On July 2004 there was a big gathering called the Democratic National Convention. It was particularly important for a man named John Kerry. John Kerry was hoping to wow people to vote for him, to be their next Presidential candidate. Here he is:

Image of John Kerry, a white dude in a suit, looking out into the distance
John Kerry. Photo: Daily Post 2016.

Every big wow needs a warm up. Kerry chose a guy called Barack Obama. A wow warm up, is most commonly called a keynote address. It is a big deal to be asked to deliver one of those. Therefore, it makes sense why a lot of people were confused by the choice of Obama; no one had a foggy idea who he was. The morning of the Convention, the Philadelphia Daily News ran with the headline, “Who the Heck Is This Guy?”. As Obama, put it in his book, ‘The Audacity of Hope’:

The process by which I was selected as the keynote speaker remains something of a mystery to me.

Well the Philadelphia Daily News and everyone watching were in for a historical storm. This speech was going to make Obama president: even Obama hadn’t the foggiest about that.

The story that moved a nation

My father was a foreign student, born and raised in a small village in Kenya…
While studying here my father met my mother. She was born in a town on the other side of the world, in Kansas…
My parents shared not only an improbable love; they shared an abiding faith in the possibilities of this nation…
My story is part of the larger American story…and that in no other country on earth is my story even possible…
Barack Obama

You can watch the speech here.

Obama’s speech not only warmed up the room, it electrified the audience and wowed the world. This speech made him a house-hold name over night. People across the political world were comparing Obama to Martin Luther King Jr. and John F. Kennedy.

Obama’s life was to change forever. The day after the Boston convention, he went back to campaigning across Illinois. Previous to the keynote address, Obama had been speaking to crowds of 100 to 200 people. The day after the convention, over 700 people came to listen to him speak. He would go to hundreds of gatherings and the numbers kept rising, reaching the thousands. It became clear that Obama had made history that night, and would set his sights on the White House.

What we can learn from Obama’s story

Obama’s speech was mighty impressive, but there was no magic to it. Obama brought a range of tried-and-tested storytelling techniques to make his voice powerful.

Personal

Obama’s story is personal. It moves the room to connect with him. He shares personal details of his childhood; what it means to be the son of a black African father and white American mother, and his hopes and dreams for the future. Although we may not all relate to the specifics of his story; the memory of childhood, dreams and aspirations are all things we can connect to. Obama also uses lots of ‘we’: his story is our story.

We have more work to do…We can make sure that every child in America has a decent shot at life…We are one people, all of us pledging allegiance to the stars and stripes…

Aspirational

While his speech was original in terms of its content, Obama took the tools of other great storytellers who came before him. He borrowed from people like Martin Luther King Jr. and John F. Kennedy, using similar aspirational hopeful language, patriotic themes, and rich imagery of dreams, particularly the American dream. This is a story of hope not fear.

Well, I say to them tonight, there’s not a liberal America and a conservative America; there’s the United States of America…

Simple

Obama refrains from using any gobbledegunk. All of his language is simple, casual and comfortable for everyone to understand and participate with.

The hope of a skinny kid with a funny name who believes that America has a place for him, too.

Struggle we can all relate to

Obama focused on the concerns of everyday Americans. This was a speech of struggle: struggle we call can empathise and relate to. He brought it down to the individual, not the overwhelming masses.

If there’s a child on the South Side of Chicago who can’t read, that matters to me, even if it’s not my child…If there is a senior citizen…having to choose between medicine and the rent, that makes my life poorer, even if it’s not my grandparent…

It teaches a lesson of choice

The story is a lesson. Obama is showing a problem to his audience and then solves it. After listing the challenges ahead of us, Obama makes clear that the type of America we are all seeking, requires hopeful and urgent action. A vote for John Kerry is a vote for a United States.

America! Tonight… if you feel the same urgency that I do…the people will rise up in November, and John Kerry will be sworn in as president…and out of this long political darkness a brighter day will come.”

A story over an argument

Obama could use statistics to drive home his arguments. Most politicians do. Obama deliberately chooses story over facts and figures. We can not argue with someones story. There is always alternative facts available to us; stories are uniquely personal. Stories appeal to our hearts as well as our heads, to participate with rather than work against.

Next steps

You can tell stories like Obama too. What looks effortless took preparation and a tested method. The next four sessions show you how.