It's safe to say that President Barack Obama prepared his Inaugural Speech, as other major speeches before it, by jotting down fleeting ideas on yellow legal pads before transferring them to a laptop and editing them. It's also probably safe to assume he went through draft after draft before showing the resulting polished prose to a few trusted advisors for more honing.
But gone are the days when Obama, as Illinois state senator and candidate for the US Senate, had such a full schedule that he had to find time in the most unlikely places – in the men's room of the State Senate, in the back seat of a car as he campaigned across southern Illinois – to write the acclaimed keynote speech that first brought him to national attention at the Democratic National Convention more than eight years ago.
This time round, President Obama had two speeches to prepare: the Inaugural and the State of the Union that follows next month. So although he remains hands-on and continues to write 80% of his major speeches – more than any former president since Woodrow Wilson – these days Obama relies on a small group of seasoned Presidential speechwriters, who coordinate the message in the speech with the White House Communications Director, and, usually, with the Chief of Staff.
However, there are certain trademarks of Obama's own speechmarking that have remained constant over the years.
- They are always thoughtful as well as well-prepared, with the focus on powerful words. "A change is brought about because ordinary people do extraordinary things". Listening to a speech by Obama flatters listeners by making them feel intelligent and well-educated. This is because he uses simple, everyday language and avoids the more recondite terms or phrases that would set him apart as an intellectual. He often quotes Lincoln, Martin Luther King, and even Woody Guthrie and Sam Cooke, thus showing he shares with his listeners the same loved cultural icons – as well as making them realize that they are in the presence of a wise man and great leader.
- Barack Obama is a master at the use of metaphors, which he uses to strengthen his remarks by vivid imagery. "In the face of our common dangers…in the winter of our our hardship…"let us brave the icy currents and endure what storms may come." These words could come from a 19th classic novel. Obama uses them to move and inspire his listeners.
- Obama always maintains a standard of respect and dignity for his listeners. He once famously promised America's enemies "…that we will extend a hand if you are willing to unclench your fist". This is partly due to his own moral integrity but it's also a tremendous skill in speech delivery because it makes people – even his enemies - want to listen.
- He shows courage by standing up to those enemies. He has, in the past for example, warned them that they are "on the wrong side of history." Again, such courage, delivered in a truthful and direct manner, inspires confidence.
- He over-prepares. Although it was clear in the final days of last November's presidential campaign that Obama would win, he had prepared both a victory speech and a concession speech. "You can't take anything for granted," he told reporters.
One of Obama's strengths as a politician has always been his keen ability to listen to others and accept their suggestions. This time, he knows that Americans are looking for more than the rousing rhetoric and soaring lyricism that are his trademarks as a speaker. With the US economy still stalled and tensions over social issues at a high pitch, Americans want hope that the newly elected Barack Obama will be a more forceful President than the first. They want to see indications that he has the determination to push through significant reform – even if it means standing up to a hostile Congress and National Rifle Association.
What they no longer want is the dreamy quality that informed his famous two best-selling books, "Dreams of my Father" and "The Audacity of Hope," which he wrote late at night after his wife and young children had long retired to bed.
This time they want action and so Obama's speech is likely to have a more business-like quality to it compared to the "Yes, we can" sense of possibility that colored his first inauguration. That said, he may wait for the State of the Union speech scheduled for February 12, to give specifics of what his second term will hold.
5 suggestions for preparing a speech like Barack Obama :
- Prepare it yourself: Jot down random ideas on paper, take a close look at them for their relevance, then beginning structuring them into a speech.
- Write and rewrite – as many times as you need to. If the final version is shorter than the first, that means you have cut it down to the essentials.
- Test-drive the results with a few trusted advisors whom you can depend on for candid, constructive advice.
- Pay close attention to suggestions for improving your text. Resist the temptation all writers have to preserve their own prose. Most great speeches bear the marks of several hands.
- Use simple, concrete words that will resonate with your listeners.
par Madeleine Resener