A Leader’s Guide to the Inaugural Address

Posted 01.19.2009

Obama09 For leaders looking for communications role models, tomorrow’s inaugural address by President Obama should be like the Super Bowl, your birthday and your favorite holiday all rolled into one.  Given Obama’s track record of delivering stirring speeches at critical moments, the expectations are through the roof.  For me, it’s akin to anticipating Michael Jordan’s performance in game 6 or 7 of the NBA finals or Tiger Woods sinking a 50 footer to clinch a major on Sunday.

As I’ve written before, it’s easy to think that as strong as he is in giving a speech that Obama is a natural and it just comes easy to him.  As the Financial Times reported on Saturday, however, there is a deep understanding of the art of rhetoric and persuasion behind the impact of Obama’s major speeches.

In a terrific analysis, Sam Leith of the FT explains that Obama uses proven rhetorical techniques that date back to the time of Aristotle.  When you listen to the new President’s inaugural address tomorrow, keep your ears open for the following techniques:

  • Tricolons:  three terms in ascending order such as “I came, I saw, I conquered.”
  • Synthetons:  balanced doubles of words such as “men and women” or “young and old”.

Leith points out that Obama regularly combines these two techniques as he did in his speech at the Victory Column in Berlin last summer, “As we speak, cars in Boston and factories in Beijing are melting the ice caps in the Arctic, shrinking coastlines in the Atlantic, and bringing drought to farms from Kansas to Kenya.”

Obama also pays a lot of attention to the cadence and rhythm of his words. Leith reports that the official transcript of Obama’s speech on the night of the New Hampshire primary punctuates his signature phrase, “Yes we can,” as Yes.  We.  Can.  Forethought and planning was given to the way it would sound.

Finally, like the greatest speakers before him, Obama positions not just himself but his audience as part of something bigger – the arc of history.  His story on election night about 106 year old Ann Nixon Cooper who lived through segregation in the South and cast her vote for an African American as president illustrates that.

So, tomorrow, I encourage you to listen to Obama’s address on a couple of levels.  Listen for the content but also listen for the structure and the delivery.  My guess is that neither I nor anyone reading this will be speaking to a global audience of billions anytime soon, but I think there are some things we can learn about leadership communications from our new president.