This past Sunday - July 26, 2016 - American President Barack Obama electrified a stadium of 4,500 Kenyans - mostly youths - with a heartfelt speech that won him praise from around the world.
It was a 42-minute display of inspired speaking and rhetorical craftsmanship worthy of inclusion in public speaking textbooks. The crowd, already giddy before the speech, was practically euphoric after it.
How did Obama do it?
Let's break the speech down together - as it offers several useful lessons on the art of entertaining and inspiring an audience. This analysis finds at least five.
(You can watch the full speech below, or read the transcript.)
1. The speech employed a clear and effective structure
The underlying structure of Obama's speech was as simple as it was effective. After warming up the crowd with a bit of Swahili and innocuous humor, Obama's narrative carried the audience into Kenya's past (through retelling his family stories), then to Kenya's bright future, before outlining how Kenya can build that promising future:
This "past - future - how to get there" structure is beloved by political, business and civic leaders for a good reason: it's simple and logical, and it generates a sense of forward progression. Perfect for this occasion, in other words.
You may have also noticed that, in-between the introduction and the closing, Obama stuck closely to the "rule of three". The speech body had three parts (past, future, how to). And the "how to" part also consisted of "Three Pillars".
Another element that reinforced the speech's coherence was a proverb Obama repeated throughout the speech: “We have not inherited this land from our forebears, we have borrowed it from our children.” Repeating this saying served to tie any segment back to the core theme of "building a future for our children".
2. The delivery was natural, even impromptu at times
Despite it being governed by a tight structure, the speech never felt rigid. On the contrary: Obama's delivery was natural throughout, conversational at times, and even improvizational in spots.
Well, Obama appears to have memorised only the structure and certain key phrases and slogans (e.g. "These traditions [discrimination against women] may date back centuries; they have no place in the 21st century."). The rest he filled in with natural narration.
If you imagine the speech as a journey, the structure served as a rough itinerary rather than a strict minute-by-minute schedule. Obama knew exactly where he was going. He knew which stops (speech parts) he had to make and in what order. And he knew what he had to do at certain stops (key phrases and slogans). But in-between those he strolled naturally and wandered freely, letting the flow carry him.
This occasionally made for a choppy ride. He would go down a side path, realize he's deviated too far, and have to struggle back on track. But this was better than the alternatives of memorizing or reading.
Memorizing a 40-minute speech is impractical, and reading it would’ve flattened his charisma as a truck would a crossing toad.
3. Telling stories was the perfect start
Telling stories from his past was the perfect way to begin the speech, as this achieved two crucial purposes:
First, it sealed his bond with the audience: Obama marched onstage as the most powerful politician in the world - it's hard to relate to someone like that. But then he told stories of visiting Kenya for the first time in his early 20s. And we could literally see him transform into that young man again, wandering a native land he didn't know, stranded with a broken-down car, and sleeping on creaky cots. Now that's someone we can all relate to!
Second, the stories framed Kenya's past, so he could then envision its future: his grandfather's story shed light on the colonial experience, while his father's adventure told of an inability to chase dreams at home. Both illustrate a past that Kenya still struggles with - and which Obama would now propose solutions for.
4. Make them laugh, cheer, think, then laugh again
In her classic book On Speaking Well, Reagan speechwriter Peggy Noonan argues that great speeches ought to have variation, just as a symphony has different movements.
For a speech to political supporters, for instance, she advised making the audience laugh, then making them cheer, then making them reflect... before making them laugh again, and so on. Changing things up not only fends off boredom, but also keeps the energy level high.
And Obama often changed things up wonderfully. Here's an example (at 13:00):
- "... in the United States, we see the legacy of Kip Keino every time a Kenyan wins one of our marathons. (Cheer)
- And maybe the First Lady of Kenya is going to win one soon. (Laughter and applause)
- I told the President he has to start running with his wife. (Laughter) We want him to stay fit. (More laughter) So there’s much to be proud of...
- ... But we also know the progress is not complete. There are still problems that shadow ordinary Kenyans every day... (Think)
5. He used the local language to great effect
Obama's very first words were in Swahili (and the first, "hey", is universal). And throughout the speech he peppered in Swahili expressions. Now, Obama obviously has an advantage here, but he deserves credit for milking it.
And it absolutely worked. The audience greeted every Swahili word with cheers, laughter or both. Speakers who go the extra distance of learning and sprinkling in relevant local terms usually reap a lush harvest.
This works for domestic audiences as well. Case in point: smart commencement speakers use the lingo of the students they address.
Obama's highly successful speech at the Kasanari Stadium in Kenya offers at least five lessons for aspiring communicators:
- Employ a clear and logical structure that carries your audience towards your goal
- But use the structure as a rough itinerary - stay natural and even spontaneous
- Build an immediate bond with personal stories that illustrate your point
- Make them cheer, laugh, think, cheer... and they'll never get bored
- Sprinkle in the audience's language to boost rapport and entertain
What others have you found? Please do share them in the comments!
- Also worth mentioning is another way to map this speech - by using the "What is/was" vs. "What could be" structure from Nancy Duarte. And it maps extremely well. The stories at the beginning represent the "what was", and the vision for Kenya's future represent the "what could be". But even within the individual parts Obama would go back and forth between past struggles and future possibilities - exactly like Duarte's structure predicts. Duarte argues that repeated contrasts between "what was" and "what could be" makes the audience want the "what could be" - a.k.a. the future you want them to choose.
- Two of the best books I've read on crafting political speeches are On Speaking Well by Peggy Noonan (already cited above), and Speak Like Churchill, Stand Like Lincoln by James Humes.
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