Jan 20, 2009

Obama: a speech for the times, maybe someday for the ages

As I watched the inauguration ceremony for Barack Obama, I was in awe of the entire operation. It felt more like a rock concert than an inauguration. The crowd of thousands chanting “Obama! Obama!” waiting to see its hero. Anticipation was palpable. All around the world, people watching, eagerly waiting to hear the first words of the 44th president of the United States of America.

Anyone expecting a rah-rah-rah speech must have been sorely disappointed. This was a down-to-earth, accountability- and responsibility-filled speech. Barack Obama pulled no punches and delivered a rousing, but difficult speech. He did not shy away from the fact that times are difficult and the American people have a lot of work to do, in order to get out of the current mess.

Rating his performance, I would give it a 9.5 on content and 8.5 on delivery.


Obama's delivery was nearly flawless. There were a couple of hesitations, but nothing major. Martin Luther King stumbled slightly also in his “I Have A Dream” speech.

Obama spoke in a deep, soothing voice. He did not move much, he did not rush the speech, he was poised. His tone was conversational. He was at ease and he put his listeners at ease.

His delivery, sing-song at times, reminded me of Martin Luther King as he spoke to a throng of supporters on the Washington DC steps.

So why 8.5, for such a great speaker? Maybe because my expectations were so high. However, there were two elements from his delivery that perturbed me. One was purely mechanical, the other was emotional.

Mechanically: I HATE that teleprompter! He looks like a Bobble Head when he's constantly switching from the left to the right. Furthermore, he does it multiple times in the same sentence. It is hugely annoying. I never recommend that people write out their speech and read it during delivery, but at times I wondered if that wouldn't have been better for him.

He never looked at the camera nor did he look at the crowd. The only time he tried to make contact with his audience was when he thanked George Bush for his service to the nation. At that moment, he briefly turned away from his text but returned to it immediately after.

I am not sure why Obama so heavily relies on his text to deliver his speeches. Is it because he cannot remember it all? Is it a crutch he uses? Or is it the equivalent of PowerPoint in business presentations: a necessary tool that everyone feels the need to use?

He needs to ditch the teleprompter completely, or find a better way to use it because it affects his effectiveness.

Emotionally, I was constantly expecting the Big Explosion. Something outstanding, a defining moment in the speech. There were a few, somehow, they didn't stand out from the rest of the speech. Obama did not put more emphasis on one part of the speech, than another. All of it seemed to be of equal importance. Yet, in most great speeches, there is an emotional nugget that is carried on for generations:

  • We have nothing to fear but fear itself.

  • Ask not what your country can do for you, but what you can do for your country.

  • I do not know that woman... oops, no, that's a different speech!

While there are many good moments in the speech (as we will see in the content), he did not use any of the tools that make a speech memorable: alliteration, repetition, the rule of three, just to name a few. That made the speech less appealing emotionally: it's the Moment that really defined the speech.


What was so good about the content? At what is considered a defining moment in America, Obama's words were timeless and deeply rooted in the nation's history. He named no names, he named no nations. His words could be spoken again, almost verbatim, at another time, and they would still have the same power. Words such as:

  • “In reaffirming the greatness of our nation, we understand that greatness is never a given. It must be earned. ”

  • “Starting today, we must pick ourselves up, dust ourselves off, and begin again the work of remaking America.”

  • “To those leaders around the globe who seek to sow conflict, or blame their society's ills on the West — know that your people will judge you on what you can build, not what you destroy.”

  • “Let it be said by our children's children that when we were tested we refused to let this journey end, that we did not turn back nor did we falter; and with eyes fixed on the horizon and God's grace upon us, we carried forth that great gift of freedom and delivered it safely to future generations.”

When analyzing the words, you can see that the speech was inspired by some of the greatest American speakers. One line stuck out for me, one that could have been uttered by John F Kennedy: “The question we ask today is not whether our government is too big or too small, but whether it works.”

His speech contained beautiful imagery: “To those who cling to power through corruption and deceit and the silencing of dissent, know that you are on the wrong side of history; but that we will extend a hand if you are willing to unclench your fist.”

That image is also an excellent example of the inclusive language used by Obama. He has promised to bring people back together, and his words are tailored to that effect:

“To the people of poor nations, we pledge to work alongside you to make your farms flourish and let clean waters flow; to nourish starved bodies and feed hungry minds. And to those nations like ours that enjoy relative plenty, we say we can no longer afford indifference to suffering outside our borders; nor can we consume the world's resources without regard to effect. For the world has changed, and we must change with it.”

Obama shows that he definitely understands American history, that he knows where the nation needs to be headed, and that he will get it there albeit with the help of friends and “former foes” alike. He shows that he expects hard work, sacrifice, ambition and creativity from everyone, including himself.

His speech needed to get that message across clearly and simply.

It delivered.

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