“We are greater than the sum of our individual ambitions, and we remain more than a collection of red states and blue states. We are and forever will be the United States of America.”

That was one of the many bold yet resolute declarations made by the 44th President of the United States of America, President Barack Hussein Obama, in his Presidential Acceptance Speech 2012 after a long-fought political tussle with Governor Mitt Romney. Being one of the greatest orators in our times, to describe President Obama’s Acceptance Speech as “electrifying” would hardly be an overstatement.

In fact, for anyone who has been attuned to President Obama’s manner of speech crafting and delivery, you will notice that his speeches are often peppered heavily with stories and personal anecdotes, gratitude and over-flowing humility, inspiration and an amazing sense of intimacy, rallies for solidarity and empathy for diversity.

The late 19th century poet, Ralph Waldo Emerson, expressed the power of speeches succinctly enough,

“Speech is power: speech is to persuade, to convert, to compel.”

In every aspect of persuading his audience of his firmly held convictions of “Yes, We can”, converting his cynics of his administration’s commitment to change and compelling the common electorate to believe that he has a role to play in making United States of America great, President Obama has done it impeccably through his speeches.

This entry will NOT be a political analysis of Obama’s victory as I am certain there are millions more qualified and informed experts who are primed to do so. Yet, this will be a insight piece that looks into the mechanics of what made this Presidential Acceptance Speech 2012 an effective, inspiring and electrifying (yes, I’m saying it again) one from inside out.

As part of my preparation for this insight piece, I had ran through the actual speech transcript and made many notations about the themes, sub-themes, rhetorical devices deployed in the speech. Nothing beats breaking things down into the nuts and bolts and understanding what works and what doesn’t. So please go through my working transcript if you like to.

There are definitely many reasons that made President Obama’s Presidential Acceptance Speech an amazing one, but here’s my take on it from a public speaker’s point of view –  The 8 powerful speech techniques that made all the difference for President Obama.

1.Obama’s Deep Sense of Humility

In every competition, there’s a deserving winner who basks in the limelight and often a neglected “loser(s)” who fades into the shadows of obscurity. Yet with President Obama as the winner of the US Presidential Elections 2012, there was hardly any show of arrogance or hubris.

Instead, President Obama displayed great magnanimity and humility as a leader and fondly embraced his political rivals, Governor Mitt Romney and Paul Ryan in the early moments of his victory speech.

“We may have battled fiercely, but it’s only because we love this country deeply and we care so strongly about its future. From George to Lenore to their son Mitt, the Romney family has chosen to give back to America through public service and that is the legacy that we honor and applaud tonight.  In the weeks ahead, I also look forward to sitting down with Governor Romney to talk about where we can work together to move this country forward.”

The fact that President Obama could have made a cursory appreciation to Governor Romney but he did not and chose to take one step forward to recognize Governor Romney’s lineage and “legacy” of public service, convinces his electorate that this battle was never about him to start with. It was about a common future for America where their intention (both his and Romney’s) behind this political campaigning were driven by love for their country and aspirations for the nation’s future rather than their own pride and ego.

President Obama was quick to embrace and set aside their differences and get to work to forward America. That was his commitment.

2. Winning the Cynics Over

Like it or not, there will always be cynics, for one reason or the other. President Obama is human and every bit as fallible but he does not deny his vulnerabilities by ignoring the cynics and skeptics or bulldozing them down. He recognizes that there may be a group of Americans and in this context, global citizens, who do view the political process of this Democracy as more of a farce than anything else.

“I know that political campaigns can sometimes seem small, even silly. And that provides plenty of fodder for the cynics that tell us that politics is nothing more than a contest of egos or the domain of special interests. But if you ever get the chance to talk to folks who turned out at our rallies and crowded along a rope line in a high school gym, or saw folks working late in a campaign office in some tiny county far away from home, you’ll discover something else.”

He knows the cynics are quick to downplay the significance of the campaigning efforts but President Obama shifts the focus not unto himself nor the grandeur or might of his future Obama plans but, the conviction and beliefs shared by the common people you will see on the streets who are likewise involved in the campaigning efforts.

“You’ll hear the determination in the voice of a young field organizer…”

“You’ll hear the pride in the voice of a volunteer…”

“You’ll hear the deep patriotism in the voice of a military spouse…”

In an astute move down here, President Obama nullified the cynics’ notions of how the campaigns were petty efforts, a mere “contest of egos” or an exclusive reservation to the “domain of special interests” and at the same time… brought to light, the meaningful efforts of the volunteers and supporters of his campaign team and what they all stood for and held on to.

This is an exemplification of the common management and leadership saying, “People don’t care about how much you know, until they know how much you care about them”. It is perhaps one of President Obama’s gifts to communicate how much he is aware of and cares about the common people on the ground like you and me and yet, be able to set sights for what the country needs on the national level.

3. It’s about falling in love with Michelle too…

What we always envision about battles is filled with testosterone, blood and gore as in films like 300. However, when we talk about a political campaign for what is the largest and most influential nation in the world, it is not a display of raw brawn and power. It is also to show the fallibility and vulnerability of you as an individual and that the influential individuals around you are equally as important and they complete you.

Perhaps a sub-theme of the campaigning that may not have had much of the commentator’s attention is the immense influence of Michelle Obama, as the nation’s First Lady. President Obama gone as far as saying,

Let me say this publicly: Michelle, I have never loved you more. I have never been prouder to watch the rest of America fall in love with you, too, as our nation’s first lady.

Sasha and Malia, before our very eyes you’re growing up to become two strong, smart beautiful young women, just like your mom.

This is not just a silly romantic declaration in front of national TV and in front of the world (although some may argue it does win over the hearts of the sentimentalists), it is a firm recognition and appreciation to Michelle Obama as her symbolic role of the spouse of the head of state of the USA. En route to President Obama’s victory, let us not forget Michelle’s instrumental role in rallying for President Obama as a persuasive and convincing third-party in her convention speech as well.

Of course, not forgetting Obama’s two teenage daughters, Sasha and Malia, who made President Obama all the more endearing and relatable as a father figure.

4. Obama Style with a dash of humor

Humor has the amazing effect of bringing down the cold and high walls between your audience and you as a speaker and instantly win them over so they have a solid listening for you.

“Once you get people laughing, they’re listening and you can tell them almost anything.”
– Herbert Gardner

President Obama made an interesting segue from appreciating Michelle Obama, Sasha and Malia to getting his audience burst into laughter after they know of Sasha and Malia’s intention to have more “companions” at home.

“And I’m so proud of you guys. But I will say that for now one dog’s probably enough.”

This simple but humorous interaction between President Obama and his teenage daughters earned him a good 4 seconds of laughter and also, got his audience engaged for what’s to come next as he gone on to recognize his campaign team. This shows that humor need not be all blue or canned but can be found everywhere in our day to day interactions too.

5. Story of One, Story of Many

The magic of making your speeches intimate and truly personal especially when you are speaking to a group of audience that’s diverse in many different ways is when you can translate a larger phenomena or intention into smaller, visible and relatable experiences.

The story of America is one of a promise. A promise of “freedom and dignity for every human being”. Instead of staying on the abstract levels, President Obama painted the many disparate and simple stories of how this promise have manifested in the various strata of the society.

“We believe in a generous America, in a compassionate America, in a tolerant America, open to the dreams of an immigrant’s daughter who studies in our schools and pledges to our flag.

To the young boy on the south side of Chicago who sees a life beyond the nearest street corner.

To the furniture worker’s child in North Carolina who wants to become a doctor or a scientist, an engineer or an entrepreneur, a diplomat or even a president — that’s the future we hope for. That’s the vision we share.”

Too many times, speakers try to impress us with numbers and statistics but neglect the immense power of stories. An equivalent of this blunder in such a context will be saying how many people have experienced x% in real income, y% decline in employment rates or z% increase in literacy rates in South Side, Chicago where it is known to be crime-infested and impoverished. Notice there wasn’t a single mention of any statistic in President Obama’s speech? Never in any moment of President Obama’s speech did he mention the margin of victory vis-a-vis Romney. That said, statistics and hard evidence do matter but in an opportune and jubilant moment like this, cold and calculated hard numbers don’t matter as much as evoked rich emotions do.

The story of one immigrant, the story of one wayward teenager on the troubled South Side and the story of one furniture worker’s child who lacks the opportunities for progression come together to weave the story of many Americans who aspire for a common better future. I am moved, are you?

6. It’s not about ‘I’, but ‘You’ and ‘We’

What becomes telling is when you starting take note of the different types of pronouns President Obama uses and how often he uses them in his entire speech. In his 21 minutes victory speech, these were the tally of the usage of the different pronouns.

I – 33 times

You/you’re/your – 56 times

We/Us/Our – 110 times

The usage of the different pronouns is key in creating resonance within the speech. A common ratio that public speakers can use to measure their speech effectiveness is the “I/You (We) Ratio” (or I-U Ratio). Great speeches generally have a lower I-U ratio because the focus is not on “I” as an individual but about “You” as an audience and why you should listen and what should you listen out for. During the course of any speech or presentation, the audience is always asking “What’s in it for me?” (WIIFM) and “So what?” so it is imperative to always ensure your speech is audience-centric and also, to create value and stake for the audience to listen in to what you have to say.

Considering this was a Presidential Victory speech, it is no surprise that the speech was centred on President Obama himself for some moments as the electorate needed to hear what is President Obama is committed to as the leader of the nation hence the considerable usage of ‘I’ for 33 times.

Yet, it is more important to note how many more times he used the pronouns ‘You/You’re/Your’ and ‘We/Us/Our’ in his speech. The former pronoun classes (56 times) has the effect of creating affinity and personal connection because of how it sounds as if President Obama is talking to you and no one else but yourself.

The latter pronoun classes (110 times) ensures that this speech rallies and involves everyone, including President Obama himself, on the same line and towards a common endeavor. This is all the more important, considering that there was a significant crowd who voted for Romney’s camp as well but now, President Obama has the task of involving and not sidelining them.

7. Rich Usage of Rhetorical Devices

Given President Obama’s background and training as a Havard Law Graduate and Attorney, it is always a joy to listen (and read) President Obama’s  speeches because he is just amazingly deft with the creative usage of the language, or that his team of speechwriters. In the course of his speech, President Obama deployed a variety of rhetorical devices that made his speech came to life and connect deeply with his audience.

Anaphora – the repetition of a word or phrase at the start of successive clauses or sentences. Usage of ‘Anaphora’ as a rhetorical device helps to convey and reinforce a certain message in a successive manner that resonates with the audience like layering a Lego brick atop another sequentially. If you listen to Obama’s speeches enough, he uses them generously.

1) “This country has more wealth than any nation, but that’s not what makes us rich.

We have the most powerful military in history, but that’s not what makes us strong.

Our university, our culture are all the envy of the world, but that’s not what keeps the world coming to our shores.”

2) ” I’ve seen it in the family business whose owners would rather cut their own pay than lay off their neighbors, and in the workers who would rather cut back their hours than see a friend lose a job.

I’ve seen it in the soldiers who reenlist after losing a limb and in those SEALs who charged up the stairs into darkness and danger because they knew there was a buddy behind them watching their back.

I’ve seen it on the shores of New Jersey and New York, where leaders from every party and level of government have swept aside their differences to help a community rebuild from the wreckage of a terrible storm.”

Metaphor - compares two different things in a figurative sense. Metaphors convey ideas that may be somewhat abstract in an otherwise figurative and visual sense and this aids understanding.

“Thank you for believing all the way, through every hill, through every valley.”

“As it has for more than two centuries, progress will come in fits and starts. It’s not always a straight line. It’s not always a smooth path.”

Epistrophe — repetition of a word or phrase at the end of successive clauses or sentences. This is possibly one of Obama’s favorite as well, probably given the context that he can play up on.

“We are greater than the sum of our individual ambitions, and we remain more than a collection of red states and blue states. We are and forever will be the United States of America.”

 8. Delivered with Utmost Conviction and Progressive Rhythm a la Barack Obama

If you watch closely at when the audience gets most fanatic or fired up during President Obama’s speech, it happens during his intentional climatic and rapid build-up of emotions to rally his audience towards a landing statement and point. It’s like following a drama where the protagonist is in a pursuit or mission. He meets the indomitable villain, has the toughest and most excruciating battle he has fought in his life and alas, finishes it off in one swift strike. In the equivalent of a dramatic structure in plays or films, it’s the concept of dénouement where the conflict is being resolved and this gives way to a sense of catharsis.

Wikipedia has it that, “etymologically, the French word dénouement is derived from the Old French word desnouer, “to untie”, from nodus, Latin for “knot.” Simply put, dénouement is the unraveling or untying of the complexities of a plot.”

The following are two excerpts from his speech where he led his audience in a series of statements that’s built up progressively and in a rapid-fire fashion with Obama’s usual conviction and resoluteness. The words in bold are the ‘landing statements’ or junctures, where it represents an “emotional climax” for the audience.

“The belief that our destiny is shared; that this country only works when we accept certain obligations to one another and to future generations. The freedom which so many Americans have fought for and died for come with responsibilities as well as rights. And among those are love and charity and duty and patriotism. That’s what makes America great.” (15:30 – 15:56)

“America, I believe we can build on the progress we’ve made and continue to fight for new jobs and new opportunity and new security for the middle class. I believe we can keep the promise of our founders, the idea that if you’re willing to work hard, it doesn’t matter who you are or where you come from or what you look like or where you love. It doesn’t matter whether you’re black or white or Hispanic or Asian or Native American or young or old or rich or poor, able, disabled, gay or straight, you can make it here in America if you’re willing to try.” (19:30 – 20:10)

For a master orator like President Obama, this list could go on further and I may not have done sufficient justice to his speech with this insight piece. But I believe these 8 points were what struck home with me and in my opinion, allowed this speech to be such an effective and inspiring one.

There must be many other grounds that I may not have covered. So share with me – what are your opinions about President Obama’s speech? what about Obama’s speech worked for you? What do you think he did right that made his speech such a powerful one? 

I’d love to hear from you.