Learning From the Language of Obama's Inaugural Address

Along with millions of others, all around the world, I was watching and listening to the inauguration of Barack Obama on Tuesday.

Screen Captures, Inauguration Day 2009 by Rosa Say on Flickr

The coverage has continued apace since then of course, including analysis of the language of the inaugural address.

And yes, I’ve been following that with equal interest and fascination.

Here are 5 different takes on the speech. Some are based on visual analysis - I’ve included screen shots for them but you really need to visit the site to get the full picture.

Analysis of the Language of All the Inaugural Adresses

Published by the New York Times, this highlights the words most frequently used in each of the presidential speeches.  You can get a quick overview of the differences by clicking on the timeline at the top.  Here’s how it looks, with Obama’s speech highlighted.

Screenshot of Timeline of Inaugural Words

Analysis of Inclusive Language

David Meerman Scott takes a look at the speech from a marketer’s perspective, analysing the ‘inclusive’ nature of the language.  He’s interested in particular how different speeches make use of  “I” and “me” versus “we” and “us”.

People want to hear about what’s in it for them, and they are looking for answers to problems

Analyse the Speech With a Word Tree

This is one of the most interesting tools I came across.  It gets you right into the construction of the speech.  You can play with it yourself by changing the root at the top that you search by.  The screen shot below is based on a search for “we will…”  See what happens when you try a root of “I”.  Or other verbs - “we can”, “we must”.  Interesting stuff

Word Tree Analysis of Obama's Inaugural Address

Breaking Down the Language Used and Learning From It

Lynn Gaertner-Johnson deconstructs the language of the speech including use of the passive tense and sentences that start with a conjunction.  I concur with her observations, incluing these 2:

1. You can move a nation and a world writing at 8th-grade level.

2.  It is perfectly okay to use passive verbs selectively.

The Rhetoric of Responsiblity

Very thoughtful analysis of the speech from Roy Peter Clark including a look at Obama’s use of metaphors.  He highlights the fact that the speech did not ‘soar’, nor did it include any obvious soundbites.

In an age of spin perhaps this is something for which we should be grateful.

As Clark says:

Political rhetoric should be judged not just on its inspirational eloquence, but also on its ability to move an audience, not just to tears, but to action.

What struck you most about the language of the address?  Do these kind of tools and analysis help you to understand how and why the speech affected you in the way that it did?

I was reading:

Inaugural Words: 1789 to the Present from the New York Times

Inclusive Language Ratio comparing first Obama presidential address with last from Bush by David Meerman Scott

Obama Inauguration Speech Word Tree from Many Eyes

Deconstructing the Inaugural Address by Lynn Gaertner-Johnston

Obama’s Inauguration Speech Relies on the Rhetoric of Responsibility by Roy Peter Clark

If you’ve come across any other tools and analysis please do let me know.

Photo Credit: Screen Captures, Inauguration Day 2009 by Rosa Say on Flickr

Many of the links were found through friends on Twitter, for which many thanks.

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  1. Steve Sherlock · · Reply

    Joanna, thanks for this summary. There is so much food for future reading and thought here.

    Steve Sherlocks last blog post..White House blog

  2. Brad Shorr · · Reply

    Hi Joanna, President Obama’s address struck me as being inclusive, frank, and (surprisingly) tough - he certainly didn’t sugar coat anything. One possibility is that we heard a powerful leader who will navigate us through difficult times. A more cynical view is that all this talk of sacrifice and change is merely a political maneuver to open the door to massive government intervention in our economy and society. We must hope for and support the former, but be watchful of the latter.

    Brad Shorrs last blog post..The Lighter Side of Banking?

  3. David Meerman Scott · · Reply

    Wow. Love the different perspectives. Thank you for including my take.

    David Meerman Scotts last blog post..Inclusive Language Ratio comparing first Obama presidential address with last from Bush

  4. Nathan Hangen · · Reply

    Fascinating perspective. Obama is certainly from a different mold…lets see how it turns out.

    Nathan Hangens last blog post..World Domination - The Unconventional Guide to Working for Yourself

  5. nick morgan · · Reply

    Some great analysis here. We also need to think about what overall story story Obama is telling — that has important implications for how he moves people to action (or not): http://publicwords.typepad.com/nickmorgan/

    nick morgans last blog post..President Obama invites us to go on a difficult journey.

  6. Hi, Joanna,
    The most amazing difference to me relating to German politicians at the moment is the following:

    When Obama speaks to the people, he addresses everyone directly in a frank and honest way. He gives everyone the feeling that he speaks to them and doesn´t lecture, like politicians often do.

    Some people hold that Obama is something like a preacher. Watching the inaugurational address, I must say: He makes clear that he relies on the people. I like this quote best: “This election has never been about me. It´s about you.”

    Ralphs last blog post..New Year´s bang

  7. Rosa Say · · Reply

    Joanna, thank you so much for this posting! I am quite eager to jump into these links you have shared with us. As you can guess, this is a fantastic ‘language of intention’ summary for me within my own Writing with Aloha pursuits, and I so appreciate the mini lesson plan you offer.

    Rosa Says last blog post..Welcome to a Brexy Presidency

  8. @ Steve, there are some really interesting tools in there which I’ll think you’ll enjoy.

    @ David, hi and thanks - I really enjoyed your piece, appreciated the update, and from then on got hooked looking for other cuts of the speech too.

    @ Nathan, I think it’s useful to get underneath the surface of language - it helps us to get a better insight into what’s going on, and to form our own opinions. Obama does have a very unusual ability to balance rhetoric with (what feels like) a direct appeal to ordinary people. Like you say, it will be fascinating to see how it turns out.

    @ Ralph, I know what you mean about the contrast with other politicians - people in the UK are also saying how unlike our politicians he is (currently a rather uninspiring bunch). I agree with you that he was making it clear that ‘he was relying on the people’ - that in itself is very powerful and empowering

    @ Rosa, thanks for the feedback (and the photo!). I think you’ll enjoy dipping into the analysis and tools - a lot to learn about the language of leadership and intention there.

  9. Brad, sorry for inexplicably jumping over. It’s not that I haven’t been giving thought to your comment - I have.

    However much a speech may move us to emotion or to action there’s no doubt that it’s written and delivered for political effect - to create a shift in attitudes, culture, expectations. I think that’s part of the leadership role - creating the conditions for the change you’re going to make.

    Quite what the changes will be and what any of us will make of them… well that’s a different matter.

  10. Brad Shorr · · Reply

    Hi Joanna, You are quite right. The problem with our prevailing political rhetoric is that we hear two somewhat conflicting themes. On the one hand, we hear that everyday folks are the engine of change. On the other hand, we hear that government is our only hope. As interesting as the word analysis is (and I sincerely think it is fascinating), I believe there has been far too much emphasis on the President’s style and not enough on the content. I apologize for wandering way off your topic. All this may not be too important to your many non-U.S. readers. :)

    Brad Shorrs last blog post..The Lighter Side of Banking?

  11. Brad, no need to apologise. Your points are interesting and to be honest that’s a big problem with rhetoric - people get caught up with the emotional / psychological impact and lose sight of what they’re being sold. One of the reasons I think analysing can help us work out how and why it works, what emotions it’s appealing to and so on.

    What your president does is of interest to people all over the world and certainly in the UK our leaders are going out of their way to say (re the economy) ‘well the US are doing it (and the great Obama approves) so it must be okay’. So much for political argument.

    On another sidetrack I might confess to being a little nervous about the amount of militaristic references (picked up in the Clark article). Language choices like these are not accidental - they always signify something, even if subconscious and reflecting a state of mind.

  12. Obama tapped into the upcoming generation with his “we” and “us.” There are a lot of young people who want to be engaged. Who are tired of the same political language and divisions. With the Internet, they are well-informed about a variety of issues including the environment, social justice, and personal issues.

    They have been joining social networks for years. Many thought that the generation would have no social skills. Instead, they have become friends with people all over the country and world thru these networks. “We” is what they know.

    And if you look the new Web 2.0 White House website, the new administration is going to use them to make change. Agree or disagree with the politics…Obama’s team hit the nail on the head with the Internet generation.

    Gennaros last blog post..Olympians Name Top Snowboarding Locations

  13. First, thanks for all those links-I LOVE reading all the analyses!

    And, I’m encouraged, and hopeful. Yes, there were militaristic references, and yes, there were a lot of dour warnings of hard times ahead, but the fact that he tells it straight is something I appreciate about him!

    -Debs last blog post..Blogapalooza

  14. Hence, we should use “We” than “I” frequently in our writing, Joanna! :)

    wilsons last blog post..My Blog Has Been Featured on RedOrbit!

  15. Hi Joanna, this post fascinates me. I would love to be able to write and speak like Obama. I will remember at least to use inclusive language and focus on the recipient. So I should have written this comment as:

    Hi Joanna, you wrote a fascinating post! Wouldn’t we all love to write and speak like Obama? There is so much here for us all to learn. ;)

  16. Angelica · · Reply

    If you know a blog with just the words of the speech, you could try this one:


    I wrote about words and Pres. Obama today as well from a spiritual point of view


    Angelicas last blog post..Words

  17. Gennaro, I hadn’t thought of that dimension before - thanks for helping to put some of the pieces together. “‘We’ is what they know” is a very simple but powerful way to capture the spirit of it and looking back, yes, there are lots of appeals and nods to that spirit of coming together, finding solutions, making things become possible. Thanks.

    -Deb, thought they’d appeal to the wordsmiths :-) I’m hopeful too - even from over here it’s like some big shifts in the narrative have now become possible (eg on the environment)

    Wilson, yes… and no - it does all depend on the context and what you’re trying to achieve. You’ve got me thinking about how and why - will try and work it into a future post

    Daphne, thank you for putting your learning into practice :-)

    Your point echoes Wilson’s, but also demonstrates mine, that there is a difference in the impact of different patterns of language, and they all serve a purpose. The second version is more inclusive and brings more people in. The first version speaks more directly of your response and reactions which is more personal - and in terms of one recipient (me!) more powerful and valuable than the second.

    Anyway, as I said to Wilson, this is an interesting question and one I’ll try and come back to.

  18. J.D. Meier · · Reply

    Metaphors are a great way to quickly share ideas.

    One of the most effective guides I know is Thank You for Arguing. It’s basically a set of patterns and practices for rhetoric based on the best Greek orators.

    J.D. Meiers last blog post..Avoid Mental Burnout

  19. J D hi, yes, metaphors are a powerful universal language. Thanks for the reference - that sounds interesting

  20. Nick, hi and many apologies that your comment got stuck in the spam filter. It’s been a little agressive recently.

    I enjoyed reading your own analysis of Obama’s speech and the links back to core story themes like the quest and stranger in the land… very interesting.

  21. Angelica, thanks for sharing those links - although I’m afraid it meant the comment got gobbled by the spam filter. Many apologies.

    I’m intrigued by typealyzer… though not completely convinced after trying it in myself and disagreeing with the result!

    Thanks for sharing your own reflections on how we can use words more intentionally too.

  22. [...] of the questions that emerged from the discussion on Obama’s inaugural address was his use of inclusive language, in particular his use of “we” rather than [...]

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