Barack Obama the storyteller

I’m not the only one looking into Obama’s acceptance speech, am I? I was deeply moved by anything others can think about but I was also moved by his ability to tell a story. So, here is the entire speech with storytelling commentary:

Good evening ChicagoDemocratic Convention

(A good storyteller will always open with localization or great distancing. Obama opens with localization and in an instant broadens the picture. Two birds with one stone)

If there is anyone out there who still doubts that America is a place where all things are possible; who still wonders if the dream of our founders is alive in our time; who still questions the power of our democracy, tonight is your answer.

(There you are. Broadening of time, space, crossing ideological borderlines and collecting everything back through the humanization of an opposing power. He brings an antagonist into the story, still fuzzy but present, what instantly indicates the existence of a protagonist. We already have good guys and bad guys but not in a black and white version America has known for so many generations.)

It’s the answer told by lines that stretched around schools and churches in numbers this nation has never seen; by people who waited three hours and four hours, many for the very first time in their lives, because they believed that this time must be different; that their voice could be that difference.

It’s the answer spoken by young and old, rich and poor, Democrat and Republican, black, white, Latino, Asian, Native American, gay, straight, disabled and not disabled — Americans who sent a message to the world that we have never been a collection of Red States and Blue States: we are, and always will be, the United States of America.

(He creates a picture easy to visualize, one of the greater powers of a storyteller. He also broadens the character of the protagonist to so many colors and types that we start wondering about the identity of the antagonist. A careful and brilliant move).

It’s the answer that led those who have been told for so long by so many to be cynical, and fearful, and doubtful of what we can achieve to put their hands on the arc of history and bend it once more toward the hope of a better day.

(The antagonist appears. But who is it exactly? Let the audience think for themselves without the storyteller raising an accusing finger. It is too complicated even for those who thought they were the good guys, the enlightened ones).

It’s been a long time coming, but tonight, because of what we did on this day, in this election, at this defining moment, change has come to America.

I just received a very gracious call from Senator McCain. He fought long and hard in this campaign, and he’s fought even longer and harder for the country he loves. He has endured sacrifices for America that most of us cannot begin to imagine, and we are better off for the service rendered by this brave and selfless leader.

(He will not mark anyone, forget it. Sure not Senator McCain. In this part of the speech the storyteller is leading a sweeping move of pardon and a deep understanding that not everything we do during our lifetime is also something to be proud about. That’s the way it is. But we can also try and do our best and results show up. The storyteller will never slash to death but will always try to balance the picture, even if it is very difficult).

I congratulate him and Governor Palin for all they have achieved, and I look forward to working with them to renew this nation’s promise in the months ahead.

(This is fare-play. He emphasizes their importance and relieves some of the fears. Many people have voted for them and they have their own set of stories running around in their heads).

I want to thank my partner in this journey, a man who campaigned from his heart and spoke for the men and women he grew up with on the streets of Scranton and rode with on that train home to Delaware, the Vice President-elect of the United States, Joe Biden.

I would not be standing here tonight without the unyielding support of my best friend for the last sixteen years, the rock of our family and the love of my life, our nation’s next First Lady, Michelle Obama. Sasha and Malia, I love you both so much, and you have earned the new puppy that’s coming with us to the White House.

(Come on, no good stories are absent of a love subplot. I’m sure many of the spectators were sorry they didn’t get to see a presidential kiss. Part of our souls is pink and sticky which is nice).

And while she’s no longer with us, I know my grandmother is watching, along with the family that made me who I am. I miss them tonight, and know that my debt to them is beyond measure.

(A storyteller will always pay respect to his ancestors. He is a bridge between times, acknowledges it and at the same time buys time for the entire audience).

To my campaign manager David Plouffe, my chief strategist David Axelrod, and the best campaign team ever assembled in the history of politics — you made this happen, and I am forever grateful for what you’ve sacrificed to get it done.

But above all, I will never forget who this victory truly belongs to — it belongs to you.

(End of part one of the story. The storyteller has created the back story for what he is about to tell).

obama-1I was never the likeliest candidate for this office. We didn’t start with much money or many endorsements. Our campaign was not hatched in the halls of Washington — it began in the backyards of Des Moines and the living rooms of Concord and the front porches of Charleston.

It was built by working men and women who dug into what little savings they had to give five dollars and ten dollars and twenty dollars to this cause.

(Here the storyteller starts building the picture that will lead to the emotional catharsis he is seeking. In this case the story mechanism crosses perfectly with the content – small steps, small money, a gathering of springs that will gain power continuously. He moves our focus from the protagonist and starts from building the picture from real blocks – real people, real substance).

It grew strength from the young people who rejected the myth of their generation’s apathy; who left their homes and their families for jobs that offered little pay and less sleep; from the not-so-young people who braved the bitter cold and scorching heat to knock on the doors of perfect strangers;

(This metaphore manages to store generations of oppression and sorrow)

from the millions of Americans who volunteered, and organized, and proved that more than two centuries later, a government of the people, by the people and for the people has not perished from this Earth. This is your victory.

I know you didn’t do this just to win an election and I know you didn’t do it for me. You did it because you understand the enormity of the task that lies ahead.

(Obama marks the challange and the victory. But it is not the final challange. The hero of the plot knows his victory is only the opening possibility to a beginning of a new and complicated story. The new story will be full of challanges and dangers and he needs the power of the same people, their faith, he needs them to walk with him and continue what their are asking him to lead).

For even as we celebrate tonight, we know the challenges that tomorrow will bring are the greatest of our lifetime — two wars, a planet in peril, the worst financial crisis in a century. Even as we stand here tonight, we know there are brave Americans waking up in the deserts of Iraq and the mountains of Afghanistan to risk their lives for us. There are mothers and fathers who will lie awake after their children fall asleep and wonder how they’ll make the mortgage, or pay their doctor’s bills, or save enough for college.

(We have many subplots, says the storyteller to his audience. I’m walking you through the single plot of this speech but also taking with me all the subplots I can see from where I’m standing in order to harness my audience’s attention and willingness to act in all those fields).

There is new energy to harness and new jobs to be created; new schools to build and threats to meet and alliances to repair.

The road ahead will be long. Our climb will be steep.

(This is a clear drawing of the way and it needs always to be steep. The steeper, the higher the audience is willing to raise the power of hope up against it. Anemic plots are not interesting)

We may not get there in one year or even one term, but America — I have never been more hopeful than I am tonight that we will get there. I promise you — we as a people will get there.

(yes, says the storyteller, the story people, is going to be long. And I’m painting for you the solution, the way to make sure this arch will not brake – as a people)

There will be setbacks and false starts. There are many who won’t agree with every decision or policy I make as President, and we know that government can’t solve every problem. But I will always be honest with you about the challenges we face. I will listen to you, especially when we disagree. And above all, I will ask you join in the work of remaking this nation the only way it’s been done in America for two-hundred and twenty-one years — block by block, brick by brick, calloused hand by calloused hand.

(It is true he has been painting a picture of great vision and hope but it is also the storyteller’s responseability to balance the picture. Always. He goes back to the starting point and describes the stages of work that will need to be done. By containing it into a picture of great vision he creates motivation – here, this is the way your brick can help build the future).

What began twenty-one months ago in the depths of winter must not end on this autumn night. This victory alone is not the change we seek — it is only the chance for us to make that change. And that cannot happen if we go back to the way things were. It cannot happen without you.

(The storyteller walks out of the story to tell the audience – I know I’m building an arch of hope infront of your eyes. But this is only the story. It has a clear purpose – to move us forward. Story is not the reality).

So let us summon a new spirit of patriotism; of service and responsibility where each of us resolves to pitch in and work harder and look after not only ourselves, but each other. Let us remember that if this financial crisis taught us anything, it’s that we cannot have a thriving Wall Street while Main Street suffers — in this country, we rise or fall as one nation; as one people.

(He is dividing the pardon into small focused action items. He is setting directions. At the same time he is creating a space for any creative idea that might pop-up, not closing the door for options. At this exact moment people start thinking – what can I do about this? what forces will I have to work against, what wil I have to give-up?)

Let us resist the temptation to fall back on the same partisanship and pettiness and immaturity that has poisoned our politics for so long. Let us remember that it was a man from this state who first carried the banner of the Republican Party to the White House — a party founded on the values of self-reliance, individual liberty, and national unity. Those are values we all share, and while the Democratic Party has won a great victory tonight, we do so with a measure of humility and determination to heal the divides that have held back our progress. As Lincoln said to a nation far more divided than ours, “We are not enemies, but friends…though passion may have strained it must not break our bonds of affection.”

(Fully aware of the storytelling power of Lincoln’s speech. Still, balancing the picture, keeping it relevant)

And to those Americans whose support I have yet to earn — I may not have won your vote, but I hear your voices, I need your help, and I will be your President too.

(Wise. Simply wise and touching, not leaving anyone out of the picture of the story. The storyteller needs the inner agreement of the entire audience so the story can accend. Even if he does not get it, he creates it for himself and gives the option in the hands of the audience)

And to all those watching tonight from beyond our shores, from parliaments and palaces to those who are huddled around radios in the forgotten corners of our world — our stories are singular, but our destiny is shared, and a new dawn of American leadership is at hand.

(He is aware of the power of the moment and his ability to controle the story. He uses this power and describes the picture to those who are part of it).

To those who would tear this world down — we will defeat you.

(If an emotional peak discarding the tension concerning the bad guys is needed – here it is. Short, aware of the need to descard the agression somewhere and without pointing at anyone for now. The relief appears in the story, not in reality where it is bloody).

To those who seek peace and security — we support you. And to all those who have wondered if America’s beacon still burns as bright –tonight we proved once more that the true strength of our nation comes not from our the might of our arms or the scale of our wealth, but from the enduring power of our ideals: democracy, liberty, opportunity, and unyielding hope.

(If the previous sentance could build up some anger on behalf of those opposing, here he is elegantly slipping the carpet somewhere else. Always – balance).

For that is the true genius of America — that America can change.obama_waves_280808

(This is the central idea of this speech. This is what the story is about. But now, knows the storyteller, he will need to match this peek with an emotional peek, otherwise the story-move is not over).

Our union can be perfected. And what we have already achieved gives us hope for what we can and must achieve tomorrow.

(This sounds like a withdrawal. There is a purpose to it – before the storyteller can build a great emotional arch, he needs to clear the plate. He needs to serve to himself before hitting the ball. He is also preparing the last phrase of the speech. Here comes the most dramatic part of the speech, a sheer story, combined with one of the most engaging storytelling skills – bringing in the audience by giving a single example that taps into the collective understanding of all those present, those watching and the entire campaigne. I won’t disturbe the story just notice how he builds power, grabbing all the subplots as he proceeds. Here it comes…)

This election had many firsts and many stories that will be told for generations. But one that’s on my mind tonight is about a woman who cast her ballot in Atlanta. She’s a lot like the millions of others who stood in line to make their voice heard in this election except for one thing — Ann Nixon Cooper is 106 years old.

She was born just a generation past slavery; a time when there were no cars on the road or planes in the sky; when someone like her couldn’t vote for two reasons — because she was a woman and because of the color of her skin.

And tonight, I think about all that she’s seen throughout her century in America — the heartache and the hope; the struggle and the progress; the times we were told that we can’t, and the people who pressed on with that American creed: Yes we can.

At a time when women’s voices were silenced and their hopes dismissed, she lived to see them stand up and speak out and reach for the ballot. Yes we can.

When there was despair in the dust bowl and depression across the land, she saw a nation conquer fear itself with a New Deal, new jobs and a new sense of common purpose. Yes we can.

When the bombs fell on our harbor and tyranny threatened the world, she was there to witness a generation rise to greatness and a democracy was saved. Yes we can.

She was there for the buses in Montgomery, the hoses in Birmingham, a bridge in Selma, and a preacher from Atlanta who told a people that “We Shall Overcome.” Yes we can.

A man touched down on the moon, a wall came down in Berlin, a world was connected by our own science and imagination. And this year, in this election, she touched her finger to a screen, and cast her vote, because after 106 years in America, through the best of times and the darkest of hours, she knows how America can change. Yes we can.

(The emotional arch and the idea have fully met – she knows how America can change/ Yes we can, and those who have manages to hold themselves until this moment bursted into tears. And here, where the hearts are open with good will, the storyteller lays his ideas into the amazing container the audience has opened for him within themselves, and he does it gently, taking care not to rip anything)

America, we have come so far. We have seen so much. But there is so much more to do. So tonight, let us ask ourselves — if our children should live to see the next century; if my daughters should be so lucky to live as long as Ann Nixon Cooper, what change will they see? What progress will we have made?

This is our chance to answer that call. This is our moment. This is our time — to put our people back to work and open doors of opportunity for our kids; to restore prosperity and promote the cause of peace; to reclaim the American Dream and reaffirm that fundamental truth — that out of many, we are one; that while we breathe, we hope, and where we are met with cynicism, and doubt, and those who tell us that we can’t, we will respond with that timeless creed that sums up the spirit of a people:

Yes We Can.

(All done, only one more thing for those that might have got worried – I’m the storyteller he says. This story is not about me or us, but about something greater than all of us..)

Thank you, God bless you, and may God Bless the United States of America.

(Remember the ‘withdrawal’ sentance before the dramatic story? he is taking care of that importante thread too and now the story is complete).

Brilliant.

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9 thoughts on “Barack Obama the storyteller

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  3. Thank you for your illuminating analysis. Notice how the word “I” is used almost exclusively to give thanks to fellow travellers, or else as in “but I hear your voices, I need your help…”. It is never used in the core story parts. A far cry from so many politicians, especially here in Israel ( “אני אוביל, אני אנווט…”).
    אבישי, קורס מדריכים אסכולות 2008

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