Rhetoric & imagery in Obama's victory speech

The Independent on Sunday asked me to annotate Barack Obama’s victory speech last week, the results of which were published on 9th November. It hasn't been posted on their website, probably because the layout with red circles around lines from the speech linked to the notes caused problems in creating a readable web page.

The newspaper’s introduction to the piece is reprinted below, followed by the full text of the speech with my notes in italics between paragraphs (which are slightly fuller than those in the published version).


Barack Obama’s speech in Chicago following his victory in the US election was a fine example of the rhetorical brilliance that helped him defeat Hillary Clinton and John McCain.

Although he has a team of three speechweriters. Led by the 27-year old wunderkind Jon Favreau, Obama likes to write the bulk of his speeches himself.

It’s commonly thought that effective orators are blessed with a mysterious gift, but all successful speakers use the same simple techniques, and have been doing so at least since they were first taught by the ancient Greeks. What makes outstanding speakers stand out is the frequency with which they use them. At its simplest, the more use made of these techniques, the more impressed audiences will be.

The main rhetorical techniques include: Contrasts: e.g. I come to bury Caesar, not to praise him (Mark Antony), three-part lists: e.g. Education, education and education. (Tony Blair) and
combinations of contrasts and lists: e.g by contrasting a third item with the first two: We shall negotiate for it, sacrifice for it but never surrender for it. (Ronald Reagan).

Add to these devices like alliteration, repetition, imagery and anecdotes, and you have the basic building blocks of the language of public speaking.

“It’s not often that a single speech launches a politician from obscurity on to the national stage,” says public-speaking expert Dr Max Atkinson, “Ronald Reagan achieved it when he spoke in support of Barry Goldwater at the Republican Convention in 1964, and Obama achieved it with his keynote address to the Democratic Convention four years ago. Already he ranks highly in the league of all-time greats like Abraham Lincoln and Martin Luther King. He is particularly fond of contrasts, three-part lists and various combinations of the two. He also knows how to use imagery both to increase impact and to make his points evoke associations with great communicators of the past like Lincoln, King and Reagan. But one of the most interesting things about all this is that, even when you can see that Mr Obama is using the same simple techniques that every other inspiring speaker uses, the power and impact of his language remain undiminished."

(P.S. A question I'm often asked by people attending my courses and/or who've read one of my books is: "how frequently can you can get away with using rhetorical techniques and imagery?" This speech in an impressive example of how they can be used to get across almost every single point you want to make -- and, in this case, had the effect of moving many who heard it, both live in Chicago and around the world, to tears).


If there is anyone out there who still doubts that America is a place where all things are possible; who still wonders if the dream of our founders is alive in our time; who still questions the power of our democracy, tonight is your answer.

Kicks off by evoking the American Dream, implicitly linking to Martin Luther King’s 'I have a dream speech – by addressing 3 groups of people out there.

It's the answer told by lines that stretched around schools and churches in numbers this nation has never seen; by people who waited three hours and four hours, many for the very first time in their lives, because they believed that this time must be different; that their voices could be that difference.

This is the first of 3 groups of people for whom “it’s the answer”. High turnout depicted by images of voters in queues, etc.

It's the answer spoken by young and old, rich and poor, Democrat and Republican, black, white, (first groups depicted by series of contrasts) Hispanic, Asian, Native American (group of 3), gay, straight, disabled and not disabled (two more contrasting groups) - 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 .

3rd item contrasts with the first two; and this ‘not red states-not blue states-but United States’ line harks back to Obama’s speech at the 2004 Democratic Convention, that first brought him to wider public notice, where he used it to introduce the ‘politics of hope’ theme that has become one of his trademarks.

It's the answer that led those who have been told for so long by so many to be cynical, and fearful, and doubtful of what we can achieve to put their hands on the arc of history and bend it once more toward the hope of a better day.

‘Hope’ theme again, plus image of bending an arc towards a better future.

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

Contrast between ‘what’s been coming’ and ‘what’s now come’ – and it’s come at 3 moments (‘this day’, ‘this election’, ‘this moment’).

A little bit earlier this evening I received an extraordinarily gracious call from Senator McCain. He fought long and hard in this campaign, and he's fought even longer and harder for the country he loves. He has endured sacrifices for America that most of us cannot begin to imagine. We are better off for the service rendered by this brave and selfless leader.

McCain has done 3 worthy things (‘fought a campaign’, ‘fought for the country’, ‘endured sacrifices’).

I congratulate him, I congratulate Governor Palin, for all they have achieved, and I look forward to working with them to renew this nation's promise in the months ahead.

I want to thank my partner in this journey, a man who campaigned from his heart and spoke for the men and women he grew up with on the streets of Scranton and rode with on that train home to Delaware, the vice-president-elect of the United States, Joe Biden.

Biden has also done 3 things (‘campaigned’, ‘spoken’, ‘ridden on a train’). The train imagery personalises his praise for Biden, who started commuting daily from Delaware to Washington in 1972, after his two young sons had survived a road crash in which his wife and their daughter died.

And I would not be standing here tonight without the unyielding support of my best friend for the last 16 years, the rock of our family, the love of my life, the nation's next first lady, Michelle Obama. Sasha and Malia, I love you both more than you can imagine, and you have earned the new puppy that's coming with us to the White House.

Note that the invitations to the audience to applaud Biden and Michelle are perfectly executed – the person is identified, praised and finally named. Naming the person earlier tends to confuse audiences as to when and if they are supposed to applaud. Mention of the puppy for the children depicts him as a thoroughly ‘normal’, kindly father and family man.

And while she's no longer with us, I know my grandmother is watching, along with the family that made me who I am. I miss them tonight, and know that my debt to them is beyond measure. To my sister Maya, my sister Auma, all my other brothers and sisters - thank you so much for all the support you have given me. I am grateful to them.

This sentence can be heard as an implicit reminder that he’s a practising Christian who believes in life after death, followed by more ‘I’m a family man’ references.

To my campaign manager David Plouffe, the unsung hero of this campaign, who built the best political campaign in the history of the United States of America. My chief strategist David Axelrod, who has been a partner with me every step of the way, and to the best campaign team ever assembled in the history of politics - you made this happen, and I am forever grateful for what you've sacrificed to get it done.

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


I was never the likeliest candidate for this office. We didn't start with much money or many endorsements. Our campaign was not hatched in the halls of Washington - it began in the backyards of Des Moines and the living rooms of Concord and the front porches of Charleston.

This is the first of 3 points about his campaign (‘started modestly’, ‘built by working men’, ‘grew strength from young people’). Then this first point uses a combined contrast and 3 part list, in which Washington is contrasted with 3 ordinary provincial cities. Adding to the impact of this contrast between Washington and the 3 other places are simple images that contrast the corridors of power in one (‘halls of Washington’) with everyday places in the others (‘backyards', 'living rooms' and 'front porches’).

It was built by working men and women who dug into what little savings they had to give $5 and $10 and $20 to the cause.

Second point about campaign is that it was built by 3 types of drains on personal cash.

It grew strength from the young people who rejected the myth of their generation's apathy; who left their homes and their families for jobs that offered little pay and less sleep; it grew strength from the not-so-young people who braved the bitter cold and scorching heat to knock on the doors of perfect strangers; from the millions of Americans who volunteered, and organised, and proved that more than two centuries later, a government of the people, by the people and for the people has not perished from the Earth.

Third point is that it grew strength from 3 groups of people (‘the young’, ‘not-so-young people’, and ‘millions of Americans’). Sacrifice depicted by images of young people leaving homes and supporters braving contrasting climatic conditions -- summed up as a proof that Abraham Lincoln’s most famous line, also a 3 part list, still applies. He could have said it hasn’t disappeared, vanished or died, but ‘perished’ has the advantage of adding another alliterative word.

This is your victory.

I know you didn't do this just to win an election and I know you didn't do it for me. You did it because you understand the enormity of the task that lies ahead.

Two reasons ‘why you didn’t do it’ are contrasted with third reason ‘why you did’.

For even as we celebrate tonight, we know the challenges that tomorrow will bring are the greatest of our lifetime - two wars, a planet in peril, the worst financial crisis in a century.

3 challenges ahead, and the third one is longer than the first two. This is a feature of some of the most famous 3 part lists of all time, such as ‘life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness’ and ‘father, son and holy ghost’. ‘Tomorrow’ obviously doesn’t mean ‘Thursday’ and is a simple metaphor for the future. Hazards to the planet can be described in many different ways, but ‘peril’ has the ‘poetic’ advantage of alliteration.

Even as we stand here tonight, we know there are brave Americans waking up in the deserts of Iraq and the mountains of Afghanistan to risk their lives for us.

‘Deserts’ and ‘mountains’ imagery to highlight the tough conditions American soldiers are facing.

There are mothers and fathers who will lie awake after their children fall asleep and wonder how they'll make the mortgage, or pay their doctor's bills, or save enough for their child's college education. There is new energy to harness and new jobs to be created; new schools to build and threats to meet and alliances to repair.

Contrast between brave Americans waking up to face difficulties in foreign places and American parents unable to sleep because of difficulties at home – of which there happen to be 3 (paying ‘mortgages’, ‘medical expenses’ and ‘college fees’).

The road ahead will be long. Our climb will be steep.

This simple image of the long road and steep climb was quite widely featured in the media as the main soundbite from the speech. It is also the first of 3 challenges that lie ahead (‘it’s going to take time’, ‘there’ll be opposition’ and ‘we need to remake the nation’).

We may not get there in one year or even in one term, but America - 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

The mountain-climbing imagery, followed by “we as a people will get there” evokes the last speech made by Martin Luther King on the night before he was assassinated: “I’ve been up to the mountain, I’ve looked over and I’ve seen the promised land. I may not get there with you but I want you to know tonight that we as a people will get to the promised land.”

There will be setbacks and false starts. There are many who won't agree with every decision or policy I make as president, and we know that government can't solve every problem. But I will always be honest with you about the challenges we face. I will listen to you, especially when we disagree.

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.

3 alliterative building images, involving repetition of words, to characterize how this has always been done. It’s also another example where the third one is the longest of the three.

What began 21 months ago in the depths of winter cannot end on this autumn night.

Contrast between winter and autumn.

This victory alone is not the change we seek - it is only the chance for us to make that change.

Alliterative contrast between the victory not being the ‘change’ but the ‘chance to make the change’.

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

3 reasons why it can’t happen, and alliteration with four words beginning with ‘S’ (and more ‘S-’ words at the start of the next sentence).

So let us summon a new spirit of patriotism; of service and responsibility where each of us resolves to pitch in and work harder and look after not only ourselves, but each other. Let us remember that if this financial crisis taught us anything, it's that we cannot have a thriving Wall Street while Main Street suffers - in this country, we rise or fall as one nation; as one people.

Contrast between ‘ourselves’ and ‘each other’, followed by contrast between Wall Street and Main Street, where street names are simple metaphors depicting the worlds of high finance and ordinary everyday shopping.

Let us resist the temptation to fall back on the same partisanship and pettiness and immaturity that has poisoned our politics for so long.

Lets not fall back into 3 errors (‘partisanship’, ‘pettiness’ and ‘immaturity’). He could just as well said ‘harmed’ or ‘damaged’ politics, but ‘poisoned’ has the advantage of alliteration with other ‘P’ words close by.

Let us remember that it was a man from this state who first carried the banner of the Republican Party to the White House - a party founded on the values of self-reliance, individual liberty, and national unity.

The Republican Party had 3 founding values, and Lincoln surfaces again, with a reminder that he, like Obama, started out in Illinois state politics.

Those are values that we all share, and while the Democratic Party has won a great victory tonight, we do so with a measure of humility and determination to heal the divides that have held back our progress. As Lincoln said to a nation far more divided than ours: "We are not enemies, but friends… though passion may have strained it must not break our bonds of affection."

Another quote from Lincoln, which starts with a contrast between ‘enemies’ and ‘friends’.

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.

Combination in which the second part of the contrast is a 3 part list (‘you may not have voted for me’, ‘but 3 things link us together’).

And to all those watching tonight from beyond our shores, from parliaments and palaces (alliteration) to those who are huddled around radios in the forgotten corners of the world - our stories are singular, but our destiny is shared (contrast), and a new dawn of American leadership is at hand.

Addressed to 3 groups of people (‘foreigners’, ‘political leaders’ and the ‘developing world'), with alliteration and image of people in ‘huddled in corners’. The mood and imagery here is reminiscent of the way Kennedy addressed different parts of the world in his inaugural address in 1960: “To those peoples in the huts and villages across the globe …” The image of a 'new dawn of American leadership' also has echoes of another line in Kennedy's inaugural: "The torch has passed to a new generation of Americans .."

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

And to all those who have wondered if America's beacon still burns as bright - tonight we proved once more that the true strength of our nation comes not from the might of our arms or the scale of our wealth, but from the enduring power of our ideals: democracy, liberty, opportunity and unyielding hope.

Alliterative image of a ‘beacon burning’ echoes one of the first few lines of Martin Luther King’s ‘I have a dream’ speech: “This momentous decree came as a great beacon light of hope to millions of Negro slaves who had been seared in the flames of withering injustice.” Then we have another contrast in which the third one, ‘power of our ideals’, contrasts with the first two. The first three of these are commonly cited a American ideals, but ‘hope’ resurfaces again, having been a central theme for Obama since he published his book ‘the Audacity of Hope’.

For that is the true genius of America - that America can change. Our union can be perfected. And what we have already achieved gives us hope for what we can and must achieve tomorrow.

Genius of America has 3 components, ‘hope’ again and ‘tomorrow’ again used as metaphor for the future.

This election had many firsts and many stories that will be told for generations. But one that's on my mind tonight is about a woman who cast her ballot in Atlanta. 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.

Starts an extended anecdote to highlight a century of change, setting it up by contrasting this one with the many other stories that could be told. This woman just happens to come from the same place as Martin Luther King (Atlanta). And the fact that she’s 106 enables him to talk about events from the past century, as MLK did at the start of ‘I have a dream’. His reference point was the emancipation proclamation, in relation to which he produced a series of sentences starting with “One hundred years later..” (“But one hundred years later, the Negro still is not free. One hundred years later, the life of the Negro is still sadly crippled by the manacles of segregation and the chains of discrimination…etc.”).

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 colour of her skin.

Transport imagery to highlight technological change, and it now turns out that she is black as well as female and very old – which sets it up for him to say more about Martin Luther King’s central themes of emancipation and discrimination.

And tonight, I think about all that she's seen throughout her century in America - the heartache and the hope; the struggle and the progress; the times we were told that we can't, and the people who pressed on with that American creed: Yes, we can.

His thoughts about her are expressed in 3 contrasts (‘heartache and hope’, ‘struggle and progress’, we can’t versus we can). The repetitive sequence of ‘Yes we can’ that eventually results in the audience joining in as a chorus, harks back to Obama’s speech after losing the New Hampshire primary, where he did exactly the same thing. The audience participation can be heard as a secular version of the regular crowd interjections (“Yeah Lord”, “Holy, Holy Holy”, “Amen”, etc in Martin Luther King’s speeches. “Yes we can” has no religious connotations and carries no risk of making Jews and members of other religions feel excluded.

At a time when women's voices were silenced and their hopes dismissed, she lived to see them stand up and speak out and reach for the ballot. Yes, we can.

First two negative things in the history of women's emancipation that she saw contrasted with a victory in which they achieved 3 things.

When there was despair in the dust bowl and depression across the land, she saw a nation conquer fear itself with a New Deal, new jobs and a new sense of common purpose. Yes, we can.

Alliterative image referring to how a previous bad time in economic history was overcome by 3 new things.

When the bombs fell on our harbour and tyranny threatened the world, she was there to witness a generation rise to greatness and a democracy was saved. Yes, we can.

Two nasty things about war contrasted with 'salvation'

She was there for the buses in Montgomery, the hoses in Birmingham, a bridge in Selma, and a preacher from Atlanta who told a people that "we shall overcome". Yes, we can.

3 negative images of racial discrimination contrasted with a positive reference to Martin Luther King (again).

A man touched down on the Moon, a wall came down in Berlin, a world was connected by our own science and imagination. 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. Yes, we can.

3 images of advances she witnessed, followed by her being able to use modern technology to vote and a contrast between ‘best of times’ and ‘darkest of hours’.

America, we have come so far. We have seen so much. But there is so much more to do.

3 part list with third item longest and contrasting with the first two.

So tonight, let us ask ourselves - if our children should live to see the next century; if my daughters should be so lucky to live as long as Ann Nixon Cooper, what change will they see? What progress will we have made?

Two rhetorical questions to lead into the peroration.

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

This focus on ‘our moment’, and ‘our time’, developed further in the next sentence, again echoes Martin Luther King’s ‘I have a dream’ speech, in which his reference to “the fierce urgency of now” prefaced three sentences starting with “Now is the time…”

This is our time - to put our people back to work and open doors of opportunity for our kids; to restore prosperity and promote the cause of peace; to reclaim the American dream and reaffirm that fundamental truth - that out of many, we are one; that while we breathe, we hope, and where we are met with cynicism and doubt, and those who tell us that we can't, we will respond with that timeless creed that sums up the spirit of a people: yes, we can.

The Image of opening ‘doors of opportunity’ brings us back to the American dream theme, harking back to the opening line of the speech. This simultaneously lets the audience know that he’s nearly finished, continues to echo the spirit of Martin Luther King and gives a sense of overall structural unity.

Thank you, God bless you, and may God bless the United States of America.

Max Atkinson is author of Lend Me Your Ears: All You Need to Know about Making Speeches and Presentations (London, Vermilion, 2004 & New York, Oxford University Press, 2005), and Speech-making and Presentation Made Easy: Seven Essential Steps to Success (London, Vermilion, 2008), available from Amazon UK and Amazon USA by clicking links from here.


Rod Tejada R said...

That's an impressive analysis. This is the first time I check your blog, but I'll do it more often now.

Unknown said...

Gerat analysis. Here's my video honoring the rhetorical brilliance of the speech:


Anonymous said...

Do you think the line "red states, blue states..."etc. has any connotations to the Civil War? Or is it simply a reference to the Democrat and Republican States? Thanks, Chris

Max Atkinson said...

Chris: I don't think the red/blue states refers to the civil war, but to the colours of the two parties. If you look back at his speech at the 2004 Convention, you'll see that there was an extended sequence in which he was clearly using red and blue states to refer to Republican and Democrat states, and it's a usage that he continued to use during the campaign.

Anonymous said...

I thought so! I was debating this in class last week as we discussed your analysis of the speech.
Much appreciated, thanks!

Anonymous said...

Halo Max

Thanks for you great analysis! As a prof. danish speechwriter and rhetorican in Retorikhuset - i'll use it in my work - quoting you, of cause. I think your analysis could focus on other aspects ass well of the Obama speech than the elocutio-part. Why not evaluate his delivery (memoria and actio)?

I would like to add some observations:

A part from his use of 3 part lists, contrast and images, Obama vary between long and short sentences, and much of the strength in "yes, we can" lies within the contrast to the previous longer sentence structure. This contrast help his delivery, strength in voice and contact with the audience.

Secondly: In every sentence Obama and Faveau has thought about the rhythm. One of many examples: "With no cars on the roads or plans in the sky". I think that this carefully prepared tri-syllable helps Obama to make a strong and convincing delivery throughout the entire speech.

Finally: His voice-technic is fabulous. His sound is deep and friendly and pay attention to the great pathos in the end: "If my daughter lives as long as.. what change will they see..?"

Thanks again. Janus Beyer

RaymentW said...

Aristotle said there were 3 elements in rhetoric. These were the effectiveness of the speaker himself, the receptiveness of his audience, and the appropriateness of the subject matter. This is a simple way of viewing rhetoric, but handy for us who like simple rules. In any case, it seems that Obama's speech did indeed connect on all these levels. Thanks for your insightful analysis.

Keith D said...

Thanks for sharing.

Great blog and lots of practical information for any aspiring public speaker.

Keith D