2008 Acceptance Speech
Further Analysis of Barack Obama’s Historic 2008 Presidential Nomination Acceptance Speech.
By Shel Leanne
Say it Like Obama: The Power of Speaking with Purpose and Vision explores the key communication techniques that Barack Obama employs, which have helped him to become one of the most outstanding orators of recent years. The book closes with a look at Obama’s historic presidential nomination acceptance speech, delivered on August 28, the final night of the 2008 Democratic National Convention. Like his 2004 keynote address, the 2008 acceptance speech provides a valuable snapshot of how Barack Obama blends the best of rhetoric, substance and delivery to produce outstanding oration. When reading Obama’s 2008 acceptance speech-reprinted in Say it Like Obama (Chapter 10)-did you identify the rhetorical and delivery techniques that helped give his remarks considerable power? Below, I highlight some of those excellent techniques.
First and second impressions - Body language, image and voice. When delivering his acceptance speech, Obama made the most of his first defining moment-the first impression he made when he walked on stage. He moved with commanding body language. His charisma energized audience members. He clapped along with them and stretched his arm out confidently to them, waving, thereby connecting with the audience early on. Obama leveraged excellent second impressions with outstanding use of voice and pitch, allowing his tone to glide up half an octave and back down again to emphasize points, amplifying his voice when needed and allowing his voice to fade away to underscore key points.
Breaking down barriers and building up bridges. To help break down barriers, putting listeners at ease, Obama acknowledged his non-traditional background. Through various references, Obama addressed head-on his unconventional profile. He did this, for instance, when he remarked, “I realize that I am not the likeliest candidate for this office. I don’t fit the typical pedigree….” But Obama also directed attention skillfully to the many areas of common ground he shared with his diverse audience, building bridges with references to his family’s place in American history-mentioning Patton’s army, Pearl Harbor, the G.I. Bill. In doing so, he established firmly that he was part of the “we.” He also leveraged the words of American icons, further emphasizing a sense of shared history. When Obama mentioned, for example, “what John F. Kennedy called our intellectual and moral strength…” and when he quoted Martin Luther King, Jr.’s words, “We cannot walk alone,” Obama created and reinforced a notion of “we”-ness.
Swaying hearts and minds. In his 2008 acceptance speech, Obama used an excellent range of techniques to sway hearts and minds. He employed biblical references, such as affirming “the fundamental belief that I am my brother’s keeper, I am my sister’s keeper.” He referred to cherished principles, asserting that we “rise or fall as one nation.” He personalized his message to convey his understanding of the circumstances many Americans face. For example, he mentioned that, “In the face of that young student, who sleeps just three hours before working the night shift, I think about my mom, who raised my sister and me on her own while she worked and earned her degree…”
Similarly, Obama referenced personal knowledge to give his remarks credibility, such as when he said, “I believe that… the change we need is coming, because I’ve seen it… in Illinois, when we provided health care to more children and moved more families from welfare to work.” He also referenced personal experience to underscore his commitment, asserting, “as someone who watched my mother argue with insurance companies while she lay in bed dying of cancer, I will make certain those companies stop discriminating….” These techniques gave his remarks great efficacy.
Conveying vision. As he conveyed his vision, Obama made effective use of detail. For example, he said in very concrete terms that, “This country is more decent than one where a woman in Ohio, on the brink of retirement, finds herself one illness away from disaster after a lifetime of hard work.” Well-calibrated detail enhanced the effectiveness of Obama’s statements. Obama also employed vivid imagery to bring greater power to his pronouncements, such as when he referred to “a major American city drown[ing] before our eyes.” Dynamic imagery also had a place in his remarks, such as when Obama observed that his supporters “have stood up, one by one…” Obama’s techniques made his words more easily understood, more vibrant, more full of impact and more memorable.
Driving points home. In driving his points home, Obama used a full range of repetition techniques to skillfully to underscore his main themes. Among the phrases he used adeptly with repetition techniques such as anaphora were, “We are a better country,” “It’s a promise,” and “We measure progress.” Repeating these words helped drive home key themes in the minds of listeners. Obama also leveraged the “power of three.” For example, he noted, “Our government should work for us, not against us. It should help us, not hurt us. It should ensure opportunity not just for those with the most money and influence, but for every American who’s willing to work.”
Obama used other rhetorical techniques skillfully, such as polysyndeton: “on health care, and education, and the economy”; “for their third, or fourth, or fifth tour of duty”; “invest in new schools, and new roads, and science, and technology”. He also offered varied versions of tricolon: “they have fought together, and bled together, and some died together under the same proud flag”.
To underscore key themes, Obama employed a well-placed rhetorical question: “What does it say about your judgment when you think George Bush has been right more than 90 percent of the time?” Alliteration helped add a sense of eloquence to Obama’s tone and steered attention to key ideas. An example of alliteration occurred when Obama said, “times are too serious, the stakes are too high for this same partisan playbook. So let us agree that patriotism has no party.”
Persuading. In his quest to persuade, Obama employed antithesis excellently to crystallize his key ideas. For example, he stated, “They have not served a red America or a blue America; they have served the United States of America.” Other examples: “the change we need doesn’t come from Washington. Change comes to Washington”; and, “[N]ow is not the time for small plans. Now is the time to finally meet our moral obligation.”
To help persuade listeners to embrace his ideas, Obama addressed nonrhetorical questions with well-developed responses. For example, he posed the question, “What is that American promise?” He went on to elaborate at length, beginning with, “It’s a promise that says each of us has the freedom to make of our own lives what we will, but that we also have obligations to treat each other with dignity and respect. It’s a promise that says the market should reward drive and innovation and generate growth…”
Skillfully, too, Obama raised and addressed objections: “I know there are those who dismiss such beliefs as happy talk…. But I stand before you tonight because all across America something is stirring…”
Together, these techniques greatly enhanced the persuasive power of Obama’s remarks.
Reaching a crescendo, creating an excellent last impression and finishing strong: Finally, as Obama finished his speech excellently, he built to a crescendo and finished near that peak, issuing a broad call for change through the 2008 election.