How to Talk Like Barack

Last Updated Nov 5, 2008 11:22 AM EST

Barack Obama speaks with such power that while most corporate executives said they wouldn't vote for him, they would surely like to speak like him. That might seem impossible, but a well-timed book by Shel Leanne says 'yes you can.'

In "Say It Like Obama," Leanne analyzes how Obama makes speeches, from his body language as he approaches the podium and his rhetorical style to his unusual use of gestures. Her aim is to make readers conscious of classic rhetorical techniques that anyone can use to make their own speaking better.

She starts the book with a breakdown of his 2004 acceptance speech, which would be worth watching while looking at her analysis. There are numerous slinks to the speech on the Web, including this link to the full speech (though it cuts away to the audience occasionally and was choppy on my system) can be found

She has eight chapters on his style:

  1. Earning trust and confidence: thorugh body language, intonation, gestures and strong beginnings;
  2. Breaking Down Audience barriers: dealing well with whatever elephant is in the room, finding common dreams and values, shared history, and using words that resonate;
  3. Winning hearts and minds: Know your audience, personalize your message for you, and for it;
  4. Conveying vision: Using descriptive words ,familiar references, anecdotes and symbols to spread your message;
  5. Driving points home: know your themes, develop and focus them; use repetition effectively, and tone and pace;
  6. Persuading: how to get a nod from an audience, how to sequence ideas and address objections;
  7. Facing and Overcoming controversy: know your goals, change the tone through humility, graciousness and choice of language, accept responsibility;
  8. Motivating others: build to a crescendo, repeat your takeaways and slogans, end strong.
She caps each chapter with a summary of what was discussed.

What she doesn't do is manage expectations. You cannot read a book on rhetorical style and translate it all into the brilliant speechmaking of a Barack Obama. Even Barack Obama didn't start out that way. It's clear from the examples she uses that Obama also is nearly as good off-the-cuff as he is when he's prepared comments. That is a completely separate thing from giving a great speech.

But you can learn to make better speeches by studying his techniques, or those of other great speechmakers, like Winston Churchill. Churchill would annotate his remarks, noting places where he should cough, take a sip of water, or even stumble over wording to appear more spontaneous. Obviously, he also practiced.
Big Think Breakdown: "Say It Like Obama" will improve your ability to give a speech, if you practice its techniques.

  • Michael Fitzgerald

    Michael Fitzgerald writes about innovation and other big ideas in business for publications like the New York Times, The Economist, Fast Company, Inc. and CIO. He’s worked as a writer or editor at Red Herring, ZDNet, TechTV and Computerworld, and has received numerous awards as a writer and editor. Most recently, his piece on the hacker collective the l0pht won the 2008 award for best trade piece from the American Society of Journalists and Authors. He was also a 2007 Templeton-Cambridge Journalism Fellow in Science and Religion.