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How to Inspire People Like Obama Does

Public speaking skills are critical to the success of every leader. Here are four techniques you can borrow from the Presidential candidate

Over the past several years, I have been interviewing, observing, and writing about business, academic, and political leaders who have the ability to influence their audience—leaders who fire up the rest of us. Senator Barack Obama (D-Ill.) is one of them. For a look at what makes Obama's public speaking skills so effective, I outline four techniques he's mastered and explain ways to use them in your own repertoire.

Hold Out Hope

Like Winston Churchill, Martin Luther King Jr., John F. Kennedy, and Ronald Reagan, Obama speaks in the uplifting rhetoric of hope. After his defeat in New Hampshire, Obama's political oratory was so hopeful he sounded more like a winner than a runner-up. Obama knew a hopeful message would embolden his supporters. In a speech on Jan. 8, 2008, Obama said, "We know the battle ahead will be long. But always remember, no matter what obstacles stand in our way, nothing can stand in the way of the power of millions of voices calling for change… We have been warned against offering the people of this nation false hope. But in the unlikely story that is America, there has never been anything false about hope."

You are the leader people want to believe in. Your customers and employees are bombarded by bad news—the credit crunch, a housing slump, an economic slowdown—but they are eager to hear something positive. That doesn't mean leaders stick their heads in the sand—far from it. Inspiring leaders acknowledge the situation but also remind people of reasons to be optimistic.

Use Rhetorical Devices

Many observers say Obama sounds like King. He does because he uses some of the same techniques that made King an electrifying speaker.

1. Parallel structure We can thank the ancient Greeks for this rhetorical tool—they called it "anaphora." It simply means repeating the same word or expression at the beginning of successive sentences or phrases. One of the most famous examples is King's "I Have a Dream" speech. "I have a dream that one day this nation will rise up and live out the true meaning of its creed…. I have a dream that… I have a dream…" Obama uses the same device frequently. In his Iowa victory speech on Jan. 3, Obama said, "You have done what the cynics said we couldn't do. You have done what the state of New Hampshire can do in five days. You have done what America can do in this new year."

Anaphora's sister technique is called "epistrophe." It is the repetition of a word or expression at the end of a successive sentences or phrases. For example, in Obama's New Hampshire speech, the expression "Yes, we can" rallied thousands of supporters when used like this: "It was a creed written into the founding documents that declared the destiny of a nation: Yes, we can. It was whispered by slaves and abolitionists as they blazed a trail towards freedom through the darkest of nights: Yes, we can. It was sung by immigrants as they struck out for distant shores and pioneers who pushed westward against an unforgiving wilderness: Yes, we can.

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