Public Speaker Lessons: Obama’s Eulogy for Reverend Pinckney

Barack obama giving eulogy

As a public speaker I’ve never made any secret of the fact that President Obama stands out for me as one of the most gifted orators in the world today. Politics aside, my interests lie with the manner in which he delivers his message and the success this brings.

I’m pretty certain that he could even speak about the most mundane topic imaginable in a way most people would hang on to his every word and ‘get it’.

On the 26th June 2015 thousands of mourners witnessed arguably one of the most powerful and poignant eulogies ever delivered as President Obama spoke for 37 minutes at funeral of Rev. Clementa Pinckney murdered along with eight others at Emanuel AME Church in Charleston, South Carolina.

It was only a few short months ago I had to deliver a Eulogy at my own mother’s funeral and it was without doubt the hardest speech I have had to make.

I can’t even begin to imagine speaking under such tragic circumstances which not only shook a community and a nation, but indeed the world. Whilst I and countless others were deeply moved by President Obama’s emotionally powerful speech, here is what I believe we can learn as public speakers:

1. Start slow but strong 

“Giving all praise and honour to God The Bible calls us to hope To persevere and have faith in things not seen They were still living by faith when they died, scripture tells us. They did not receive the things promised; they only saw them and welcomed them from a distance, admitting that they were foreigners and strangers on Earth.”

60 words delivered in 57 seconds with 9 poignant pauses. 

Every word and every space crafted and delivered at an opening pace recognizing that time for the departed had ceased and that it was time now to say goodbye. That was the perfect opening for a eulogy but consider how many speeches and presentations you’ve attended where the speaker opens in a rushed and unconsidered way to rattle through the agenda.

It always pays to start slow but strong.

2. Show them you care 

The purpose of any speech has to be to make an emotional connection as well as an intellectual one and to help your audience feel something they have to see and experience what you feel. The entire 37 minutes was delivered with an understandable sense of pain and sadness yet we also felt an undeniable undertone of anger which the audience were undoubtedly feeling too judging by their response.

Of course emotions such as sorrow, pain, regret and even anger are entirely normal at a funeral and are therefore often naturally expressed by the eulogist. Nevertheless the learning when it comes to any speech is that it’s the job of the speaker to help the audience to feel something.

The one thing that connects us all is that we are emotional beings and it’s always our emotions that drive us to action.

3. Make the connection clear

In this case the one thing President Obama focused on throughout the entire eulogy was how everyone affected by the shooting was connected by ‘God’s Grace’. Everything in his speech was linked together by the idea of grace and that was the theme that unified and brought solace and hope to thousands attending the funeral.

Making the connection as clear as he did not only brought his audience much closer together, it helped them to understand and relate to what he was saying on a much deeper level. Once again, although it’s arguably much easier to do while giving a eulogy the challenge remains for any presentation.

The job of any speaker with a desire to move people to action is to find the connection between them all and make it very clear to them what it is.

4. End as strong as you started, if not stronger

President Obama gave an emotionally stirring speech which paid tribute and respect to the departed, allowing a thoughtful reflection on race in America whilst also stimulating political thought. The one thing I believe he will always be remembered for in this speech is the fact that he led the thousands of mourners into song.

The President of the United States of America bought thousands of people to their feet to join him as he sang ‘Amazing Grace’.

How did he do it?

He started to sing first. That’s not something we see every day from any speaker, especially within politics, but it was the perfect ending to an impeccable speech and would have taken a great deal of courage.

I believe that as public speakers there is always so much we can learn from President Obama and we don’t have to wait for a eulogy. The next time you present make a mindful effort to craft and deliver a presentation where you start strong and end even stronger, show them you care and make the connection crystal clear.

Watch the video here:

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Image courtesy of: Google images

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