“To Graça Machel and the Mandela family; to President Zuma and members of the government; to heads of states and government, past and present; distinguished guests – it is a singular honour to be with you today, to celebrate a life like no other….”
And so began what some have described as one of the greatest political speeches of this era. If you’ve ever doubted that US President, Barack Obama, is one of the greatest orators of our time, the speech he delivered at the memorial service of South one of the world’s most loved and revered leaders, Nelson Mandela, is proof. Before he took to the podium, the restless 60-thousand strong crowds in attendance had been heckling and booing those who had addressed them thus far. But as soon as an impassioned Obama began delivering his eulogy to Madiba, using phrases like “…his struggle was your struggle…his triumph was your triumph…” then the once raucous crowd broke out in a validating and thunderous applause, hearing echoes of their beloved liberator, Rholihlahla, reverberating through Obama’s voice.
I’ve always loved listening to Obama speak. His speeches are every rhetorical analyst’s dream, and every speech writer’s ideal. Whether you are present in the room or listening over the airwaves, you can’t help but hang on to every word he says. And the historic occasion of Mandela’s memorial service was no different. As I reflect on what it was about his address that caused the uncomfortable atmosphere at the FNB stadium to momentarily shift into a haven of inspiration while he delivered his 20 minute speech, three things stand out. Three things that I think all of us who work with words can learn from this great orator.
Firstly, an audience will always be more moved by personal accounts and stories than by a history lesson of dull facts. Obama knew that the people in attendance hadn’t braved the rainy Johannesburg weather just to hear him recount facts that they could have read for themselves of Wikipedia. He knew they wanted to be reminded of what Nelson Mandela had stood for, and more importantly they wanted to hear how the life of South Africa’s first black president had impacted his American counterpart. So when he spoke he personalised it, reminding the crowd that “while still a student, I learned of Nelson Mandela and the struggles taking place in this beautiful land, and it stirred something in me”. Obama didn’t just nostalgically reflect on the past, he projected these lessons to the present and future, saying “Mandela makes me want to be a better man”, much to the crowd’s delight.
Many speakers go wrong by thinking a public address is an opportunity to showcase just how knowledgeable they are on a matter. They churn out dates and locations, instead of describing moments and experiences. They become long winded trying to capture every conceivable fact, instead of choosing a few select instances that embody the feeling. But as Obama showed if you want people to remember what you have to say, tell them stories. Speak from the heart, and show them how, what you are speaking about, has personally impacted your life and theirs.
The second thing that stood out for me from Obama’s great oratory is that there can be no better way to commemorate someone’s life, especially a thinker and speaker of Nelson Mandela’s calibre, than by using his own words. Compared to Mandela’s struggle comrades who spent years with him during the struggle, Obama hardly knew the man. And yet of all those who spoke at his memorial service, and I’d dare say most of those who have spoken about him since he passed away, Obama has been one of the most articulate in encapsulating the essence of who Madiba was.
I attribute this mainly to the fact that instead of trying to sum up Madiba’s life in his 20 minute speech, Obama took the opportunity as one to remind the world of what the statesman had stood for, using Madiba’s own words. By recalling some of Mandela’s most memorable moments, he took us back to those historic instances that made him who he was. Speaking about his views of his own fallibility, for example, Obama reminded us that Mandela had once said “I am not a saint, unless you think of a saint as a sinner who keeps on trying”. Instead of blandly describing Mandela as a man of conviction, he took us back to the Rivonia trial using the words of Mandela, the young lawyer, when he said “I have fought against white domination and I have fought against black domination. I’ve cherished the ideal of a democratic and free society in which all persons live together in harmony…” And the list goes on with quote after quote subtly woven into Obama’s speech, and only being highlighted as Madiba’s own words by the impassioned applause of approval from the people.
The final thought that I have from Obama’s speech is probably the one that’s most important for me. Obama’s delivery reminds us that how you say something is often more important than what you say. Throughout these days of mourning for Mandela, I’ve sat through a number of speeches, press conferences and tributes to this world icon. The ones that still reverberate in my heart are those, like the one delivered by Obama, that have come from the heart. It’s not enough to utter great words if these words are not delivered with an even greater passion. Obama knew precisely where and when to inflect his voice, to restrain his tone, to pause, and even to smile.
I’m sure his ability to be so in sync with the crowd was in part due to his natural gift as a speaker. However, I think a large part of it came from being able to read the crowd and draw upon what they wanted and needed to hear at that time. This insight applies to anyone who would want to leave a lasting impression on an audience. Be sure to work hard at researching and crafting your speech. But when the moment comes to give the address, make sure the people, and not the words in front of you, are the most important thing in the room. Don’t be too focused on sticking to what you’ve noted down – deviate if that’s what will appeal to them. Look them in the eye. Smile when they cheer. Pause when they need a moment to reflect. And most importantly, even though you are speaking to a group remember that each person is listening to you as though they were the only one in the room.
Most of us will never be afforded the platform of speaking at the memorial service of one of the greatest leaders of our time. Each of us though will have many opportunities to leave a lasting impression through our words. Whether it’s a small gathering of friends and family, or a bigger platform with hundreds of strangers, when the moment arises we must rise to it, and ensure that our address is of the Obama-kind; one that will leave others mulling over our words long after we have stepped down from the podium.
What stood out most to you about Barack Obama’s speech?
If you’re a speaker what are some pivotal dos and don’ts when you address an audience?
What are some of your other all time favourite speeches?