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3 lessons from Obama’s “Mandela Memorial address”

On the 10th of December 2013, in the presence of over 100 heads of state, the world said goodbye to Nelson Mandela at a memorial ceremony in Johannesburg. Amongst the speakers were the Cuban President Castro, the Secertary General Ban Ki Moon and the President of Brazil Dilma Rousseff. But the best and most inspired speech came from the US President Obama who delivered his most personal and passionate speech in a long time. So which lessons can we learn from his address?


1. Make the connection
2. Use quotes
3. Concrete relevance and call to action

Make the connection

In every speech it is important that you make an emotional connection with your audience at the beginning and at the end of your speech. You have to grab them in the first one and a half minute because it will get more difficult to get them aboard as you go along. This means tou must open their hearts before you open their ears.

So how does he do it?

After his formal opening in which he recognizes the presence of all necessary dignitaries he immediately thanks the people of South Africa. He thanks them for sharing Mandela with the world thus also immediately paying tribute to the topic of his speech. He recognizes his struggles as their struggles; his triumph as their triumph. This rhetorical technique also provides a nice cadence and rhythm to the opening.

He also uses a lot of adjectives to make that emotional connetion. Adjectives are describing words often connected to a noun. It is not just the truth of a person, it is his “essential” truth, noy just their joys but their “private” joys and not just their moments and qualities but their “quiet” moments and “unique” qualities. Both these adjectives and the rhetorical cadence described above are used in the first two paragraphs to make it easy for the listener to follow him into the body of his text.

 2. Use quotes

In the body of the text he has to show that he has in depth knowledge of his topic. Obama does this very effectively through the use of Mandela quotes. After briefly addressing Mandela’s imprisonement and placing that in a timeline of historical events he goes on to demystify his subject. Contrary to other speakers he paints a picture of “the man” Mandela including his flaws. By doing so he allows the speaker to identify with Mandela who is no longer a god amongst men but who is now one of us. He justifies this ‘humanification’ by quoting Mandelas own words “I am not a saint,” he said, “unless you think of a saint as a sinner who keeps on trying.” thus making it impossible for the listener who wants to hold on to the divine picture of Mandela to disagree with his line of reasoning.

In this speech he uses a lot of quotes from Mandela. This illustrates his knowledge of his life and teaching and is also a good way again to make that connection since the audience is often familiar with these strong statements. The quotes enhance his ethos and strengthen his pathos. This becomes most clear after the famous quote from Mandela that he uses at 7.38 : “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 [with] equal opportunities. It is an ideal which I hope to live for and to achieve. But if needs be, it is an ideal for which I am prepared to die.”

Obama also shows he know his audience by referring to several other ANC leaders and by referring to the Nguni Bantu term Ubuntu, a term that can be roughly translated with the term “human kindness”.  This term is ofter referred to by Desmond Tutu and in a famous interview from 2006 Nelson Mandela was asked to define it which was most difficult in English.

Before ending his speech Obama uses one more famous Mandela quote: “It matters not how strait the gate, how charged with punishments the scroll, I am the master of my fate: I am the captain of my soul.” This is an effective way to end high on pathos and to leave your audience with a positive feeling. Always remember: your audience might not know exactly what you said, but they will remember how they felt when they left the room.

Concrete relevance and call to action

Always make clear for your audience why your message is relevant for them. What is the concrete lesson or action that they should take away?

Obama does it by asking the question at 12.40 “How well have I applied his lessons in my own life?” It’s a question I ask myself, as a man and as a President.” In doing so Obama also shows a vulnerability that makes him like-able as a leader and as a speaker. He draws a parallel between the US and South Africa to connect with his home audience and he makes it personal by saying that he and Michelle are direct beneficiaries of the struggle of Mandela.

In the following two paragraphs he raises his voice to go on with a “j’accuse” on the moral state of the world today. “For around the world today, we still see children suffering from hunger and disease. We still see run-down schools. We still see young people without prospects for the future. Around the world today, men and women are still imprisoned for their political beliefs, and are still persecuted for what they look like, and how they worship, and who they love. That is happening today.” That is where he comes with his call to action and where he connects his topic with a clear goal and call to action for his audience. This connects the life of Mandela with the issues of today, giving his speech current relevance.

Finally it is worth noting that this speech was exceptually clear spoken and slow. With 1945 words in 19 minutes Obama came just over 100 words a minute where most of his keynote speeches are around 120 words a minute. Perhaps because he knew he was talking for a world audience and not only for English native speakers or perhaps because he wanted to give every word the time to settle in the brain of the listener. Whatever the reason it made for one of his most personal and best speeches in the last couple of years.