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Richard Nordquist

Barack Obama's Secret for Stirring a Crowd

By November 6, 2008

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Have you ever wondered how Barack Obama does it?

I mean, how he uses words--for the most part simple words--to inspire a crowd the way he did in Chicago's Grant Park on Tuesday night? By the end of Obama's victory speech, Jesse Jackson and Oprah Winfrey weren't the only members of the audience wiping away joyful tears.

Obama's secret--or one part of it, at least--is the magic number three. In rhetorical terms, that's a tricolon: a series of three parallel words, phrases, or clauses. Obama's victory speech was teeming with tricolons--as indicated in these excerpts. . . .

For the complete article, go to Barack Obama's Victory Speech and the Magic Number Three.

More About Rhetorical Strategies:

Image: Senator Barack Obama, President-elect of the United States of America


November 6, 2008 at 3:55 pm
(1) Louis says:

With a sense of compassion(1),with a well preserved innocence(2) and a verb from the heart(3) Obama triggered emotions to tears on more than 80% of the people whom heard him speak on the wee hours of November the 5th 2008; good observation Richard!

November 6, 2008 at 5:34 pm
(2) Franny Syufy says:

Splendid analysis of a speech that will undoubtedly be quoted for many years to come.

I shed tears again, just reading it. Thanks, Richard!

November 7, 2008 at 1:12 am
(3) David Mariant says:

This is an excellent analysis Richard. I will be looking to it later to do a more thorough study of it and hope to apply it to my many addresses I make as a motivational speaker.

His oratory seems to even surpass my dislike for him. While listening to his acceptance speech I too was brought to tears because of the historic moment.

McCain’s speech was also moving particularly when he mentioned the historic moment for Obama.

Thanks again.. David

November 7, 2008 at 11:37 am
(4) Hazel (UK says:

Fascinating analysis – but it leads to the question of whether the best man for the job can lose it because of poor rhetorical selling power – and, in this case – vice versa? When push comes to shove I’m voting for the man/woman not the orator. After all most politicians’ speeches are not written by them anyway so who should the real credit for the oratory go to? Certainly the masses can be swayed by the grand rhetoric – look in recent times at Hitler and Churchill, but for different reasons…a mesmeric ability to charm by outstanding oratory has no intrinsic value (indeed may be artfully manipulated) – for that you need to look at deeds not words. As ever, caveat emptor. Or, as my mother in law was fond of saying “Fine words butter no parsnips”…

November 8, 2008 at 5:33 pm
(5) Mary D says:

Congratulations Richard on your wonderful analysis. It’s almost as good as Obama’s speech!

November 9, 2008 at 2:24 pm
(6) Villy Sogaard says:

Thanks for a most inspiring analysis. I missed only one aspect: The historical weight of the moment. For example, when Abraham Lincoln delivered the Gettysberg Address, he addressed an audience wounded by the civil war, anxious to hear that its suffering had not been in vein.
Similarly, Obama’s song convincingly eminently placed itself in an historical context, embracing the suffering of the past, the victory of the present, and the dreams of the future in a way that touched even an old and cold Scandinavian heart like mine.
I don’t think any amount of rhetoric per se could seduced us without giving vent to emotions we had before Obama opened his mouth.


November 10, 2008 at 11:00 am
(7) Maya says:

During my academic journey, I have found a love for the art of rhetoric. It is indeed an art as well as a skill. Thank you for this post, Richard.

November 10, 2008 at 6:46 pm
(8) Isabel says:

Obama is a man with grand visions for his own stature akin to Hitler, Jim Jones, Rev. Wright, and other figures in history who mastered oratory to influence people. Commonly, they are self-serving, narcissist personas that leave destructive legacy. They are so much immersed in their own delusional mindset chasing power, and power alone. The aftermath is so much destruction to the society after their sheepskin cloak exposes a wolf inside. Obama knows that he was still an unripe fruit for US presidency, but his own ego and ambition was so uncontainable, he jumped into the fray audaciously, after he felt comfortable with his rhetorical prowess that he took time to plan and hone during the wayward periods of his life. He is a very smart, cunning, calculating political figure. Our history is replete with such personalities. And the young generations that highly supported him lack the wisdom to sense it, after all, experience is an aging process, like wine, to up its quality. Four years is a long time wait for me and others who had the sanity to refuse Obama.

November 10, 2008 at 7:04 pm
(9) Ann says:

Hazel, has a point. Obama is certainly a great orator, but rhetoric and delivery can be, at times, far removed from real issues and political platforms. Maybe this is necessary to get elected in the States so influenced as we by Hollywood showmanship. We can only hope for the best for all including the poor in the States and those suffering, because of us, in the Middle East.

November 11, 2008 at 5:18 am
(10) grammar says:

You and Hazel are in venerable company, Ann. Plato shared your suspicion of rhetorical showmanship–at least as it was practiced by the Sophists in ancient Greece. Whereas philosophers (the good guys, in his mind) pursue truth, rhetoricians set out only to persuade people to believe.

It was Plato’s sparring partner, Aristotle, who advocated the study of rhetoric–as both a defensive strategy (those who are skilled in rhetoric are best equipped to counter or resist it) and an art (after all, why should the devil have all the good tunes?).

The Roman rhetorician Quintilian preferred to think the best of orators–”since no man can speak well who is not good himself.” But we know better.

My point is that arguments over the ethical nature of rhetoric have been with us for over 2,500 years. But regardless of our stance, there’s no escaping rhetoric. We all use language to persuade others. (Plato himself was a master rhetorician.) Of course some use it more effectively than others–and, indeed, some use it more honorably than others as well.

Thanks very much for your thoughtful comment. And I share your hope for the best.


November 11, 2008 at 8:42 am
(11) Gwen Nunez Gonzalez says:

Hi Richard,

Hat’s Off to you for your great analysis. My Professor and classmates listen to this powerful speech and agreed that Obama is a transformational leader.

He is a well spoken man and delivers great speeches. I agree that his short phrases and sentences using simple understandable words reached to the big and little people.
I am not an American and could not physically vote but I voted emotionally and in spirit.

I am moved by such a leader who knows how to touch his people and realize that he cannot change America alone. The “we” theme is indeed important for a winning team.

November 12, 2008 at 2:08 pm
(12) PWB says:

You are actually commenting on the grammar and composition of his speech writers. Mr. Obama’s speech was check by his speech writers for grammar. His ad hoc remarks, however, are not. Mr. Obama continually uses “I” in the objective.

The President-Elect answered in his very first press conference “President Bush graciously invited Michelle and I(sic) to meet with him and First Lady Laura Bush. We are gratified by the invitation. I’m sure that in addition to taking a tour of the White House there’s going to be a substantive discussion between myself(sic) and the president…”

During the Presidential Debates, Senator Obama stated “The main disagreement with(sic) John [Edwards] and I(sic) is that John believes…”

For those of who know better, those words were like fingernails scraping on a blackboard. The irritation was so great that I had to rewind my DVR to actually listen to the subsequent words that he spoke after that. Blogs all over the world caught this.

We all know the derision President Bush and Governor Palin received every time that they said “nucular”. I certainly wouldn’t wish this on our new President.

November 17, 2008 at 1:50 am
(13) Raveendra H says:

Indeed a stunning lecture! Every word of his speech floods the reason for ‘hope’. I pray to God that all his words soon translate into actions. And the mankind benefits.
I read sometime back:
“Speeches are like babies -easy to conceive; yet hard to deliver.”
Obama does it brilliently!
Lovely Richard. Thanks for the analysis.

November 17, 2008 at 2:03 pm
(14) Judith Allen says:

Thank you for this excellent analysis of Obama’s speeches.
Most of your commenters recognize how hungry America’s populace was for inspiration and straightforward analysis of the terrible state in which our nation finds itself.
Obama’s next challenge is to translate his view of our predicament into action to redress the many grievances we, as a people, have developed over the last 8 years.
This country is in desperate need of restoration.
One post amused me; it was so pathetic.
Comparing Obama’s speeches to those of Jim Jones, Hitler, etc., she ended whining that 4 years is a long time to wait.
(GWB began this trek to disaster bellowing:
“This is a RICH nation!”
He finishes his tenure throwing open the Treasury doors to scrape out every last cent and farthing from the corners, so he can drop the empty Treasury into the lap of the incoming administration, likely thinking ‘Good luck, suckers!’ as he flees Washington with Justice Department lawyers hot on his heels.)
Well, I think most of us are prepared to make sure the current leadership’s journey into the wilderness of the political desert will last 20 to 40 years, at least.
An exile well-earned, richly deserved, considering the long-term damage done to our country’s well-being.
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January 11, 2009 at 7:28 am
(15) Ajeet Khurana says:

Great post, as always, Richard. Thanks for this interesting analysis. Rhetoric is often seen as negative. But it is empty rhetoric that one should shun. In the case of Obama, we shall soon find out which form of rhetoric he chose.

January 29, 2009 at 9:39 am
(16) Eno says:

Thanks for this interesting analysis.

February 14, 2010 at 4:01 pm
(17) inthemoment says:

Hazel Uk and Isabel said it very well. Many, many destructive men in history have been great speakers, Hitler included. I’m sure many Germans were brought to tears at the sight and hearing of so much German pride. Emotions do not make something good or right. In fact, its usually the other way around…the emotional choice is usually the wrong one.

June 9, 2010 at 3:21 pm
(18) Denzil Madhavan says:

Thanks Richard for pointing out the tricolons. Though the speech was given over a year ago, I’m happy the art of rhetoric endures. Don’t you think our writing too could be enriched by rhetoric?

The beginning of this speech reminds me of the speech of Brutus in Julius Caesar–”Is there any man here so base…him have I offended.”

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