President Obama’s DNC Speech: It’s Not What He Said

The day after President Obama addressed the Democratic National Convention I was inundated with calls, emails and texts from friends, colleagues and clients. The reviews were impressive. Some went so far as to say it was not just the best speech of Obama’s presidency, but in presidential history.

What fascinates me most is the bipartisan positive reactions. Everyone I spoke with seemed genuinely moved by the President’s words. Even staunch Republicans told me that the President expressed sentiments that we all know to be true.

What exactly did Obama do at the DNC? He adhered to advice from Maya Angelou who said, “People will forget what you said, people will forget what you do but people will never forget how you made them feel.”

It’s not what you say. It’s what you make them feel about what you say. And that can run the total spectrum … from generating anger at one extreme, to delight at the other.

Obama’s performance was a great example of authenticity. And authenticity is what every speaker should strive for. Authenticity is difficult to describe but all of us know it when we hear it. Just as its absence is equally evident. However, there is nothing spontaneous about authenticity. It doesn’t just happen. It’s the result of planning, preparation and skilled delivery.

The emotional power President Obama drew upon is a connection all great speakers seek to make with their audience. It’s a connection that occurs only when the audience can sense the speaker’s words, because those words are genuinely connected to personal values and shared experience. That kind of content is what I like to call “shared context.” It only happens when the words are rooted in character and they are delivered with passion and conviction.

The President’s speech was a case study in authenticity. Obama held up a virtual mirror and asked us to see our world through his eyes. Through sheer force of personality he made the audience think and feel about what he, as President and we as Americans, have experienced in what has obviously been a 7-1/2 year emotional roller coaster. In the end, he reminded us of all the things that should make us feel good about America.

Obama quoted only two Presidents, both Republicans. But his approach was inspired by the first Republican President. Abraham Lincoln closed his second inaugural address with an appeal to “the better angels of our nature.” With the nation in crisis, on the precipice of a civil war that would claim more than 600,000 lives, Lincoln made a plea to the public’s conscience to focus on good, positive, constructive acts and feelings, rather than the tension, fear, and hatred that would result in a destructive war. Obama took a similar tack. Without directly invoking the Civil War the President intimated that the stakes in this election may be just as high. Obama reminded Americans that progress comes only from good will. And nothing good ever comes from ill will. Franklin Delano Roosevelt captured a similar sentiment the day after the Japanese attacked Pearl Harbor in 1941. FDR needed just ten words: “The only thing we have to fear, is fear itself!

Obama says the glass is half full. Trump says it’s half empty. Actually, to hear “The Donald” tell it, the glass is broken. The President argued that America’s future hinges upon how Americans feel about the future. Choose hope or choose fear. His message was strikingly simple and abundantly clear. And based upon what I heard, people connected far more to Obama’s inspirational message than they did to Trump’s cynical one.

It takes testicular fortitude to tell an entire nation that all it really needs is an attitude adjustment! History tells us that Obama took a huge risk. Jimmy Carter took a similar approach at the height of the energy crisis in June of 1979. He told Americans they faced a “crisis of confidence.”  It was more sermon than Presidential address. Carter actually admonished the American people saying, “In a nation that was proud of hard work, strong families, close-knit communities and our faith in God, too many of us now tend to worship self-indulgence and consumption. Human identity is no longer defined by what one does but by what one owns.”

While he never used the word, it became known as Carter’s “malaise” speech. Initial reaction was positive but public sentiment quickly shifted. Carter’s approach was more intellectual than emotional. His audience never got his point. Rather than offering leadership, most Americans came away with a strikingly different message, that things were falling apart and the President was blaming the American people.

A little more than a year later, Carter lost his bid for a second term to Ronald Reagan who offered Americans a vision that was as optimistic as Carter’s was pessimistic. Reagan won in a landslide.

With oratory that was both inspirational and aspirational, Barrack Obama seized the high ground from Donald Trump by connecting with his audience emotionally. Trump has chosen to use fear as his method of influence and connection. But based upon the reaction of people who’ve spoken to me … Obama easily trumped Trump.

While Trump is capable of drawing large crowds and attracting a lot of attention, he has not displayed the ability to deeply connect and deeply move an audience. To communicate authentically, the audience must sense the speaker feels deeply about what they say, that their words are grounded in their core personal values. Obama’s masterful performance, the powerfully authentic level of emotion he created and his ability to touch even those who disagree with him politically, appears far beyond the capabilities of the Republican candidate who has little regard for facts and even less regard for consistency of message.

Trump’s rhetorical style is more Carnival Barker than inspirational leader. Lucky for Trump, he’s not running against Obama.



Lee_author Lee Zeidman is a strategic and crisis communications expert with a specialty in coaching C-level executives. Lee   began his career in broadcast journalism where he was an award-winning prime time producer for CBS News’ “60 Minutes,” “48 Hours” and “Street Stories”. For the last twenty years, Lee has taught major figures in global business to communicate authentically, and effectively manage and maximize their messages under the most adversarial situations. Connect with Lee on LinkedIn.