Six lessons in public speaking from Obama

America has elected the greatest political speaker for a generation.

You may think that there’s nothing for you to learn from Barack Obama’s speechmaking skills – that speaking to 200,000 people at Grant Park, Chicago is too far removed from the presentation you might give to your staff, to your management team or to potential clients. Here are six lessons you can learn from Obama’s acceptance speech at Grant Park.

1. Know your audience

It would have been easy for Obama to fall into the trap of talking to the 200,000 people before him in Grant Park. He didn’t. He spoke to Americans in their living rooms, he spoke to those who voted for McCain, he spoke to people watching him across the world – leaders and the poorest of the  poor. He knew who his audience was.

“And to all those watching tonight from beyond our shores, from parliaments and palaces, to those who are huddled around radios in the forgotten corners of the world, our stories are singular, but our destiny is shared, and a new dawn of American leadership is at hand.”

2. Envelop your point in a story

The long history of the campaign for civil rights in America made Obama’s election possible. Obama enveloped this point with the story of Anne Dixon Cooper, a 106 year old woman who was born the daughter of slaves, and has lived through the milestons of the civil rights movement.

“She was born just a generation past slavery; a time when there were no cars on the road or planes in the sky; when someone like her couldn’t vote for two reasons — because she was a woman and because of the color of her skin.”

That’s far more emotionally engaging than giving us a history lesson.

3. Paint pictures on the canvas of your audience’s mind

Obama used specific and concrete words to conjure powerful images in our minds. Here are some examples:

“Our campaign was not hatched in the halls of Washington. It began in the backyards of Des Moines and the living rooms of Concord and the front porches of Charleston.”

“Even as we stand here tonight, we know there are brave Americans waking up in the deserts of Iraq and the mountains of Afghanistan to risk their lives for us.”

“And, above all, I will ask you to join in the work of remaking this nation, the only way it’s been done in America for 221 years — block by block, brick by brick, calloused hand by calloused hand.”

4. Get personal

Barack Obama told the whole world that he’s getting his two young daughters a puppy to take with them to the White House. And the world loved it. In his first press conference he remarked that this is the most popular issue on his website.

5. Wait for weight

Obama is not in a hurry when he speaks. He waits for the audience to process and react to what he has just said. And that gives his words weight. You can do the same.

6. Light and shade

Obama’s acceptance speech had different moods – joyful – humorous – serious – intimate – determined. The contrasts keep us engaged – build light and shade into your presentations.

Here’s the full transcript of the speech – it’s worth reading in its entirety.

For more perspectives, here are other posts on Barack Obama’s acceptance speech:

Bert Decker focuses on impressive aspects of Obama’s transformational speech.

Lisa Braithwaite comments on Obama’s speech and McCain’s concession speech.

Nick Morgan praises both Obama and McCain for their speeches.

Max Atkinson analyses Obama’s rhetorical techniques.

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7 Comments

  1. Thanks Ian for posting that. Your video illustrates how one could use visuals to support an inspirational speech. Olivia

  2. That’s a very nice post giving exactly what you need to do in public speaking.

  3. i would like to know and speak like barak obama on public speeches

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