I just watched the above speech made by President Barack Obama of the United States in Cairo (you can find the full text here if you prefer to read it) and was rather impressed by how Obama, one of the most eloquent and impressive political orator in this present age, managed to up the ante yet again. There has been numerous analyses of the political content of his speech so I shall not go there. What I am more interested instead is in the masterful way in which he embraced the art and craft of monumental speech making. Here are some perspectives on what we can learn from Obama’s speech which may be useful to bear in mind if we ever address a crowd or are tasked to draft a speech for somebody who will be doing so.
1) Rigorous Research. The first point in monumental speech making is to ensure that one’s facts and figures are in place. An example was this section made on the achievements of Islamic inventors and artists which contributed towards our progress:
“It was innovation in Muslim communities that developed the order of algebra; our magnetic compass and tools of navigation; our mastery of pens and printing; our understanding of how disease spreads and how it can be healed. ”
2) Empathy. Obama showed that he understood and was sympathetic towards both Israel and Palestine in his speech, and expressed in many ways how his administration will do whatever it can to right the wrongs against Muslims around the world.
3) Offer Something for Everybody. One of the most important lessons in giving speeches at diplomatic international forums is to address the concerns of your audiences, both ‘live’ and at home watching the television. Obama knew that billions of eyeballs (and eardrums) are upon him the night of the speech, and he ensured that his speech addressed the multiple stakeholders – Americans, Muslims, Jews, Islamic nations, Israel, Palestine, and so on.
4) Make it Personal. Obama is a master in weaving anecdotes and examples from his own life to make the message hit closer to home. By linking his speech to his personal life experience, he is able to gain considerable emotional mileage from the exercise. Again I quote from his speech:
“Part of this conviction is rooted in my own experience. I am a Christian, but my father came from a Kenyan family that includes generations of Muslims. As a boy, I spent several years in Indonesia and heard the call of the azaan at the break of dawn and the fall of dusk.”
5) Find Common Links to Your Audiences. One of my favourite sections of the speech was the one where Obama spoke about the similarities between Christianity, Islam and Judaism, and the references made to Jerusalem which is a holy ground for all three religions. Said with much aplomb and dramatic effect, Obama made reference to the similarities of all three, and used a powerful analogy to convey his point as follows:
“Too many tears have flowed. Too much blood has been shed. All of us have a responsibility to work for the day when the mothers of Israelis and Palestinians can see their children grow up without fear; when the Holy Land of three great faiths is the place of peace that God intended it to be; when Jerusalem is a secure and lasting home for Jews and Christians and Muslims, and a place for all of the children of Abraham to mingle peacefully together as in the story of Isra, when Moses, Jesus, and Mohammed (peace be upon them) joined in prayer.”
6) Mix Rhetoric with Concrete Action. What I particularly liked about this speech is that it doesn’t merely stir the emotions but actually offered solid promises and action towards the end. Captured for posterity by the media, these statements will be used to measure against what was promised, but delivering them at an occasion like this gives the speech considerable gravitas. An example is as follows:
“…we will match promising Muslim students with internships in America; invest in on-line learning for teachers and children around the world; and create a new online network, so a teenager in Kansas can communicate instantly with a teenager in Cairo.”
Yet another one, which is even more tangible since it is happening at the occasion itself:
“…today I am announcing a new global effort with the Organization of the Islamic Conference to eradicate polio.”
7) End with a Resounding Bang. This is probably one of the most important lessons in memorable speeches. Studies have shown that most people tend to pay attention at the beginning and towards the end. After more than 50 minutes of listening to a speech, it is important to capture the attention of the audience again with a strong ending. Of course, Obama doesn’t really need to “wake them up” at the finish as the constant applause show that people were truly listening.
Quoting from the speech’s ending:
“The Holy Koran tells us, “O mankind! We have created you male and a female; and we have made you into nations and tribes so that you may know one another.”
The Talmud tells us: “The whole of the Torah is for the purpose of promoting peace.”
The Holy Bible tells us, “Blessed are the peacemakers, for they shall be called sons of God.”
The people of the world can live together in peace. We know that is God’s vision. Now, that must be our work here on Earth. Thank you. And may God’s peace be upon you.”
What do you think of Obama’s speech? Are there additional points that we can learn from him?
U.S. President Barack Obama is given a tour of the Great Pyramids of Giza by the Secretary General of the Supreme Council of Antiquities Dr. Zahi Hawass while in Cairo, Egypt June 4, 2009. REUTERS/Larry Downing (Courtesy of Free Mass)