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The art of repetition

Obama I don't usually point to political speeches, and frankly there hasn't been too much worth talking about over the years. And then yesterday, here in Japan so many miles away from the US, I stopped and took a moment to turn on the international news. I tuned in and saw this speech below by US presidential candidate Barack Obama. It was a concession speech of all things; I didn't expect much. But this 10-min speech blew me away. This was a scripted speech, and one of the best written and delivered I have seen in some time. Cable news pundits are saying that this concession speech (didn't sound like a "concession speech") may be one for the ages. Only time well tell. But this short speech had it all: simple but eloquent and powerful language, and a strong yet upbeat, friendly delivery. Looks like the speech and communication teachers have a new one to put in their reels.

Yes, we can
Repetition is a classic technique in presentation and speech making (and in design as well). It can help you tie the theme together and it creates clarity for the listener. Every school kid in America, for example, learns about one of the greatest speeches in American history, "I Have a Dream" by Martin Luther King, Jr. In that 1963 speech, MLK used the "I have a dream" refrain through out. Actually, while watching the latter parts of Obama's speech today I almost got the sense that Obama was channeling the styles of both MLK and JFK (an idea that some in the media noticed as well). Communication isn't everything, but it's huge when you're trying to lead. Yes, brains and reason and compassion are requirements for leadership, and a leader better have a plan and the intelligence to see that plan through. But great leaders also inspire and motivate, and nothing inspires and motivates like a great speech. The video below is the last half of the speech (the best part). But you may enjoy the entire speech as well.

Partial transcript
Here's a bit of the contents from Obama's speech. Notice the refrain: Yes, we can.

For when we have faced down impossible odds, when we've been told we're not ready or that we shouldn't try or that we can't, generations of Americans have responded with a simple creed that sums up the spirit of a people: Yes, we can. Yes, we can. Yes, we can.

It was a creed written into the founding documents that declared the destiny of a nation: Yes, we can.

It was whispered by slaves and abolitionists as they blazed a trail towards freedom through the darkest of nights: Yes, we can.

It was sung by immigrants as they struck out from distant shores and pioneers who pushed westward against an unforgiving wilderness: Yes, we can.

It was the call of workers who organized, women who reached for the ballot, a president who chose the moon as our new frontier, and a king who took us to the mountaintop and pointed the way to the promised land: Yes, we can, to justice and equality.

Yes, we can, to opportunity and prosperity. Yes, we can heal this nation. Yes, we can repair this world. Yes, we can.

Related links
JFK's "Ich bin ein Berliner" speech from 1963.
MLK's "I have a dream" speech from 1963.


John Windsor

Excellent post, Garr, and Obama's speech is indeed impressive.

The NY Times raises an interesting counter-point. Hillary Clinton has been showing a more emotional, "human" side in her interactions with voters, and that was said to be a big factor in her win in New Hampshire. According to today's article, her campaign will now be featuring this "speaking from the heart" approach. And in a battle of speaking to the head versus speaking to the heart, the emotional appeal usually wins. It will be fascinating to see how this all plays out.

Here's a link to the article:


John Watkis

Hi Garr,

I don't think we have to wait before proclaiming Obama's "concession speech" as one for the ages. It will definitely be added to the list of "speeches for the ages". His use of anaphora (repetition of a word or phrase to begin a sentence or section of speech) wasn't limited to "yes we can". If you listen closely, he uses the technique in all of his speeches.

The link you gave to the "I have a dream" speech doesn't show the complete speech. You can watch the entire speech at this link:

Contrary to popular belief, "I have a dream" was not the theme of his speech. The theme was "freedom". He only repeated "I have a dream" near the end of his speech. But the words "freedom" and "liberty" were repeated from beginning to end.

You mentioned that repetition is key in design. I would be interested in hearing more about that.

Keep up the great work.

John Watkis

Kyle Adams

I sang in a gospel choir in college; his speech reminds me of the lyrics and phrasing from many of those songs. I wonder if the reason that he seemed to channel MLK is that they are both familiar with African-American spiritual traditions. Repetition (Amen! Amen! Hallelujah!) plays a big role in both the songs and sermons.


Ah Fred, politics gives us a platform for saying how important communications is in victory and defeat.
Great post Garr. See more on Obama and the other victory/concession speeches here (if you want)
Now we just have to see some visual support from our politicians - as in the Ross Perot days.

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