Before we start, you’ll need the video of the speech. Or, you can read the transcript here. You can watch along by splitting your screen into two, with the video on the left and this article on the right. Or, read this article first. That way you can see what I’m talking about before you watch what’s probably one of the coolest speeches in recent history.
As always, I present my bias in the hopes that by doing so you can identify where I see things differently. I’m a huge Obama fan. Not for his policies: but the way he carried himself, how he spoke, and what his presidency meant for people of colour. I’ll do my best to filter out any bias and focus on the psychology and strategy behind this speech. Hopefully, you get something from it.
Rewind time for a second: it’s 2004 in the United States of America, and John Kerry has been selected as the nominee for the Democratic Party. At the Democratic National Convention, a young Senator appears on stage to deliver a speech in support of said nominee. The speech that follows not only ignites the crowd with an energy few have been able to replicate, it ignites a passion in the democratic base that carries on for years. Barack Obama, a relatively unknown political figure at the time, is launched into the public spotlight. And the rest they say, is history.
His speech form the 2004 Democratic National Convention has been called the speech that “put him on the map”, and the moment that America fell in love with him. Many refer to it as the speech that led him to the presidency. But what was it about this speech that was so powerful? Why did it spur such an emotional reaction in so many people across the political spectrum? What was it about his speech, and by extension him, that was so inspiring? That’s what we’re going to study. Today I want to break down Barack Obama’s 2004 speech to better understand why it was so powerful.
The first reality we have to accept is that aspects of a powerful speech rarely exist in silos. You don’t give an effective presentation through words alone. In order to deliver a message that resonates with listeners, we have to look at the presentation more holistically.
As such, I want to highlight four aspects of Obama’s speech and how each amplified the other to lead to the presentation you see in that video. How he continually eludes to specific themes throughout the speech, his enthusiastic body language, the role of inclusive language, and the way he builds a deep narrative by leveraging various stories to create a larger one. Each part plays an integral role in the whole, as each piece amplifies another: thus, leading to one of the most powerful speeches we’ve seen in recent history.
A Message Of Unity
The first aspect I want to highlight is Obama’s use of unity as a theme. By unity I mean the common connections seemingly disconnected groups and individuals have.
The first example of this is in his introduction. In the beginning, Obama introduces himself by explaining how unlikely it is that he would even be there, but the progress the United States has made has given him the opportunity to succeed:
“Tonight is a particular honor for me because, let’s face it, my presence on this stage is pretty unlikely.”
Obama then goes on to trace his own personal journey, once again connecting seemingly unrelated stories: first, he tells the stories of his grandfather and father and how they overcame great odds as people of colour, then the stories of his mother and her father. In every story, Obama highlights how the obstacles they overcame and decisions they made led to him and prepared him for his own challenges ahead, sharing their personal beliefs that he too shares, and how they relate to the greater American story (emphasis mine):
“My parents shared not only an improbable love; they shared an abiding faith in the possibilities of this nation. They would give me an African name, Barack, or “blessed,” believing that in a tolerant America your name is no barrier to success. They imagined me going to the best schools in the land, even though they weren’t rich, because in a generous America you don’t have to be rich to achieve your potential.”
I’ll get into how storytelling is a powerful way to share a message later, but I want to touch on its purpose in effective speaking (especially how stories can communicate ideas without outright saying them). In Professor Jonah Berger’s Contagious, he explains how stories serve as a vessel for an idea to travel. The criteria for a story in Professor Berger’s research is that the idea must be interwoven into the story: in order to tell the story accurately, you have to include the message (Berger, 2013).
We see this very clearly in Obama’s speech. Each part relates back to this theme of unity and connection: how his parents connected to him, how their values connected to the greater American story, and how we’re all in some way connected with each other. We see this pattern appear more often as he includes stories from across America.
But what words play a role in this? The word “unity” doesn’t appear in the speech, but the idea of it appears throughout in words and phrases with similar meanings (emphasis mine, again):
“And they, too, had big dreams for their daughter, a common dream, born of two continents. My parents shared not only an improbable love; they shared an abiding faith in the possibilities of this nation.”
“I stand here knowing that my story is part of the larger American story, that I owe a debt to all of those who came before me, and that, in no other country on earth, is my story even possible.”
“A belief that we are connected as one people.”
Obama’s speech revolves around a theme of unity and is enforced through his storytelling and word use to connect everything together. By highlighting how each story is connected, he consistently reminds the audience of this idea that he holds.
The Power Is In Your Hands (And The Rest Of You)
That’s great Andrew, but what about body language?
Yes, body language is an important part of public speaking. Obama commands attention very well with it, and there are two aspects that I want to highlight.
The first is his use of hands. You’ll notice throughout the speech Obama’s hand gestures fit in certain categories: palm-open, in an “okay” symbol, or index-finger pointing.
In The Definitive Book of Body Language by Allan & Barbara Pease, the authors propose subtexts for each hand-position:
- Palm-open = non-threatening & inviting (used to imply honesty)
- Pointing finger = authoritative & forward (used to drive home a point)
- Okay symbol = authoritative but non-aggressive (also used to drive home a point)
(Pease & Pease, 2004).
Throughout Obama’s speech, he drives home his points using the pointing figure and okay symbol periodically, while leaning heavily on his palm-open gestures. He mixes it up periodically, but the general trend is there.
Secondly, his energy changes throughout the speech. When he starts his speech, he speaks slowly and with clear language. He begins to pick up his energy around the 4-minute mark as he dives deeper into shared ideas (his use of “we” and “our” pick up around this point too), and he maintains this energy into his support for nominee John Kerry. This pattern of slow-to-fast continues throughout the rest of the speech and is driven home in his final two minutes, especially the last 45 seconds.
His energy is relevant because it sets the pace at which the crowd follows through. In Confessions of a Public Speaker by Scott Berkun, the author proposes that one of the fundamentally powerful tools a speaker has is the pace of the presentation: by holding the attention of the crowd the speaker can speed up or slow down the pace to their advantage (Berkun, 2009).
Slow-paces can get boring but Obama mitigates that by telling detailed stories that highlight shared values, unique experiences, and how those fit into the greater picture. His high-energy segments drive home arguments he makes through statements such as:
“There’s not a liberal America and a conservative America — there’s the United States of America. There’s not a black America and white America and Latino America and Asian America; there’s the United States of America.”
In the world of public speaking, enthusiasm sets the context for the crowd. Varying that energy strategically allows the speaker to take the listener on a journey. This enthusiasm serves as a bridge for the message to cross, from speaker to listener.
The Role of Inclusive Language
The third part of the puzzle is the words Obama uses: specifically ones that create a shared experience and are group-oriented, connecting the listener and speaker. We’ll call these words “inclusive language” for simplicity’s sake.
In the presentation Think Fast Talk Smart, Stanford Graduate School of Business professor Matt Abraham proposes that effective communication relies on what he calls conversational language to create a two-way street of communication. The purpose is to bring the listener into the experience rather than have a one-sided monologue (Abraham, 2015). While this talk focuses on interpersonal communication, the lesson of conversational language is significant to explain Obama’s use of inclusive language. By using words that created a shared sense of purpose and include the listener, the message is able to find common ground.
We can see this in the number of times inclusive language was used in Obama’s speech: the words “we” appears approximately 35 times, “our” 22 times, “us” 16 times, and “you” + “your” 9 times. While “I” was used in many cases, it was mainly for personal stories that ended in more inclusive language. As mentioned before, the higher energy points typically have more inclusive language.
In Words That Work by Frank Luntz (pretty ironic that I’m analyzing a Democrat’s speech with a Republican Pollster’s research, huh?), he argues that effective messaging focuses on commonalities between the audience and the message being communicated. By emphasizing a shared experience, the listener is more open to what is being said (Luntz, 2007). In Obama’s speech, his use of inclusive language supports the creation of a shared experience:
“That we can tuck in our children at night and know they are fed and clothed and safe from harm. That we can say what we think, write what we think, without hearing a sudden knock on the door. That we can have an idea and start our own business without paying a bribe or hiring somebody’s son.”
Obama’s use of inclusive language plays an important role in the creation of a powerful message that resonates with the audience. It does so by creating a bridge between both him and anyone listening to him speak. As you can tell by the audience’s energy, his use of words such as “we”, “our”, and “us” help spur energy and inspire the crowd.
The final part of Obama’s speech that deserves attention is his use of stories. You’ll notice that throughout the entire speech, he weaves in different stories that are deeply personal: his mother’s story, father’s story, his story, the story of Shamus, of John Kerry, and the citizens he met on his journey like the ones in the collar counties around Chicago. Even in the stories that don’t have a defined main character, he still describes the environment in a detailed enough way that allows you to visualize, or at least understand, that experience:
More to do for the father I met who was losing his job and choking back tears, wondering how he would pay $4,500 a month for the drugs his son needs without the health benefits he counted on.
Without giving a name, he’s built a character in our mind that we can, to a degree, understand. We may not know his ethnicity, facial features, or any major details about him: but we can understand a father worried about his son. We can visualize that pain. And these deeply personal stories, no matter how short or vague, serve different but similar roles in his creation of a grander narrative.
In Obama’s speech, he isn’t telling just one story: he’s telling many, and he weaves them together so they support the entire speech. We’ll call this “narrative building”, which is a fancy way to call the use of different stories to create one larger one. The narrative of this speech is the sum of its parts (for the last time, the emphasis is mine):
No, people don’t expect government to solve all their problems. But they sense, deep in their bones, that with just a change in priorities, we can make sure that every child in America has a decent shot at life, and that the doors of opportunity remain open to all. They know we can do better.
I met a young man named Shamus… He was a good-looking kid, 6'2" or 6'3", clear eyed, with an easy smile. He told me he’d joined the Marines and was heading to Iraq… 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?
You’ll notice each story connects back to a major theme or part of the greater narrative, further reinforcing his main points. The stories of citizens who know they need to work and want the possibility to do so shows the importance of opportunity: ones that John Kerry will give. The stories of kids who can’t read and how that affects him: that what happens to others matters to him. The story of slaves sitting around a campfire singing freedom songs: a story of hope. Like small streams, each story leads back to the larger river: the greater narrative. That we’re all connected.
The third strategy in Obama’s speech is the use of duality: opposing forces that leave the listener with two sides to contrast each other by. The first one is the classic hero vs. villain dynamic, as it gives the audience an enemy to fight against and a hero to rally behind. Obama’s second use of duality is in the final stretch of the speech, where he offers the audience two choices for the kind of political world they want:
In the end, that’s what this election is about. Do we participate in a politics of cynicism or a politics of hope?
In both examples, Obama creates “figures” to contrast each other with, using them to explain the other. He gives the audience a choice about which one to support. In the hero vs. villain dynamic, the heroes are John Kerry & John Edwards and the villains are the spinmasters and negative ad peddlers (although one could argue the actual enemies are the Republican party). In the final stretch of the speech, the options are cynicism (the spinmasters) or hope (John Kerry & John Edwards). By creating two opposing figures, he is able to simplify the entirety of the speech into a choice between two options. That choice culminates in his final call to action:
Tonight, if you feel the same energy I do, the same urgency I do, the same passion I do, the same hopefulness I do — if we do what we must do, then I have no doubt that all across the country, from Florida to Oregon, from Washington to Maine, the people will rise up in November, and John Kerry will be sworn in as president, and John Edwards will be sworn in as vice president, and this country will reclaim its promise, and out of this long political darkness a brighter day will come. Thank you and God bless you.
A speech is a complicated animal. Each aspect of it has a depth that we could spend years trying to reach the bottom of. Not only that, but each part feeds into each other: a message of unity is the substance of the speech, but it can only be realized through effective word choice. Even with the right words, a speech that doesn’t create an image in our mind will inevitably fall flat: which is why we need deeply personal stories that we can relate to. And in order to communicate those stories, you need to be fully invested in your speech with enthusiasm and energy.
Obama’s 2004 speech has gone down as one of the most powerful speeches in recent history. And rightfully so: each aspect of it is perfectly woven together to create an iconic tale. Years later, we still talk about it. We look back on it with reverence. We wish for leaders that speak as he did. That is a clear example of a lasting impact. Of charisma. Of power.
I hope that this very long analysis of Obama’s 2004 keynote speech has shed a light on the hidden art of public speaking, and I hope it helps you in whatever speeches you will give one day. Maybe yours will become part of history. I look forward to it when it does.
Abraham, Matthew. Think Fast Talk Smart: Communication Techniques. Stanford Graduate School of Business, December 14th, 2014.
Berger, Jonah. Contagious: Why Things Catch On. Simon & Schuster Inc, March 5th, 2015.
Berkun, Scott. Confessions Of A Public Speaker. O’Reilly Media, November 14th, 2009.
Pease, Allan. Pease, Barbara. The Definitive Book of Body Language. Bantam, July 25th, 2006.
Luntz, Frank. Words That Work: It’s Not What You Say, It’s What People Hear. Hatchette Books, January 2nd, 2007.