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Leadership language: What did Obama teach you about empowerment?


Barack Obama's recent victory speech perfectly illustrated the role of language in garnering support from the masses. Clive Hook discusses what leaders can learn.
A great leader delivering a great speech rarely happens by accident. Of course President Obama's victory speech was designed for the occasion - but what a design and what a delivery. A classic example of how to write and deliver something designed to inspire, engage and energise a team. Heads of teams and senior business leaders, take note.
Leaders who underestimate the role that language plays in achieving success, do so at their peril. We are not all trying to be the US President of course, but there are some key features within the speech that today's corporate leaders can learn from.
So what can business leaders absorb from the speech and take back to their own workplace?
Obama's victory speech was about differences united and the value of diversity. Its emotive use of opposites and contrasts complement its underlying theme of the past and the future. It reiterated that everyone is and will continue to be different but that difference is precisely what makes the US great.
Here's a great example:
"Each of us has deeply held beliefs. And when we go through tough times, when we make big decisions as a country, it necessarily stirs passions, stirs up controversy. That won't change after tonight, and it shouldn't. These arguments we have are a mark of our liberty... but despite all our differences, most of us share certain hopes for America's future."
"Obama's victory speech was about differences united and the value of diversity. Its emotive use of opposites and contrasts complement its underlying theme of the past and the future."

Behavioural intelligence

By looking at behavioural intelligence, leaders can unlock the secrets behind great speeches, and use the same techniques to empower audiences. To shed further light on how Obama uses rhetorical devices like three-part lists and contrasting pairs with such elegance and skill I have picked out five great examples of this practice in his speech.  
Make a striking introduction
Right from the outset Obama showed behavioural intelligence by utilising the three-part list, which emphasised the importance of what he was saying through simple repetition. After having won a toughly fought battle against Mitt Romney, Obama's message to the US people was simple: "Thank you. Thank you. Thank you so much."
Listen and learn
The magic of three is immensely powerful and has been used for thousands of years. The three-part list is a classic rhetorical device so group things in threes (with the most important third). If you've only got one thing to say, say it three times.
Past and present
Obama then identified the contrasting theme of past and present. This set a precedent for his use of contrasting pairs throughout the rest of the speech. "Tonight, more than 200 years after a former colony won the right to determine its own destiny, the task of perfecting our union moves forward."
Listen and learn
Contrasting pairs add emphasis and memorability. Referring to the past and present is one of the simplest ways in which leaders can illustrate how much has changed, and convince people that longstanding goals and ambitions continue to get closer.
Engaging people who are not on your side
Obama cleverly engaged with those who sided with Mitt Romney by using contrasting pairs and praising them for making a difference by exercising their right to vote. See how Obama used three contrasting pairs, which had the overall impact of a three part list to give extra emphasis.
"I want to thank every American who participated in this election...whether you voted for the very first time or waited in line for a very long time" (contrasting pair)
"Whether you pounded the pavement or picked up the phone..." (contrasting pair)
"Whether you held an Obama sign or a Romney sign (contrasting pair), you made your voice heard and you made a difference..."
Listen and learn
Putting contrasting pairs together into lists of three combines the two techniques into one of the most powerful rhetorical devices used by speech makers.
Go out with a bang
Towards the end of his speech, Obama reflected on what he said at the beginning, and talked about building on the progress that has been made. "I believe we can keep the promise of our founders, the idea that if you're willing to work hard, it doesn't matter who you are or where you come from or what you look like or where you love."
"Obama's speech was effective because he spoke using language that enabled people to create pictures as he spoke."
Look at how he uses these contrasting pairs to celebrate differences and diversity, saying that opportunities exist for everyone in the US: "It doesn't matter whether you're black or white or Hispanic or Asian or Native American or young or old or rich or poor, able, disabled, gay or straight, you can make it here in America if you're willing to try."
Perhaps most subtly he finished with "God bless these United States" not the more traditional "God bless America" as the final message of unity in diversity.
Listen and learn
Obama's speech was effective because he spoke using language that enabled people to create pictures as he spoke. He did not talk about concepts or theories, he talked about things everyone recognised and found a way to connect with just about every member of the community.


So, what's the lesson for business leaders and senior managers here? What can HR and learning and development glean from Obama's speech? For us, there are two things. Firstly, the intricate detail of each and every sentence delivered by leaders is vitally important. How much do you consider the words you use when addressing those you work with? Secondly, leaders who really think about the language they use will not only ensure that people listen and understand what they say, but they will also use specific techniques which actually make people feel empowered and inspired by the speech.

Clive Hook is programme director at ClearWorth. ClearWorth designs, develops and delivers bespoke in-company training and development programmes for managers, leaders and teams in organisations around the world. ClearWorth is holding a webinar entitled Behavioural Intelligence: Conversation control for leaders on 28 and 29 November. Register your place here

Author Profile Picture
Jon Kennard

Freelance writer

Read more from Jon Kennard

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