It was eleven years ago this week when, on a cold night in Chicago in 2008, one of the great political orators of his generation declared victory in the US presidential election.
As you would expect, Obama thanked those in his campaign who helped get him elected. He emphasised the need for the country to come together after what had been a tough presidential race and, before that, an even more bruising Democratic nomination contest.
But what sends shivers down my spine every time I listen to that speech is his closing survey of American achievement across the twentieth century. Every time Americans were faced with a seemingly impossible challenge, he argues, they proved their doubters wrong, including those who said the United States would never elect a black President.
He punctuates that list of achievements repeatedly with “Yes, we can” — three simple words that are echoed and amplified each time by a 240,000 strong crowd.
“Yes, we can.”
That call and response reminds us that speeches are an act of community. They are never delivered in a vacuum but are shared with an audience. They are performances and when they’re delivered by an orator like Obama, they gather you up in something greater than yourself.
The spoken word can be magical but that magic only works if the speechwriter thinks about why this speech matters at this moment to this audience.
All pieces of communication have (or at least should have) a particular audience in mind. But that audience is unavoidable when it comes to writing a speech. They are right there in front of you.
Speeches also need to be calibrated to the style and capabilities of the person delivering them. Again, that is true to some extent with all pieces of writing — ideally, an op-ed should sound like the person who has supposedly written it. But with a speech, if there’s a mismatch between the person’s style and what they’re saying, it’s painfully obvious.
So you need to write for your audience and you need to write for your speaker.
You also need to write for the occasion. There’s nothing worse than listening to a corporate speech at a social occasion. Or a twenty-first speech at a funeral. Or listening to a speech packed with soaring rhetoric — the sort of thing you might deliver at an Election Night celebration — when you’re attending an in-house seminar on an organisation’s Q2 numbers.
According to Jon Favreau — Obama’s chief speechwriter throughout the 2008 campaign and subsequently in the White House — the speechwriting team always tried to ensure the president’s speeches had a story and an argument.
One of the best examples of what he means, and one of my favourite Obama speeches, is the address the president delivered in 2015 to mark the 50th Anniversary of Bloody Sunday. In March 1965, civil rights advocates including John Lewis — now a highly respected US Congressman — were protesting for civil rights legislation in Selma, Alabama when they were set upon by the police and brutally dispersed.
Obama begins his speech by telling a story of what Lewis and his fellow protesters were marching for, and of the brutality they faced. Like all great stories, it is grounded in small details and begins with the following account of what it must have been like on that day:
Now, I have to imagine that when a younger John Lewis woke up that morning fifty years ago and made his way to Brown Chapel, heroics were not on his mind. A day like this was not on his mind. Young folks with bedrolls and backpacks were milling about. Veterans of the movement trained newcomers in the tactics of non-violence; the right way to protect yourself when attacked. A doctor described what tear gas does to the body, while marchers scribbled down instructions for contacting their loved ones. The air was thick with doubt, anticipation, and fear. They comforted themselves with the final verse of the final hymn they sung:
No matter what may be the test, God will take care of you;
Lean, weary one, upon His breast, God will take care of you.
Then, his knapsack stocked with an apple, a toothbrush, a book on government — all you need for a night behind bars — John Lewis led them out of the church on a mission to change America.
But Obama doesn’t just tell his listeners a story about that day in 1965. The speech is in fact a story about how that day was part of a civil rights movement that swept across the United States, inspired countless protest movements around the world, and enabled him, Barack Obama, to address them as the first black President of the United States.
It’s a powerful speech but, in a sense, it forms part of a broader argument that spanned the course of his eight years in office. It is a continuation of the argument he made on the night of his 2008 election victory on that stage in Chicago.
Change is hard. It may not happen immediately, and if you want it, you must work for it. But if you work hard enough, change will come.
“Yes, we can.”