Obama’s Oratory

Whether or not you supported Barack Obama in the recent American election, or are pleased by the result, you have to appreciate him for his oratorical skill. Nurtured in the African-American preaching tradition, Obama inspires with his sweeping rhetoric. The man is a truly effective public speaker. Some might argue that he hasn’t yet come up with anything to rival, "I have a dream…" or "Ask not what your country can do for you…" but it’s early. Often it is the circumstances that give rise to the greatness of an oratorical moment and he is sure to face his moments before long. The president-elect knows how to turn a phrase.

Those of us who are interested in preaching and biblical communication ought to watch closely what he is doing, not just because of the homiletical heritage of his speaking, but because we can learn something from him. Philip Collins, former speech-writer for Tony Blair is quoted in the BBC saying, "His style of delivery is basically churchy, it’s religious: the way he slides down some words and hits others – the intonation, the emphasis, the pauses and the silences," he explains.

In my book, Choosing to Preach, I described excellent preaching as akin to singing. Obama practices this as well as anyone. Collins continues, "He is close to singing, just as preaching is close to singing. All writing is a rhythm of kinds and he brings it out, hits the tune. It’s about the tune, not the lyrics, with Obama." Of course, preaching ought to be more about the "lyrics" than the "tune", but that is not to discredit the tune or the feel that our sermon form produces. Yesterday, a man commented that he appreciated the cadence of my preaching. He said that he liked the way it felt,  and appreciated the movement and flow of the sermon. While this was not my primary concern in preaching, it is something that can help.

Listening to Obama, I was struck by how effective rhetoric still moves people. The refrain, "Yes we can," was as powerful for its ring as for its content. A word well spoken can still bring a tear, charge a crowd, spark a movement. Such things can happen in our pulpits as well.

To read the whole BBC article referenced above, click on Obama: Oratory and Originality by Stephanie Holmes.