Tuesday, June 7, 2011

First Analysis - Obama's 2004 DNC Cpeech

This is the first entry in this site looking at great speeches in history, in movies, in business – wherever they can be found. Suggest some speeches, and if they’re great I’ll analyse them. The purpose of this blog is to try and give you some insight into why speeches work and how you can craft a speech that will win the argument, win the business, or maybe even win the heart of a loved one. In each case I’ll give some history to place the speech into context (either into the context of the speaker’s life or the context of surrounding historical events), some general comments and an in-depth review of the speech. I will reproduce the speech according to how it was delivered wherever I can source the video or audio of the speech being delivered, and I use a single line space where the speaker took a small pause and a double line space where there was a larger, more definite pause or a break in the speech to move to a new section. So here’s the first speech!

Obama’s 2004 Democratic National Conference Speech

The first speech I’m going to look at is Barack Obama’s speech to the Democrat National Conference in 2004. John Kerry was the Democrat candidate for the Presidency, and Obama had the keynote spot at the Conference. This speech needs little introduction, and I think it is the most effective of all of Obama’s speeches. Why the most effective? It turned him from someone with massive potential who was known amongst political circles into a political celebrity.. 0-60 in one speech.

What worked well?
A great speech brings together three aspects – the right speaker, with the right message, at the right time. Sometimes you may be the wrong speaker, sometimes the message won’t be right and sometimes the timing of the speech isn’t perfect (i.e. when you are giving it rather than the timing in the delivery). A great speechwriter convinces the audience that all three of these aspects are in perfect alignment, like some kind of rare planetary occurrence. They convince the audience that they are not listening to just another speech, but rather are witnessing a special moment. Obama’s speech covers all three aspects and you are left with the impression that he is a man whose message was right, whose delivery was right and whose time had come.

The writer of this speech also has a very strong appreciation of American heritage – references are made to Lincoln, and there is a strong link to the abiding American story arc. There are references to the key shared experiences of the American people, and to those values which are said to underpin America. The speech sets out Obama’s values and history in a flattering fashion that makes him eminently electable to those of the right political persuasion.

Finally, there is a wealth of rhetorical devices to be found in the speech.

The detailed analysis

My comments are in red

On behalf
of the great state of Illinois,

crossroads of a nation,
Land of Lincoln,
(Already he refers to Lincoln, a highly respected former President famous for the Gettysburg Address)
let me express my deepest gratitude
for the privilege of addressing this convention.

Tonight is a particular honor for me because, let’s face it,
my presence on this stage
is pretty unlikely.

My father was a foreign student,
born and raised
in a small village in Kenya.
He grew up herding goats,
went to school in a tin-roof shack.
His father -- my grandfather -- was a cook,
a domestic servant to the British.
(He has set a vivid picture of his father’s childhood – a basic existence)

But my grandfather had larger dreams
for his son.
Through hard work and perseverance
my father got a scholarship to study in a magical place,
that shone as a beacon of freedom and opportunity
to so many who had come before.
(Note the use of contrast – the contrast of the basic Kenyan life and the life in America. Also note the use of a metaphor of a beacon, playing to the audience’s conceptions of America being a shining light to the rest of the world and the imagery of the Statue of Liberty)

While studying here,
my father met my mother.
She was born
in a town on the other side of the world,
in Kansas.

(Again a contrast, and sets the scene for the American side of the family)

Her father worked on oil rigs and farms through most of the Depression.
The day after Pearl Harbor
my grandfather
signed up for duty;
joined Patton’s army, marched across Europe.
(A reference to the shared experience of the American people)

Back home, my grandmother
raised a baby
went to work
on a bomber assembly line.
(More use of contrast)

After the war,
they studied on the G.I. Bill,

bought a house
through F.H.A.,

and later moved west
all the way to Hawaii in search of opportunity.
(Note the further use of the shared/All-American history, setting the scene to portray himself as part of the “American Dream” and casting out any doubt about his heritage – well, other than the need for a birth certificate!)

And they, too, had big dreams for their daughter.

A common dream, born of two continents.
(A nice conclusion to this section of contrasts by stating common elements – something which reflects Obama’s subsequent style of being conciliatory)

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,
or ”blessed,”
believing that in a tolerant America
your name is no barrier to success.
(Obama has laid down a marker here – if you criticise his name you are intolerant/anti-American. He pauses for a longer period here to allow the message to sink in to the audience)

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.
(Note again a contrast with a negative beginning and a positive end. This is far more effective in obtaining the approval of the public and getting applause than if he had said something like “Because they knew you don’t have to be rich to achieve your potential, they imagined me going to the best schools even though they weren’t rich” – you’ll note that there was a long pause to allow for the message to sink in – and the message was not that he was from a poor background, but that America is a place of opportunity.)

They're both passed away now.

And yet, I know
that on this night
they look down on me
with great pride.

They stand here -- And I stand here today,
grateful for the diversity of my heritage,
aware that my parents’ dreams live on in my two precious daughters.

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.
(Another reference to the larger American story – effectively foreshadowing that his own trajectory and bigger “story arc” would propel him to the White House)


(A simple word which serves to focus on the individual moment)
we gather to affirm the greatness of our Nation
-- not because of the height of our skyscrapers, or the power of our military, or the size of our economy.
(The comment sets up a contrast and also creates a question-answer conundrum that keeps the audience interested to hear the revelation of the greatness of their Nation)
Our pride is based on a very simple premise,

summed up in a declaration made over two hundred years ago:

We hold these truths to be self-evident
, that all men are created equal,

that they are endowed by their Creator with certain inalienable rights, that among these are Life,
and the pursuit of Happiness.
That is the true genius of America,
(Words of Jefferson from the Declaration of Independence)

a faith -- a faith in simple dreams,
an insistence on small miracles;
that we can tuck in our children at night
and know that 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;
that we can participate in the political process without fear of retribution, and that our votes will be counted –
at least most of the time.
(Note the repetition of the formulation “that…”. Also note the humurous reference to the 2000 elections and the electoral votes from Florida)
This year,
in this election
(The language stresses the urgency of the situation)
we are called to reaffirm our values and our commitments, to hold them against
a hard reality
and see how we're measuring up
to the legacy of our forbearers
and the promise of future generations.
(This ties in the historical and constitutional references)

And fellow Americans,
Republicans, Independents,
I say to you tonight:
We have more work to do --
(the term “more work” becomes a recurring phrase through the following section of the speech. The choice of the words “more work” is less confrontational than a frontal attack on the record of the Republicans but has the same effect. It allows him to attack their record without attacking them personally)

more work to do for the workers I met in Galesburg, Illinois,
who are losing their union jobs at the Maytag plant that’s moving to Mexico,
and now are having to compete with their own children
for jobs that pay seven bucks an hour;
(He uses the form "situation; crisis" throughout this section of the speech)

more to do for the father that I met who was losing his job
and choking back the tears, wondering how he would pay
4500 dollars a month
for the drugs his son needs
without the health benefits that he counted on;

more to do for the young woman in East St. Louis,
and thousands more like her,
who has the grades,
has the drive,
has the will,
but doesn’t have the money to go to college.
(Again use of situation; crisis. This is combined with a three part list, where he lists the grades, drive and will and repetition of “has the”)

Now, don’t get me wrong. The people I meet in small towns and big cities, in diners
and office parks
they don’t expect government to solve all their problems.
They know they have to work hard to get ahead,
and they want to.
(He is heading off the criticism that could be levelled at those that seek “protectionist” or social welfare measures – that those that seek them are asking for the state to solve all their ills. If you address the opposition not only do you come across as even-handed as you appear to have considered the other side’s arguments (which makes your arguments more credible), you also get the opportunity to frame the opposition’s arguments)

Go into the collar counties around Chicago,
and people will tell you
they don’t want their tax money wasted, by a welfare agency or by the Pentagon.
Go into any inner city neighbourhood,
and folks will tell you
that government alone
can’t teach our kids to learn; they know that parents have to teach,
that children can’t achieve unless we raise their expectations
and turn off the television sets
and eradicate the slander that says a black youth with a book is acting white.
They know those things.
People don't expect government to solve all their problems.
(He builds up the tempo and uses another 3 part list. Note that the grammar is incorrect in using “and” on both occasions – this isn’t important in a speech and shows just one difference between written and spoken language). Note that after the second cheer he restates the point and leaves another large pause for the message to sink in)

But they sense,
deep in their bones,
that with just a slight 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.
And they want that choice.

In this election,
(Again note the call to an urgent situation)
we offer that choice.
Our Party has chosen a man to lead us
who embodies the best
this country has to offer. And that man is John Kerry.
John Kerry understands the ideals of community,
and service
(Yet another 3-part list)
because they’ve defined his life.
From his heroic service to Vietnam,
to his years as a prosecutor and lieutenant governor,
through two decades in the United States Senate, he's devoted himself
to this country.
(Another 3 part list)
Again and again, we’ve seen him make tough choices
when easier ones were available.
(Use of contrasts)

His values
and his record
affirm what is best in us.

(The coming section has a number of parts that all begin “John Kerry believes..”. Not only does this repetition strengthen the speech, but it also helps structure the most important policies for reception by the audience. You will note that what is at the end of each policy area is the phrase that they want you to focus on. The policy is listed after the existing situation only if they have an ACTUAL policy. Where they do not, they focus on describing the risk of the existing policy in vivid language).
John Kerry believes in an America where hard work is rewarded;
so instead of offering tax breaks to companies shipping jobs overseas,
he offers them to companies creating jobs here at home.

John Kerry believes in an America
can afford the same health coverage
our politicians in Washington
have for themselves.

John Kerry
believes in energy independence,
so we aren’t held hostage to the profits of oil companies,
or the sabotage
of foreign oil fields.

John Kerry believes in the Constitutional freedoms
that have made our country the envy of the world,
and he will never sacrifice our basic liberties,
nor use faith
as a wedge to divide us.

And John Kerry believes
that in a dangerous world
war must be an option sometimes, but it should never be
the first option.

You know,
a while back -- awhile back I met a young man named Shamus
in a V.F.W. Hall in East Moline, Illinois.
(Obama loves the use of small anecdotes. They are a good way of creating a bond to the overall message and are a good way of changing pace in the speech).

He was a good-looking kid -- six two, six three, clear eyed, with an easy smile.
He told me he’d joined the Marines
and was heading to Iraq the following week.
(Note that he does not give too much detail – just enough to paint a general mental picture. If you give too much detail then it ruins the effect. He wants it to be YOUR depiction of Shamus. Think about how disappointed you are sometimes by the casting of a film version of a favourite book – the actor is not how YOU imagined the character to be, and the magic is ruined).

And as I listened to him explain
why he’d enlisted,
the absolute faith he had in our country and its leaders,
his devotion to duty and service,
I thought this young man was
all that any of us might
ever hope for in a child.

But then I asked myself,
"Are we serving Shamus
as well as he is serving us?"
(The use of a rhetorical question to get the audience thinking. Importantly, a closed – and loaded – question. He leaves enough of a gap to allow people to process the question.)

I thought of the 900
men and women -- sons and daughters, husbands and wives,
friends and neighbours, who won’t be returning to their own hometowns.
(He invites us to remember that the number is made up of people around us, and notice that he bunches them into a three-part list of pairs.)

I thought of the families I’ve met who were struggling to get by
without a loved one’s full income,
or whose loved ones had returned with a limb missing
or nerves shattered,
but still
lacked long-term health benefits
because they were Reservists.

When we send our young men and women into harm’s way,
we have a solemn obligation not to fudge the numbers
or shade the truth about why they’re going,
to care for their families while they’re gone,
to tend to the soldiers upon their return,
and to never
go to war without enough troops to win the war, secure the peace, and earn the respect of the world.
(A further example of a three part list; this time the first two parts are paired statements, and the third is a three part list of its own.)

Now -- Now let me be clear.
Let me be clear.
We have real enemies in the world.

These enemies must be found.
They must be pursued.
And they must be defeated.
(Three part list with repetition of these/they/they)
John Kerry knows this.
And just as
Kerry did not hesitate
to risk his life to protect the men
who served with him in Vietnam,
Kerry will not hesitate one moment
to use our military might to keep America safe and secure.

John Kerry believes
in America. And he knows that it’s not enough
for just some of us to prosper –

for alongside our famous individualism,
there’s another ingredient
in the American saga,
a belief
that we’re all connected as one people.

If there is a child on the south side of Chicago
who can’t read,
that matters to me, even if it’s not my child.

If there is a senior citizen somewhere
who can’t pay for their prescription drugs,
and having to choose between medicine and the rent,
that makes my life poorer, even if it’s not my grandparent.

If there’s an Arab American family
being rounded up
without benefit of an attorney
or due process,
that threatens my civil liberties.
(Repetition of “If there… that…” – and yet another three part list)


It is that fundamental belief
I am my brother’s keeper.
I am my sister’s keeper
that makes this country work.
(This is a spiritual concept tied in with religion. This resonates with large swathes of the audience, religion also being a strong source for quotes, structure and concepts in speech, particularly in the US. Note on this occasion that the exposition of the principle came before it was expressed as it is in scripture. If it had been the other way around some of the wider audience may have been turned off from the content because of its source. Some will argue against the adoption of an argument because its source is questionable – it can sometimes be better to express the content first and gain acceptance of the principle and then support it with reference to a source)

It’s what allows us
to pursue our individual dreams
and yet still come together
as one American family.
(Contrast at work)
E pluribus unum:
"Out of many, one."

Now even as we speak,
there are those who are preparing
to divide us –
the spin masters,
the negative ad peddlers
who embrace the politics of "anything goes."
(Identifying and addressing the opposition again)
I say to them tonight,
there is not a liberal America and a conservative America -- there is the United States of America.

There is not a Black America
and a White America
and Latino America
and Asian America –
there’s the United States of America.
(A contrast of a negative followed by a positive, using repetition for effect)

The pundits, the pundits like to slice-and-dice our country
into Red States
and Blue States;
Red States for Republicans,
Blue States for Democrats.
But I’ve got news for them, too.
We worship an "awesome God"
in the Blue States,
and we don’t like federal agents poking around in our libraries in the Red States.

We coach Little League in the Blue States and
we’ve got some gay friends in the Red States.

There are patriots who opposed the war in Iraq
and there are patriots who supported
the war in Iraq.
We are one people,
all of us pledging allegiance to the stars and stripes,
all of us defending
the United States of America.
(Note the three part list of 2 contrasts (Blue/Red States) and a resolution (one people, all of us…, all of us…)

In the end, that’s what this election is about.
(And there is a big pause to allow that to soak in)

Do we participate
in a politics of cynicism
or do we participate
in a politics of hope?

(A nice contrast, with a faster cadence of words and ending with a rhetorical question on which he invites an answer and gives you the answer – little surprise that the crowd call out “HOPE!”)

John Edwards calls on us to hope. I’m not talking about blind optimism here
(Contrast of hope with blind optimism – and note that the description of blind optimism is of Republican “market-led” policies portrayed in a negative light)

the almost willful ignorance
that thinks unemployment will go away if we just don’t think about it,
or the health care crisis will solve itself if we just ignore it.
That’s not what I’m talking about.
I’m talking about something more substantial.

It’s the hope of slaves sitting around a fire singing freedom songs;
the hope of immigrants
setting out for distant shores;

the hope of a young naval lieutenant
bravely patrolling the Mekong Delta;
the hope of a millworker’s son
who dares to defy the odds;
the hope of a skinny kid
with a funny name
who believes that America has a place for him, too.
(Shorter, quicker sentences which call back to the concept of hope in a broader sense which appeals to the values of the audience and also calls back to Obama’s early passage relating to his origins. The speech is reaching a crescendo)


in the face of difficulty
Hope in the face
of uncertainty.
The audacity of hope!
(Further short sentences with greater speed still)

In the end,
that is God’s greatest gift to us,
the bedrock of this nation.

A belief in things not seen.
A belief that there are better days ahead.

I believe
that we can give our middle class relief
and provide working families
with a road to opportunity.
(Use of metaphor of a road to create a more vivid picture)

I believe we can provide jobs to the jobless,
homes to the homeless,
and reclaim young people in cities across America
from violence and despair.
(A three part list using alliteration –I.e. jobs to the jobless – and a longer third clause, which is often the case)

I believe
that we have a righteous wind at our backs
and that as we stand on the crossroads of history,
we can make the right choices,
and meet the challenges that face us. America!
(The “I believe” section is again a three-part list of three part lists – in the final section he calls back to the Bible and the words of Martin Luther King. He tacks on the call “America!” and begins the final winding up…)

if you feel the same energy that I do,
if you feel the same urgency that I do,
if you feel the same passion that I do,
if you feel the same hopefulness that I do
if we do what we must do,
(Lots of repetition here, delivered very quickly. Note that “feel” is a strongly aspirated word and so is forceful and really pushes the conclusion)
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.
(The repetition at the end adds to cadence and crescendo. The voice is getting faster and more powerful, adding to the feeling of a rousing crescendo)

Thank you very much everybody. God bless you. Thank you.
My Final Comments

Although a very highly accomplished speech, a speech of this quality is within the grasp of all speakers who write their own speeches or speechwirters who know the person who will deliver the speech well. I understand that Obama writes his own speeches, or at least heavily redrafts those written for him. There are clear messages and the rhetoric fits him perfectly, but they are all standard devices.

With the benefit of hindsight we can see the juicy words in there – hope, the audacity of hope and belief – and can see the how references in later speeches to belief and the refrain of “Yes we can” can be traced back to this speech.

So what next – leave a comment with your thoughts, leave a suggestion for the next speech, or perhaps see if you can write a speech for Obama yourself. If you are wondering where you can get more guidance on the use of rhetoric, I'd strongly recommend Professor Max Atkinson's book Lend Me Your Ears - here's a link to it http://www.amazon.co.uk/Lend-Me-Your-Ears-presentations/dp/0091894794/ref=sr_1_1?ie=UTF8&qid=1307491649&sr=8-1


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