The public speaking world has been abuzz for the past week about a standout speech delivered by President Obama in the form of a eulogy for the Reverend Clementa Pinckney, one of the nine people murdered at the historic Mother Emanuel Church in Charleston, South Carolina, on June 18th.

Over the past week, David Meerman Scott and I have been discussing both the content of the eulogy and its delivery – and agreeing that President Obama may have missed his calling as Reverend Obama. His speech soared rhetorically and emotionally and he even broke into song, starting the congregation off on “Amazing Grace” at the end of the 37-minute oration.

Here’s hoping you never have the occasion to deliver a eulogy under such tragic circumstances, but nonetheless, what can we learn from this splendid example of a funeral oration? Politics aside, what are the public speaking insights to be gleaned from this instance of public mourning? I think President Obama did three things right in acing this speech in particular – three things you need to do to ace any speech, and especially a eulogy.

1.Get the pacing right. One of the biggest mistakes that speakers make is to rush their delivery. This is never more true than in a eulogy, where the audience and speaker owe the eulogized their full measure of time, partly as a way of acknowledging that the departed have left time itself, and partly as a way of slowing down to allow the emotional journey of saying goodbye to take place.

David pointed out to me how President Obama starts slow, especially in the first third of the speech, which is primarily concerned with the story of Reverend Pinckney, and gradually picks up the pace (and emotion) as he moves on to the issues raised by the deaths of Reverend Pinckney and the others, but never rushes.

2.Find a unifying theme. As David and I both noted, the speech is an extended meditation on the idea of God’s grace in the Christian context. It’s that idea that ties the entire eulogy together. Beginning with the focus on the Reverend and the people of his church, moving to the meaning of the event, the confederate flag issue, larger national issues of race and economic justice, and finally calling for a change that begins “with an open heart,” President Obama ranges quite widely through the several sections of the remarks. The idea of grace ties each of these sections of the eulogy together, helping the audience to make sense of what he is saying.

Focus your emotion. The work of a speaker, and a preacher, is to move his or her audience to action. You can’t do that without emotion. We humans are emotional beings, and we respond to strong feelings, not reasonable ones. President Obama’s emotional tone throughout is sorrow tinged with an undercurrent of anger, and it’s exactly the right tone for this occasion, as we can see by the audience’s powerful response.

His focus culminates in the ending of his remarks, when he leads the congregation in the singing of “Amazing Grace,” while shouting the names of the fallen over the music. It’s a powerful way to end, and shows how music, like humor, creates its own rules and context. You can never go wrong – provided you do it well enough – breaking into song, just as you can never (well, almost never) go wrong telling a joke (as long as you land it). President Obama will never threaten the careers of professional singers, but he did a credible job, and (more to the point) got the congregation on its feet and singing along with him.

There are some emotions and moments too strong for words alone. This was such an emotion and such a moment.  Democrats and Republicans can surely put aside their differences long enough to mourn the fallen together — and to appreciate a great eulogy.

6 Comments

  1. Nick, I’m so glad you wrote about this. I found the speech fascinating on so many levels and you nailed so many of them. One more thing I noticed is that there were a few (very few) touches of humor. Amazing considering it was a eulogy. David

    1. You’re right about the humor, David. If I’d added a fourth point, it would have been about that. Emotion and rhetoric both get sttrengthened by contrast, and so a touch of humor makes us feel the depth of the sorrow more clearly. Come to think of it, that’s probably worthy of a blog post……..

  2. Agree Nick. It was the best speech I’ve heard Obama give. While he typically appeals to the head, he was finally able to crack through and also appeal to both the gut and the heart. The other thing I noticed – Obama felt authentic and genuine. Sometime when he speaks it feels to scripted or calculated. Here, he was able to open up more and show himself to the audience.

    Personally, I have a lot to learn from both the speech and your blog post. Thanks for the clarity!

    1. Nice point, Josh, about Obama. You could genuinely feel the emotion from him for once! Now, as a musician, what did you think of his rendition of the first few lines of “Amazing Grace”?

      1. Josh and Nick, one thing that really stood out to me in Obama’s eulogy was that he knew his audience. And because of that, he was quite able to be himself in a way he might not have been had he been addressing a primarily anglo audience. An African American man, he expressed emotion in a way that was, although both delicate and deliberate, potentially frightening to white Americans who remain deeply uncomfortable with the anger of the country’s racial minorities. I loved this speech. I was on my feet applauding. My hope is that President Obama will be inspired to go on addressing the heart and the gut of the entire nation and the whole wide world.

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