Yes we can! Analysis of Barack Obama's speech

One of the best speeches of the beginning of the 21st century is the speech of Barack Obama after his first victory in the elections in 2008. The recording of this speech on YouTube got more than two million views, and many Americans are still quoting it. Let's see what made this speech so memorable.



Contrasts are one of the strongest techniques that good speakers use. They help you to keep the audience's attention throughout the performance. These can be chronological contrasts: the opposition of the past and present or present and future; emotional contrasts: juxtaposing jokes to serious facts or any other contrasts. In Obama's speech, you can find many examples of this technique. Thus, almost at the very beginning of his speech Barack presents two contrasts: "diversity of the United States" and "unity of the United States":

It's the answer spoken by young and old, rich and poor, Democrat and Republican,
black, white, Hispanic, Asian, Native American, gay, straight, disabled and not disabled.
Americans who sent a message to the world that we have never been
just a collection of individuals or a collection of red states and blue states.
We are, and always will be, the United States of America.

Here are some more:

…our stories are singular, but our destiny is shared…

To those who would tear the world down: We will defeat you.
To those who seek peace and security: We support you.



Repetition of phrases, repetition of words at the beginning and the end of the sentence are interesting, though not often used to create speech dynamics. Repetitions link parts of speech into a single whole, repeating the phrase and emphasizing it, you give people the slogan they will remember and chant. For example, the phrase "Yes we can", the main slogan of Mr. Obama's election, was repeated six times in this speech. Other examples of repetitions include:

It's been a long time coming, but tonight, because of what we did on this
date in this election at this defining moment change has come to America.

…a government of the people, by the people,
and for the people has not perished from the Earth.

I have never been more hopeful than I am tonight that we will get there.
I promise you, we as a people will get there.

And, above all, I will ask you to join in the work of remaking this nation,
the only way it's been done in America for 221 years —
block by block, brick by brick, calloused hand by calloused hand.

This is our chance to answer that call. This is our moment. This is our time.


Audience segmentation

This technique is present in almost all the speeches of Barack Obama. Presidents of the United States, like Ronald Reagan for example, knowingly loved to build their speech on mentioning of completely different values and views. After all, when addressing the American people it is difficult to establish contact with all at once, it is necessary to find something that will resonate with each group of people, that will be about them.

Listening to this speech, you feel — it's about me. As if the president was addressing you directly, understanding your problems. The emotional distance shrinks immediately, you begin to empathize with such a seemingly distant president.

Mr. Obama divided his listeners into subgroups, and addressed each of them:

It's the answer spoken by young and old, rich and poor, Democrat
and Republican, black, white, Hispanic, Asian, Native American,
gay, straight, disabled and not disabled.

And to those Americans whose support I have yet to earn. And to all those
watching tonight from beyond our shores, from parliaments and palaces,
to those who are huddled around radios in the forgotten corners of the world.
And to all those who have wondered if America's beacon still burns as bright.


Audience is your hero

"Make the audience your hero" — this is what we say to our speakers when preparing them for performances. After all, where there aren't any listeners, there is no performance. As you can see, Obama did not devote his victory primarily to his constituents in vain:

But above all, I will never forget who this victory truly belongs to.
It belongs to you. It belongs to you.

This is your victory.

And that cannot happen if we go back to the way things were.
It can't happen without you, without a new spirit of service,
a new spirit of sacrifice.

Further, Barack Obama said that without those who did not vote for him, he would not have been able to cope:

And to those Americans whose support I have yet to earn,
I may not have won your vote tonight, but I hear your voices.
I need your help. And I will be your president, too.



The oldest way to transmit information is in the form of stories. We love stories because they are very important in the transfer of experience. Before written speech was created, the entire experience of mankind was transmitted through history. In the speeches. You need stories to establish contact with the audience, to lead the audience to a conclusion or even to create a contrast.

At the end of the speech, Barack Obama tells the story of one of his voters — 106-year-old dark-skinned Anna Nixon Cooper from Atlanta.

Interestingly, Obama uses other methods in this story. For example, he built a platform of shared values and showed that the hero of history is the same person as any other voter:

She's a lot like the millions of others who stood in line to make their voice heard in this election except for one thing: Ann Nixon Cooper is 106 years old.

Such a "unique" age of the heroine allowed Obama to create a contrast between past and future:

She was born just a generation past slavery; a time when there were
no cars on the road or planes in the sky; when someone like her
couldn't vote for two reasons — because she was a woman and because
of the color of her skin. And this year, in this election, she touched her finger
to a screen, and cast her vote, because after 106 years in America, through
the best of times and the darkest of hours, she knows how America can change.

Barack Obama repeated the main slogan of his political campaign 6 times while telling this story:

Yes we can.

Using these techniques will not automatically make you a good speaker. First of all, every speech, as well as every presentation, should have a big idea. And it does not matter whether it is a presidential speech after a victory in the elections or a performance at a conference — there must be a clear idea, traced through the whole presentation, and this idea should bring the value to the audience.

We wish you every success with great ideas and their scattering!

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