether we reach for a politics of common sense, and innovation—a shared sacrifice and shared prosperity.

There are those who will continue to tell us we cannot do this. That we cannot have what we long for. That we are peddling false hopes.

But here's what I know. I know that when people say we can't overcome all the big money and influence in Washington, I think of the elderly woman who sent me a contribution the other day—an envelope that had a money order for $3.01 along with a verse of scripture tucked inside. So don't tell us change isn't possible.

When I hear the cynical talk that blacks and whites and Latinos can't join together and work together, I'm reminded of the Latino brothers and sisters I organized with and stood with and fought with side by side for jobs and justice on the streets of Chicago. So don't tell us change can't happen.

When I hear that we'll never overcome the racial divide in our politics, I think about that Republican woman who used to work for Strom Thurmond, who's now devoted to educating inner-city children and who went out onto the streets of South Carolina and knocked on doors for this campaign. Don't tell me we can't change.

Yes we can change.

Yes we can heal this nation.

Yes we can seize our future.

And as we leave this state with a new wind at our backs and take this journey across the country we love with the message we've carried from the plains of Iowa to the hills of New Hampshire; from the Nevada desert to the South Carolina coast; the same message we had when we were up and when we were down—that out of many, we are one; that while we breathe, we hope; and where we are met with cynicism and doubt and those who tell us that we can't, we will respond with that timeless creed that sums up the spirit of a people in three simple words: Yes. We. Can.viii

[Emphases added.]

The repetition drives "yes we can" home as a key theme and slogan.


In this chapter, we have seen the excellent communication techniques that allow Barack Obama to drive home his points so effectively. Leaders have much to garner and apply from his successes. When constructing remarks, for example, highly effective communicators prioritize and focus well, casting aside lower priority issues and shining a light on ideas of greatest importance. They draw on a wide range of valuable rhetorical devices to promote assertively the most significant ideas and themes. Rhetorical questions help crystallize attention on key ideas. Repetition and parallel paragraph structures emphasize key points and help build to a climax. Alliteration draws attention to key words and adds a musical eloquence to speech. A choice to omit conjunctions enables skilled speakers to pick up speed, presenting emphatic words. Adding extra conjunctions amplifies points and creates a multiplier effect. When leveraging the "power of three," skilled communicators underscore key points, building momentum or enhancing a sense of logic. Communicating with slogans and refrains helps leaders emphasize themes to be remembered.