Comparing speeches - form and content (Task 9 p. 411)

Here are some tasks that compare Barack Obama's speech in 2008 to Martin Luther King, Jr's "I Have a Dream". See also tasks 7a and 7b on page 411.


1     FORM

a) Rhetoric

Like Martin Luther King, Barack Obama drew upon many rhetorical methods and a long tradition of black oratory in his speech. You identified the use of some of these methods in King’s speech in Activity 3 on page XXX. See if you can find some them in Obama’s speech and compare the use of rhetoric in the two speeches. What do they have in common? How are they different?  Here some things to look for:

  • Words and phrases (refrains) that are repeated to underline points and give rhythm to the lines spoken.
  • Cadence; that is, the rhythm of the words themselves, like a drum beat. For example; “young and old, rich and poor, Democrat and Republican...”
  • Declarative sentences stating intention and resolution as in “So let us summon a new spirit of patriotism, of responsibility, where each of us....”
  • Figurative language used to sharpen the images and ideas being described.
  • Length of sentence line or exclamations to increase the speech’s intensity.
  • Exemplification; that is, making use of specific instances to illustrate or drive a point home.


b) Oratory

The way a speaker uses his or her voice is an important part of speech. Listen to Obama’s speech once again. Make a note of everything you find interesting about his use of voice – such as how he raises and lowers his voice, which words or phrases he stresses, changes of tempo, pauses for the audience, etc. Now listen to the first minutes of King’s speech and compare the two. Which of the two do you think is the better speaker? Why?



a) Structure

Structure is also an aspect of speech. “I Have a Dream” has a two part structure – one in which problems are put forward and one in which solutions are suggested. “Yes We Can” is made up of several separate sections dealing with somewhat different things. Look through it and see if you can identify the parts and what they deal with. Compare your results with another group. Why, do you think, does “Yes We Can” have a more complicated structure than “I Have a Dream”?


b) Allusions - research

To make an allusion is to make a reference to something connected to the topic you are dealing with, usually in a way that is relevant to what you are saying. Allusions are often used literature and speech. For example, “He was a real Romeo with the girls” alludes to Shakespeare’s play “Romeo and Juliet.”  Obama makes use of quite a few allusions in his speech. Sometimes they are to events, sometimes to persons, sometimes to songs, sometimes to other speeches or pieces of literature. The following is a list of allusions found in “Yes We Can.” See if you can find out where they come from.

  • “It’s been a long time coming...”
  •  “To bend the arch of history....”
  • “Government of the people, by the people and for the people...”
  • “I promise you, we as a people will get there.”
  • “ was a man from this state who first carried the banner of the Republican Party to the White House....”
  • “...America’s beacon still burns as bright:”
  •  “...our union can be perfected.”
  • “..a New Deal, new jobs"
  • “...buses in Montgomery, hoses in Selma, a preacher in Atlanta...”
  • “...a wall came down in Berlin”
  • “...a world was connected by our own science and imagination...”
  • “...that out of many, we are one...”