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Monday, March 9, 2020

Great speeches of history #1 - Obama's victory speech (2008)

Want to make your speeches better? Learn from the masters and mistresses of the craft.

By listening to and reading the great speeches of history (some from historical record, some imagined in drama or fiction) a debater can learn how to make their own speaking more persuasive. Be careful, though, not to get too carried away by the rhetoric. Your task is to take it to bits, to look at all the different working parts and see how each of them contributes to making the speech soar; to making it change the world. Just as you want to do with your debate speeches.

Our first speech was given in Chicago at midnight on November 4th 2008. I remember watching it live at 5 am London time during an election night sleepover for students at my school, wired on no sleep, too much coffee and a lot of hope. Barack Obama had just been elected as the first black American president. Whatever the rights and wrongs of his time in office, that simple fact was in and of itself a moment of history. Obama’s speech rose to the occasion.

Below is an edited transcript of the speech, with my comments in bold italics. You can watch the speech in full here.

If there is anyone out there who still doubts that America is a place where all things are possible; who still wonders if the dream of our founders is alive in our time; who still questions the power of our democracy, tonight is your answer.

‘If there is anyone out there’ starts the speech by calling out to the audience and includes everyone who is listening.

‘all things are possible’ has echoes, like a lot of American oratory, of the Bible: ‘With God all things are possible’ (Matthew 19:26). This subliminally reassures the listener that God is on the speaker’s side (and also has a lot of resonance in a country like the United States which has a very strong Christian heritage).

The repetition of ‘who still’ uses anaphora, repeating a phrase at the beginning of a clause, and does so in a way that builds from the origins of the USA to a crescendo with the immediacy of ‘tonight’.

It's the answer told by lines that stretched around schools and churches in numbers this nation has never seen; by people who waited three hours and four hours, many for the very first time in their lives, because they believed that this time must be different; that their voice could be that difference.

This sentence uses enargia, telling a little mini-story about democracy. It makes an abstract notion real by putting it in terms of recognisable people doing recognisable things in recognisable places.

It's the answer spoken by young and old, rich and poor, Democrat and Republican, black, white, Latino, Asian, Native American, gay, straight, disabled and not disabled — Americans who sent a message to the world that we have never been a collection of red states and blue states; we are, and always will be, the United States of America.

Here Obama expresses his vision of inclusivity by the way he structures his sentence. First. apparently opposite groups of people are linked by the conjunction ‘and’, and then a wide variety of communities are brought together by their inclusion in an asyndetic list (that is, one that does not use the word ‘and’). Finally, he invokes his country’s name, always a good way to appeal to the emotions. He plays on it by moving from the divisions inevitably created by an election (‘red states’ are those who voted Republican, ‘blue states’ are those who voted Democrat, Obama’s party) to a vision of unity expressed in the country’s name: the United States of America. Along with this admirable message of inclusivity, he is subtly putting into his listeners’ minds the notion that he represents 100% of Americans, and that he embodies the united nation.

It's the answer that led those who have been told for so long by so many to be cynical, and fearful, and doubtful of what we can achieve to put their hands on the arc of history and bend it once more toward the hope of a better day. It's been a long time coming, but tonight, because of what we did on this day, in this election, at this defining moment, change has come to America.

These two sentences use balancing tricolons (lists of three). The first lists all the obstacles to hope, ‘cynical, fearful and doubtful’; the second balances, and thereby cancels out, the obstacles by building to a crescendo, from ‘on this day’ (a normal occurrence) to ‘in this election’ (a special day), to the historic nature of ‘this defining moment’ (making it a moment of history).

‘put their hands on the arc of history and bend it once more’ links an abstract noun (‘history’) with physical actions (‘put their hands on’, ‘bend’), thereby giving the listeners a sense that they can physically control the world - a very empowering sensation.


… above all, I will never forget who this victory truly belongs to — it belongs to you.

Argumentuum ad populum - addressing the audience directly.

I was never the likeliest candidate for this office. We didn't start with much money or many endorsements. 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.

It was built by working men and women who dug into what little savings they had to give $5 and $10 and $20 to this cause. It grew strength from the young people who rejected the myth of their generation's apathy; who left their homes and their families for jobs that offered little pay and less sleep; from the not-so-young people who braved the bitter cold and scorching heat to knock on the doors of perfect strangers; from the millions of Americans who volunteered and organized, and proved that more than two centuries later, a government of the people, by the people and for the people has not perished from this earth. 

More enargia: telling lots of mini stories which make the story of his victory relatable. Also, by focusing on ordinary people, who can only give ‘$5 and $10 and $20’, he makes it seem as if, despite being about to become the most powerful man in the world, he is still just an ordinary person.

This is your victory.

Again addressing the audience directly, including them.

I know you didn't do this just to win an election, and I know you didn't do it for me. You did it because you understand the enormity of the task that lies ahead. For even as we celebrate tonight, we know the challenges that tomorrow will bring are the greatest of our lifetime — two wars, a planet in peril, the worst financial crisis in a century. 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. There are mothers and fathers who will lie awake after their children fall asleep and wonder how they'll make the mortgage, or pay their doctor's bills, or save enough for college. 

More enargia: ordinary stories, this time of struggle and difficulty, showing that he understands that life is not easy, but subliminally reassuring the audience that he will help solve their problems.

There is new energy to harness and new jobs to be created; new schools to build and threats to meet and alliances to repair.The road ahead will be long. Our climb will be steep. We may not get there in one year, or even one term, but America — I have never been more hopeful than I am tonight that we will get there. I promise you: We as a people will get there.

Slowing down the rhythm of the speech (pacing matters as much as content) in recognition of the seriousness of the task with two short sentences: ‘The road will be long. The climb will be steep.’ Then incorporating an element of ultimate reassurance with epistrophe (repeated endings), using the repetition of ‘will get there.’

There will be setbacks and false starts. There are many who won't agree with every decision or policy I make as president, and we know that government can't solve every problem. But I will always be honest with you about the challenges we face. I will listen to you, especially when we disagree. And, above all, I will ask you 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, callused hand by callused hand.

Including the audience by promising to listen to them. Again, inviting them to control the world through physical action, this time in a diminuendo, moving from a large section of buildings (‘block by block’) to a small unit (‘brick by brick’ ) to something individual and human (‘callused hand by callused hand’). Note the ‘callused’, recognising the value of physical labour.


… 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 our world — our stories are singular, but our destiny is shared, and a new dawn of American leadership is at hand. To those who would tear this world down: we will defeat you. To those who seek peace and security: we support you. And to all those who have wondered if America's beacon still burns as bright: tonight, we proved once more that the true strength of our nation comes not from the might of our arms or the scale of our wealth, but from the enduring power of our ideals: democracy, liberty, opportunity and unyielding hope.

Another enargia, including listeners round the world, from the powerful to the poor, imagining where they are listening. Then some anaphora, addressing all different attitudes to the United States. Both these techniques remind the audience that the whole world is listening (as it was), and therefore what he is saying is important. He ends with a crescendo of abstractions, culminating in ‘unyielding hope’, which implicitly acknowledges that there will be obstacles to be overcome, and stops him from sounding complacent.


This election had many firsts and many stories that will be told for generations. But one that's on my mind tonight is about a woman who cast her ballot in Atlanta. She's a lot like the millions of others who stood in line to make their voice heard in this election, except for one thing: Ann Nixon Cooper is 106 years old.

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 colour of her skin.

His best example yet of enargia, using one of the many ‘stories that will be told for generations’. Obama uses one of the storyteller’s most important weapons: suspense. He delays the big reveal. First his subject is just ‘a woman’. There’s a clue in her state, though; ’Atlanta’ was notorious for racial discrimination throughout much of the twentieth century. She’s just like us, ‘the millions of others who stood in line’. Then we get the first remarkable thing about her: she’s 106 years old. Along with this, she is named, to make her into a real person. Her great age is made real by reference to specific aspects of the world she was born into ‘no cars on the road or planes in the sky’. Finally, the reveal: she’s black (and therefore would not have been able to vote for most of her life). Now we love this woman! We think of her frail little body standing in line on a cold November day! (And maybe think of our own grandmothers or great-grandmothers.) But the real masterstroke is the way Obama subliminally links himself with her by implication: for many years, she wouldn’t have been able to vote because she was black; for many years, he would never have been able to become President because he was black. So he’s associated with this loveable, admirable old lady (we have to assume she voted for Obama).

And tonight, I think about all that she's seen throughout her century in America — the heartache and the hope; the struggle and the progress; the times we were told that we can't and the people who pressed on with that American creed: Yes, we can.
At a time when women's voices were silenced and their hopes dismissed, she lived to see them stand up and speak out and reach for the ballot. Yes, we can.

When there was despair in the Dust Bowl and depression across the land, she saw a nation conquer fear itself with a New Deal, new jobs and a new sense of common purpose. Yes, we can.
When the bombs fell on our harbour and tyranny threatened the world, she was there to witness a generation rise to greatness and a democracy was saved. Yes, we can.

She was there for the buses in Montgomery, the hoses in Birmingham, a bridge in Selma and a preacher from Atlanta who told a people that "We Shall Overcome." Yes, we can.

A man touched down on the moon, a wall came down in Berlin, a world was connected by our own science and imagination. And this year, in this election, she touched her finger to a screen and cast her vote, because after 106 years in America, through the best of times and the darkest of hours, she knows how America can change. Yes, we can.

Now a combination of enargia and epistrophe. Obama summarises a century of American history in a list of historic events, each illustrating the ways in which the American people have overcome obstacles, thereby making his listeners think that they can do the same. He reinforces this with the repeated ending ‘Yes, we can!’. This was his campaign slogan, and combines optimism (‘Yes’, ‘can’) with inclusion (‘we’). Something not right with your life? a/ it can be fixed b/ you won’t be alone. All in three words.

America, we have come so far. We have seen so much. But there is so much more to do. So tonight, let us ask ourselves: If our children should live to see the next century; if my daughters should be so lucky to live as long as Ann Nixon Cooper, what change will they see? What progress will we have made?

Some rhetorical questions pointing to the future, reminding us that he is the future now. 

This is our chance to answer that call. This is our moment. This is our time — to put our people back to work and open doors of opportunity for our kids; to restore prosperity and promote the cause of peace; to reclaim the American Dream and reaffirm that fundamental truth 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: Yes, we can.

Anaphora with ‘This is …’, suggesting something that is present and immediate, about to happen (‘our moment’). Then a final crescendo ending in hope.

Thank you, God bless you, and may God bless the United States of America.

Rounding it all off by pushing the emotional buttons of God and nation.

So, in this speech, Obama persuades his listeners to feel good about themselves, their country, and, quite subtly, him as their leader for the next four years. Debate speeches are never going to carry quite the same weight, but there are many techniques here you can learn from for making your own speeches more persuasive.

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