Whether or not you’re a fan of former President Obama, there are aspects of his speaking style and content that you can learn from. Especially considering that the content of Presidential speeches are almost always produced by professional speechwriters. They know what they’re doing.
I’m going to approach this post from an Obama supporter’s angle—how a supporter would perceive the speech, and how it makes him look. This isn’t about the veracity of the claims in the speech or challenging his objectives.
Follow along the post with this video hosted by the New York Times. I will be referencing timestamps from that video.
Let’s first establish the objective for this farewell speech—that will help inform whether the speech was effective or not. Usually, this kind of speech would be paving the way for re-election. But because Obama cannot be re-elected, that’s not what he is going for. Instead, he wants the changes that he made to stick, and he wants the US to continue changing in that direction. So the approach he takes is to empower people to change the country themselves.
What he did right in his farewell speech
Any speech with a teleprompter is going to be at the very least decent. But besides that, he did a good job delivering in the style that is unique to Obama.
Although not shown in this version of the video, he began by saying “Hello Chicago, it’s good to be home!” before being drowned out by applause. This is a great opening line—it invokes feelings of closeness, but also finality. As if he’s saying, “After 8 years, here I am. I’m back home.” It’s an emotional statement. In addition, studies have found that people like other people who are from their area.
His opening joke (“You can tell that I’m a lame duck, because no one is following orders”) was also a good touch, although he delivered it with some hesitation. It’s very difficult to get an audience to stop clapping for speeches of this nature. The best you can do is say “Thank you” a lot, blush, and point and smile at random audience members. The lame duck joke probably helped expedite the process.
Throughout the farewell speech, Obama speaks to the general public, not just the audience in that room. It’s easy to have audience myopia when delivering a televised speech, but he handled it well.
At about 1:00, he addresses the “American people”. And later, at about 41:10, he directly mentions the people watching from home. While he could have done this earlier, I believe he did a good job of including the general public simply by the way he addressed the audience as American people.
Something Obama uses a lot is long lists and repetitive forms, which are pleasing to the ear. (Especially in threes.)
Here’s a sample from around 3:57:
For 240 years, our nation’s call to citizenship has given work and purpose to each new generation. It’s what led patriots to choose republic over tyranny, pioneers to trek west, slaves to brave that makeshift railroad to freedom.
It’s what pulled immigrants and refugees across oceans and the Rio Grande. It’s what pushed women to reach for the ballot. It’s what powered workers to organize. It’s why GIs gave their lives at Omaha Beach and Iwo Jima; Iraq and Afghanistan — and why men and women from Selma to Stonewall were prepared to give theirs as well.
In the first bold sentence, he covers three items. Then he gives three separate sentences all starting with “It’s what”.
Try to include some repetition and lists of three in your own speeches. (Also note: you can choose not to include an “and” on the last item in these kinds of lists. It’s a stylistic choice).
Pace and voice control
Pacing and voice control are two of the most powerful ways that a good speaker can stand out from a mediocre one.
Look back at the quote I gave to illustrate the repetition. That portion of the speech is an excellent example of pacing and voice. Throughout the repetition, he’s getting slightly louder and faster, and speaking in a higher pitch. Then when the emotional sentence (about the GIs) comes, he pauses, lowers his voice, and slowly delivers the line while glancing down a few times. Watch from 3:57 to 4:50 to see this masterful technique.
Another voice technique that Obama uses sometimes is the breathy, high-pitched voice. While this sounds like a negative thing on paper, you have to hear it to understand why it’s effective.
At about 7:10, Obama has just finished listing some of his accomplishments and saying “If I had told you we would do those things, you’d say our sights were set a little too high.” He then says “But that’s what we did” in the higher-pitched voice. This voice communicates that what he’s saying is incredible, but true. It’s the same voice you would use to say “I can’t believe this!”
At 29:57, he uses the voice again, but in a different way. In this case, he is simply trying to emphasize his conviction in the statement. “…We must guard against a weakening of the values that make us who we are”.
One last technique he uses is the lighthearted, ridicule voice. At 15:48, he says “Now I’ve lived long enough to know that race relations are better than they were 10 or 20 or 30 years ago, no matter what some folks say.” Notice the micro-laugh when he says “race relations”? This little laugh combined with his facial expression communicates that he thinks those who disagree are really wrong. It’s a powerful technique for persuasion, because it subtly hints that the opposing opinion is laughably bad (without being mean about it).
Obama included some lighthearted comments, which are almost always welcomed by crowds. He started off his speech with the joke about being a lame duck (a surprising joke to make for a Presidential speech).
He also used a lighthearted tone to emphasize the scale of the accomplishments that his administration achieved. At 6:08, he says “If I had told you eight years ago that…” then proceeded to list multiple accomplishments. Then he continued “…if I had told you all that, you might have said our sights were set a little too high.” The tone of voice he used communicated that it is humorous to think about how people would have reacted if they were promised all those accomplishments ahead of time.
One of his best moments was when he transitioned into thanking the people that helped get him elected. “Some of you here tonight or watching at home, you were there with us in 2004 and 2008, 2012. Maybe you still can’t believe we pulled this whole thing off… Let me tell you, you’re not the only ones.” This humanizes him: he’s just an ordinary guy who can’t believe he became President of the United States.
Dealing with the crowd
A crowd that big, and that passionate, is likely to do things that you don’t want them to do while you speak. Booing things, cheering over your speech, etc.
At 7:45, Obama transitions to talking about the upcoming inauguration and the peaceful transfer of power. As soon as it’s mentioned, the crowd begins booing (because of their distaste for Trump). He immediately shushes them and says “No no no no no” quickly in a disapproving voice. He took control of the matter in just a second. And immediately after, he gets them to applaud for the peaceful transfer of power. That’s great crowd management.
Here’s an honorable mention of all the times he had to talk over the crowd as they began to clap too early. It helps to have a good sound setup that allows you to actually talk over such a large audience.
Delivery of the key message
Throughout the farewell speech, Obama’s main message was that of empowering the people to create change. His objective, it seems, was to get people to continue the work that he started despite Trump’s election.
He talks about many topics that are directly relevant to the audience. He encourages them to get out of their social media bubbles and actually listen to people who disagree with them. This is an easy topic to talk about, because everyone always thinks “Yeah, those dirty [opposing side] never listen to other points of view!” It’s hard to offend people by saying “People need to learn to listen to opposing views.”
Obama also encouraged people to get involved. “If something needs fixing, then lace up your shoes and do some organizing. If you’re disappointed by your elected officials, grab a clip board, get some signatures, and run for office yourself. Show up, dive in, stay at it. Sometimes you’ll win, sometimes you’ll lose.”
If his speech meets its objective, he will have motivated thousands of young people who agree with his political views to get involved in politics and to change the United States. That’s the best thing that a President can do once he is forced to leave office.
Powerful moments in the speech
One of the most emotional moments was when Obama thanked his wife Michelle. (At around 41:40) He says her name then pauses for the applause, while grinning slyly. It’s very clear from the way he approaches this part of the speech that he cares a lot about her. Notably, one of the only times he stammers is during this section. He even wipes his eyes with a handkerchief (although honestly it doesn’t look like there were actual tears).
Another powerful moment was the very end, when he tied his campaign slogan in. Not only does he say “Yes we can”, but he also concludes with “Yes we did”, signaling that he accomplished his goals during the Presidency.
Best quotes from the farewell speech
I pulled a few quotes that I thought were worth highlighting.
“Let’s be vigilant but not afraid”
“Democracy can buckle when it gives in to fear”
“We in fact all share the same proud type, the most important office in democracy: citizen”
“If you’re tired of arguing with strangers on the internet, try talking with one of them in real life”
“I am asking you to believe. Not in my ability to bring about change — but in yours.”
“Yes we can. Yes we did.”
Things that he could have done better
This speech was technically quite well done, so there’s not much to pick at. But as a public speaking coach, it’s my job to find flaws in even the best speeches so that the individual can improve.
One nitpicky point I have is that his delivery of the opening joke left much to be desired. Just take a moment and go to the video, it’s literally the first thing that happens. He stutters y-y-y-ou so badly, I almost wondered if my computer was dying. Who knows what the cause of this is. If I had to guess, it’s because he was probably hesitant to actually say the joke. Or it may have been him waiting for the crowd to be quiet enough for him to actually deliver his joke.
While Obama is generally good at vocal tonality and pace, he could benefit from speeding up at times. He is very much a pause and go speaker. It’s good at times, but other times he could speed up in order to emphasize and increase the intensity of important parts of his speech. When you’re giving a speech to supporters, it’s easy to get them hyped up. Using fast portions really helps.
The other thing I was surprised by was the lack of story in his speech. He gave examples and mentioned events, but never straight up told a story. This is uncommon for Obama, who typically has an emotional story to share. Surely he could have weaved in an amazing story from his eight years of being President—whether it’s something about how great Michelle was, or a story of how his healthcare plan helped someone.
My last gripe with the speech—and this is the biggest one—is that it had a very unclear three point structure. Even when I rewatched the speech and looked for the points, I only got a headline for one of them. The rest were hidden under rhetoric. From what I gathered, his three points were:
- Some challenges hurt our solidarity, and that hurts our democracy
- Racism and other forms of discrimination harm our democracy
- Democracy is threatened when we take it for granted
Now compare that to Matthew McConaughey’s Best Actor speech, where he makes a clear three point outline and follows up on it.
Of course, the speeches are of two completely different types. It would seem out of place to have extremely clear points in the way that Matthew did. However, Obama’s speech would have more impact and stick in people’s brains better if he said “There are three things I want you to remember” then listed them, and clearly marked them as he moved through the speech. Giving people clear action points is the best way to influence change.
Overall, this was a great speech and there is much you can learn.
Just keep in mind that he delivered this with teleprompters. Don’t get discouraged by comparing your own, memorized speech against a well-rehearsed, professionally written, teleprompter speech. It’s incredible the difference that it makes in reducing verbal missteps.
But teleprompter or not, it still takes a good speaker to deliver with quality pace and vocal control. And that is why we can learn from Obama’s emotional farewell speech.
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