On January 11th, president Obama addressed a congregation in Tucson Arizona in the wake of the tragic shootings. He took on several roles: National eulogist, President, mourner, and human being. He spoke for approximately 34 minutes, and his speech built momentum starting with formal praise of each shooting victim, and ending with a very heartfelt and uplifting message.
Setting the tone
In the first few minutes Obama sets the tone for the speech by saying, “the hopes of a nation are here tonight, we mourn for the fallen. We join you in your grief. We hope that the victims of this tragedy will pull through.” Then he moves into story form recounting the events of that morning. “Sunday morning, Gabby, her staff, and her constituents gathered outside to protest…”
Skill #1: Start with “What Is”
When you start your speech with the events and the facts, it allows room for your audience to agree with a common idea. Few people would argue that this isn’t actually what happened, and building common ground helps you keep the attention of the audience right from the start. Starting with “What Is” also sets the stage for you to be able to create a vision of “What Could Be.” Nancy Duarte, in her book Resonate, emphasizes that great stories or speeches move the audience back and forth between where we are (What Is) and where we could be.
Skill #2: Humanize the event
For the next few minutes President Obama takes time to share a little story about each victim. He shares what they were doing that morning, and any brief tid-bit that sheds light on their personality and character. “George’s final act of selflessness was to dive on top of his wife, sacrificing his life for hers.” This serves two very important purposes: First, it honors the victims and victim’s families. Second, it really brings home the depth of the tragedy because we feel like we know the victims personally.
Skill #3: Find a positive vision to hold on to
About 10 minutes into the speech, Obama manages to turn the sadness in the room into something inspiring and uplifting. He begins the transition with these words at minute 10:35: “Our hearts are broken, by their sudden passing. [pause for silence] Our hearts are broken. And yet, our hearts also have reason for fullness. [pause] Our hearts are full of hope and thanks for the 13 Americans who survived the shooting, including the congresswoman many of them went to see on Saturday.”
Obama then shifts back to story form and tells the audience that he just visited “Our friend Gabby” in the hospital. Obama tells the audience that Gabby’s husband Mark is allowing him to share something with us. “Gabby opened her eyes for the first time. Gabby opened her eyes.” This is where the audience shifts fully from grief and sadness to hope and inspiration. Applause, cheers, and standing ovation follow.
Watch what happens to Obama’s tone at minute 12:00. He speaks with more emphasis and energy. “Gabby opened her eyes so I can tell you she knows we are here, she knows we love her, and she knows we are rooting for her…” [more cheers and applause].
From here on out, Obama talks about a number of events we’re grateful for, each time drawing cheers, applause and/or a standing ovation: “Daniel Hernandez, “the men who tackled the gunman as he stopped to reload,” “Patricia Maisch.”
He transitions again into “What could be” saying we should speak about this tragedy “in a way that heals, not in a way that wounds.” He also mentions that we can never know exactly what triggered these attacks. He calls for unity by saying, “What we cannot do, is use this tragedy as one more occasion to turn on each other.” This part seems to be addressing the media, the public, and other outlets that place blame on extreme rhetoric. This is a brave statement, and a great show of dignity to be willing to keep this tragedy above politics.
Skill #4: Put yourself into it
One of the most powerful moments of Obama’s speech came towards the end, when he talked again about Christina Taylor Green. Watch at minute 30:10, when he starts with “Imagine for a moment, here was a young girl who was just becoming aware of our democracy… she saw all this through the eyes of a child.” At minute 31:16 Obama makes his most powerful statement: “I want to live up to her expectations. [applause] I want our democracy to be as good as Christina imagined it.”
He moves towards a strong call to action: “We should do everything we can do, to make sure this country lives up to our children’s expectations.” By appealing to our common innocence (a child’s innocence), Obama creates a bold and powerful call that we can feel deeply.
He ends the speech with a touching thought about Christina, “If there are rain puddles in heaven, Christina is jumping on them today.”