Presidential Persuasion: Barack Obama’s Storytelling

Few presidents knew how to capture the imagination of millions quite like Barack Obama. A lanky young man from Chicago, Obama became a star after giving a blockbuster speech at the 2004 Democratic Convention. He knew the power of storytelling, and his story was a special one.

What’s key to remember about storytelling is that it is very rare to master it off the cuff. It takes years of practice, honing the craft. In fact, it is exactly the rigor involved that often makes speeches come across as contemporaneous. 

The strength of Obama’s rhetorical appeal was his ability to deliver a compelling story. “Hope and change” is the phrase most associated with his candidacy, but it was far more than the repetition of the phrase that made his oratory so memorable. What Obama did so well was craft a message about his life that made him as American as anyone else, even as some openly questioned his citizenship and deployed racial animosity.

Many leaders may find it mawkish to use personal stories, believing that they belittle the point being made and that one should stick with the here and now. Here’s what I think: They’re dead wrong. 

The ability to weave into your speeches the stories that shaped and molded you as a leader is indispensable. Storytelling can bring the audience into the speech in ways that a dry recitation cannot. When orators like Obama tell stories about their families, for example, people find that they can relate with someone who’s running for the U.S. Senate or for president. 

In his speech at the 2004 Democratic Convention, Obama was introducing himself to the nation. An unknown African-American state senator from Chicago stood before thousands, and millions at home, to tell his story. He described how his father was born in Kenya and moved to the United States, and how his mother’s father fought in World War II. It was a story not unlike that of so many Americans.

Obama used his storytelling ability in a way that surpassed many of his contemporary politicians. For him, it came naturally. For many of us who wish to tap into the power of storytelling, it will take practice and, importantly, intention. Every day, we tell stories. To our friends, family and coworkers, we talk about things that have happened to us recently or ages ago. It’s a story, perhaps with no more purpose than to simply pass the time.

So what if you leveraged the innate ability you have to tell stories, but bolstered it with a persuasive purpose? This section will help you do just that, and it starts by looking into the past to learn more about skills that will remain relevant into the future.

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