Lessons in Leadership Storytelling: Analyzing Obama’s Fired Up, Ready to Go Speech

Lessons in Leadership Storytelling: Analyzing Obama's Fired Up, Ready to Go Speech

Why is leadership storytelling so daunting? For many of us, it comes down to two key reasons. First, many leaders don’t feel comfortable telling their personal stories in a professional context, because they don’t want to come off as unprofessional and unnecessarily vulnerable. And second, many leaders are afraid of trying to inspire their team, missing the mark and ending up as the butt of some internal meme.

For these reasons, most leaders feel most comfortable “sticking to the facts”.

That’s too bad, because, as we all know, stories equate with value: the better the story, the more aligned we become with the message the leader is trying to sell. Storytelling should be the most natural thing that we do as leaders. That’s why the agenda of my corporate storytelling workshops is to demystify storytelling and transform it from something we’re born with into something accessible for everyone.

Here’s the secret: if you want to become a great leadership storyteller, you need to understand key frameworks and functions characteristic to all great stories.

Today, we’re going to improve our storytelling by analyzing a compelling story told by one of the best leadership storytellers in the business: Former US President Barack Obama.

The Context

The short speech we’re about to analyze was delivered in September, 2009, at a rally at the University of Maryland, early in Obama’s first term. The big political issue on the table was Health Care, and Obama was doing a nationwide speaking tour, trying to drum up support. It was a very complex and emotional issue. There was a lot of resistance to change.

Obama needed to persuade his supporters to join in the issue and lend it their voice

The Two Key Story Structures of the Speech

The story that we’re about to analyze came at the very end of a long stump speech. It was the moment when Obama wanted to get the audience emotionally charged before leaving the stage. The end of a speech is a powerful place for a compelling emotional story; according to a psychological concept called the Peak-End Rule, we are most likely to judge an experience positively based on how we felt at the peak and at the end. In this speech — like many great political narratives — the peak and the end were combined togeteher.

I’ll show you a video of the speech in a minute. Before I do, I want to point out the two storytelling structures that are used. These two structures can be easily replicated in any kind of leadership message, but are most effective in oral communication such as a speech, where we can create an emotional relationship with you, the speaker.

Story Structure 1: Story of Self, Story of Us, Story of Now

The general flow of this story follows the Story of Self, Story of Us, Story of Now pattern — a pattern developed  at the Kennedy School of Government at Harvard as a way of creating the motivational narratives that build into movements. This structure was instrumental in helping individual activists connect their own story to Obama’s, in the year when he was first elected.

The structure works like this:

  • Story of Self: the speaker tells a short, personal story about a lesson he’s learned in his life
  • Story of Us: the speaker relates that lesson to something we’ve all experienced. In doing so, he reinforces the idea that “we’re all in this together.”
  • Story of Now: the speaker ends the story with a clear call to action — a clear and tangible choice he wants the audience to make.

All of these pieces work to strengthen each other. If you tell a Story of Self without a Story of Us, then the story can feel narcissistic. If you tell a Story of Us without a Story of Self, your audience can struggle to create an emotional connection to the action you want them to take. And if you tell a great Story of Self and Story of Us, but you don’t include a clear call to action as your Story of Now, your audience will get us all emotionally fired up — but without a  clear direction for our next step, our energy will dissipate.

This structure functions most effectively when all the pieces are tied together.

Story Structure 2: The Hero’s Journey

The Hero’s Journey is the name of a story structure that was first articulated by the great American storytelling expert, Joseph Campbell. Beginning in the 20s, Campbell studying mythological narratives from many different cultures all over the world, work that is summarized in his amazing book The Hero With a Thousand Faces, which I could rave on and on about for hours if you buy me a drink the next time you see me.

Right now, for our purposes, here’s a quick summary of the Hero’s Journey:

  • Separation: Our hero, inspired by some important goal but difficult goal, leaves behind his comfort zone.
  • Descent: The hero “descends” into a strange, magical and often terrifying reality, where he suffers a loss and learns a deep and powerful lesson.
  • Return: With his lesson gained, the hero returns to the day world, armed with what Campbell called the “magical elixir” — the insight that helps him both achieve his goal, but also transform others.

Obama’s story follows this structure precisely. As you watch the video, see if you can spot each of these structures.

OK, let’s get to the video.

Great Leadership Storytelling: Obama’s Fired up, Ready to Go Story

Story Analysis

Setting the Context

Obama:

You know, some of you remember during the campaign we had a slogan, “Fired Up!”

AUDIENCE MEMBERS: Ready to go!

Ready to go! Not everybody here knows how this story came about, so I’m going to tell it again. Because it bears on health care reform.

Obama starts by setting up the story for us. It’s got something to do with a slogan that for many people in the audience is obviously familiar. And it’s got something to do with health care reform, which is the reason that all the people in the audience are there. (By this point, Obama has been talking about health care reform for more than 30 minutes.)

What he’s doing is what storytellers call “establishing.” He’s telling the audience what to expect, and he’s buying himself a little bit of the audience’s attention. This simple, two line explanation is the setup: the context into which the story is placed.

What’s the most important takeaway for leadership storytellers?

Start your story by establishing the ground rules. What is this story generally about? Why is it worth listening to? How is it relevant to what we’re talking about right now? One way I like to do this is by saying something like “I want to tell you a story that connects to this conversation we’re having right now. Can I have two minutes?” In this way, I set expectations for my audience about what it is they’re getting themselves into, and I get permission to move on. That permission helps to establish trust with the audience. I’m not just blowing hot air. I’m giving you something important.

The Story of Self/Separation

Obama:

This is early in the campaign when none of you knew how to pronounce my name. I had just announced and I was looking for support. I had to go down to South Carolina — it was an early primary state. I went down to Greenville for a legislative dinner. And I was sitting next to a state representative there, and I wanted her support. I needed some endorsements, nobody supported me at the time.

So I said, “Madam Representative, I need your endorsement.” She said, “I will give you my endorsement — if you come to my home town, Greenwood, South Carolina.” And I said — I’d had a glass of wine — I said, “Fine. I promise.” Come to find out that Greenwood is an hour and a half from everyplace else. It’s in the middle of nowhere.

Obama’s story is a Story of Self, because it’s about him, and told in the first person. Stories of Self function on a very basic narrative pattern:

  • Challenge
  • Choice
  • Outcome

What Obama is doing at the beginning is sketching out the challenge he faced.

There’s a few key things that Obama does effectively. One is that he doesn’t bore us with lots of background details. He doesn’t tell us about where he was at in the polls, or what his strategic objective. He sketches out the general details in just a few sentences, and he does it quickly — almost as an aside. He doesn’t want to distract us with the flow of the story.

The second is that he starts us immediately with the sense of something happening. This is an important component about a story — all stories function based on what we call “scenes”. Obama is describing a scene: the legislative dinner. Right away, he introduces us to the state representative character. This tactic changes the tone of the speech. Rather than Obama telling us what is happening, he’s showing us by letting us watch the scene as it unfolds.

He does this by playing the back and forth in the conversation, voicing his character and then hers. Watch how easily he does this: we feel like we’re there, sitting at the table with them, watching. This serves to immediately engage us with the story.

Finally, what Obama also does is set up what storytellers call stakes. He needs something, and he’s willing to do something unexpected to get it. The state representative makes Obama an offer: you scratch my back, I’ll scratch yours. And our hero, hungry for his higher goal, a little drunk, agrees to the bargain. And in doing so, Obama sets up what we call a key “plot question.”

Great stories all function based on compelling questions. The storytelling term “suspense” literally means asking a compelling question and then “suspending” the answer. What’s the question we’re asking here? “What’s going to happen in Greenwood?” This question gives the story its momentum. That suspenseful question gives the story, at this moment, its hook

What’s the most important takeaway for leadership storytellers?

In this early stage of a story, as you set up the challenge, think about what gives your story its forward movement. What question were you trying to answer? What were you looking for or needing? 

Ultimately, the more compelling the question, the more suspense the audience will feel. And great stories are all about creating a moment of suspense before “resolving” it with the emotional release called a climax.

The Descent

Obama:

So about a month later I fly back into Greenville, and I’m tired, I’m sleepy, and I’ve been campaigning for two weeks straight. I’m dragging my bags to my hotel room, and suddenly I get a tap on my shoulder — my staffers — I said, “What?” They said, “We’ve got to be in the car at 6:30 tomorrow morning.” I said, “Why?” (Laughter.) Six-thirty? Why? “Because we’ve got to go to Greenwood like you promised.” (Laughter.)

So the next morning I wake up and I feel terrible, dragging out of bed — feel like a college student. Feel like I’m back in college and don’t want to wake up. Feel like I’ve been staying up late doing who knows what. I know, I remember how you all are. So I just feel — I’m exhausted. I go over to the curtains to try to get some sunlight, wake myself up — it’s pouring down rain outside. Miserable day. I go to get some coffee, I open up the newspaper — there’s a bad story about me in The New York Times. (Laughter.)

I go downstairs, and my umbrella busts open and I get poured on. So by the time I’m in the car I’m wet and I’m sleepy and I’m tired and I’m mad. (Laughter.)

By this point in the story, we’re hooked. Obama has set up some compelling “plot questions” that has left us hanging on the answer. Subconsciously, we’re feeling the emotional buildup. Obama is a master storyteller; he knows that delicious anticipation is the key to the powerful release that’s coming at the end. With this in mind, Obama has slowed down the pace of the story to really draw us in.

He does a couple things here that are exceptionally effective. First, notice how he continues describing the story as a scene. The rain, “dragging” his bags: these little details help us be “in the moment” with him, which serves to bring us closer. Also notice how he continues to describe the story as a scene — the conversation with his staffers, and then the experience of waking up literally unfolds in front of us. We really get the feeling that we’re there with him.

Second, this is the moment when we get drawn into Obama’s emotional inner world. He’s revealing himself to us, and in the process letting us relate to him on a deeper, emotional level. Because we can all relate to being tired, being sleepy, being in college and not wanting to wake up, he begins connecting to us on a universal level. And even though we know that the story has a happy ending — he’s President, after all — by including us this section, Obama makes his story more relatable. We can literally feel his struggle.

And in it, we start to understand the deeper question that’s really driving the plot of the story. This isn’t just about what might happen in Greenwood. This is about a more profound question that Obama was asking himself: how is he going to find the courage to fight a battle that, from that perspective, early in the campaign, must have looked impossible? Maybe more to the point: how do we find the strength to fight battles that look impossible? This is what the story is really about, and this is the reason why Obama is taking the time to set us up with his own pessimism.

Finally, notice how effectively Obama is using humour. Humour is one of the most effective tools we have at reducing emotional intensity. Humour is how Obama stops the story from getting too dark. As we laugh, we feel safe, which is what helps him pose this powerful deeper question.

What’s the most important takeaway for leadership storytellers?

What makes a story compelling is what we can call the “thematic question.” It’s the universal message or moral that’s at the heart of your story — a message that raises your story from the specific to the universal. 

In trying to establish your thematic question, ask yourself: what was the universal message I learned in my story? This question will “resonate” with your audience best when it is likely to connect with something they’ve also experienced.

Finally, when you talk about yourself, be “strategically vulnerable.” Obama didn’t tell you about some huge emotional breakdown. He used the setting, the pouring rain, the bad story in the New York Times as a metaphor for his emotional state. Everything was miserable, and he was too. How can you use metaphor and setting as a way of hinting at your vulnerability without giving away the farm?

Receiving the Magic Elixir

Obama:

And we start driving, and we’re driving and we’re driving, and it’s an hour and a half — and I realized I’m going to have to drive an hour and a half back. And finally we get to Greenwood — although you don’t know you’re in Greenwood right away. But there’s a little park district building. We go into this park fieldhouse — I get a little more wet — get inside, and after this long drive, waking up at 6:30 a.m., there are only about 20 people in the room. Twenty people. And they’re all kind of damp and they don’t look that excited to see me. (Laughter.) They don’t really know how to pronounce my name either. (Laughter.)

But, you know, I’m running for president, so I’m shaking hands — “How do you do? Nice to meet you.” Suddenly I hear this voice behind me shout out, “Fired up?” (Laughter.) And I’m startled. But everybody around me, they just think this is normal. They say, “Fired up!” And suddenly I hear this voice, “Ready to go?” And everybody goes, “Ready to go!” I say, what’s going on? I look behind me — there’s this small woman, she’s about 5′, 5’2″. She’s about 50, 60 years old. And she’s dressed like she just came from church — she’s got a big church hat. And she’s looking at me, she’s smiling, and she says, “Fired up?” (Laughter.)

Remember, the question we’re asking ourselves is: how can we find the courage to fight battles that feel impossible?What Obama has given us here is the answer: in the form of another character. He doesn’t tell us the answer. He shows us the answer. He lets her show us the answer.

What’s remarkable about the answer is that it’s not a cliché homily. It’s a reference to what storytellers call an archetype — a familiar character that we can all relate to. If you search in your own life, you can probably find someone who fits the archetype of a small woman who is huge on the inside. Subconsciously or not, this is who you are imagining when Obama describes this woman.

Notice again the themes, the voicing of characters, the set-up of the depressing emotional tone that makes the Fired up? sound so jarring. She is the opposite of Obama, which is what gives her the power.

Obama:

Come to find out that this is a city council member from Greenwood. She also, by the way, moonlights as a private detective — true story. True, true story. But she’s mainly known for her chant. She does this everywhere she goes. Everywhere, at any event — football game, at a city council meeting — she says, “Fired up?” And everybody says, “Fired up!” And “Ready to go?” — everybody says, “Ready to go!”

So for the next five minutes, she keeps on doing this — she says, “Fired up?” “Fired up!” “Ready to go?” “Ready to go!” and I realize I’m being upstaged — (laughter) — by this woman. So I’m looking at my staff, asking what’s going on here? When is this going to stop? And they’re shrugging their shoulders, they don’t know.

Here’s the key moment in the whole story. Obama could have easily ended the story with this lesson. But he doesn’t do that. Instead, he plays out his character: he’s too consumed with his own self — the inconvenience of driving to Greenwood, the rain, the bad story — that’s he’s missing what’s right in front of him.

There’s an important parallel here. His story is our story. He’s learning what we’re all about to learn.

What’s the most important takeaway for leadership storytellers?

Obama did something brilliant. At the key moment, he shifted the spotlight to this other woman, our “Yoda” character. She’s the one who is teaching him the lesson by giving him the answer to the thematic question about how we stay motivated. By shifting the spotlight, he passes the inspiration directly from him to us, without coming off as narcisstic.

In your own story, ask yourself: who taught you the most important or inspiring lessons of your life? How did you learn to stay optimistic when things got bad? And how did you react when you got this lesson? Did you, like Obama — like all of us — overlook it, because you were too focused on yourself?

The Return

But here’s the thing, Maryland. After about a minute, a couple minutes of this, suddenly I realize I’m feeling kind of fired up. (Laughter and applause.) I’m feeling like I’m ready to go. So I start joining in the chant. And for the rest of the day, wherever we went, whenever I saw my staff I said, “Are you fired up?” They’d say, “I’m fired up, boss.” “Are you ready to go?” They’d say, “I’m ready to go!”

Notice one tiny little detail: the phrase “But here’s the thing, Maryland.” At this moment, Obama shifts — briefly — from main character to narrator. He’s setting up the inspiring climax and getting us ready to deliver on the initial questions set up way back at the beginning of the story. He’s bringing the story back to us.

At this stage, the framing of the story changes. Obama’s posture and voice changes. Gone is the fledgling candidate, looking for the lesson that will help his dream come true. Instead, what we are literally watching is the birth of the confident President. He is learning the lesson he needed to learn — the lesson we need to learn, right now: how to stay inspired when things look tough.

If you’re really paying attention, you’ll notice the feeling of the story changes too. This is when the goosebumps start. We can feel the momentum of the climax coming, and we’re starting to get ready for it. The whole story has been an emotional buildup, and we’re as excited as can be for what we know is coming.  It’s palpable.

What’s the most important takeaway for leadership storytellers?

Remember, it’s the lessons you learn in your story that will be most inspiring to your audience. It’s not what you learned. It’s how you learned it.

Story of Us

Obama:

So it goes to show you — and this is so important for young people — it goes to show you, one voice can change a room. And if a voice can change a room, it can change a city. And if it can change a city, it can change a state. If it can change a state, it can change a nation.if it can change a nation, it can change the world.

Masterfully, Obama pulls out the moral to the story — the universal lesson in his one, specific story that relates to all of us. It’s not just that what he is saying is deeply true; it’s that he’s proved it’s truth because of the story he just told us. If he said just this one section, it would sound like a cliche. Because he connected it to his Story of Self, the Story of Us has become much, much more meaningful. He’s seamlessly shifted from personal storyteller to preacher. It’s that momentum that we’re really started to feel.

As a short aside, often, the Story of Us needs to be a little longer, a little more involved. But because it comes at the end of a long speech, Obama can summarize the argument he’s been making in just a few short lines.

What’s the most important takeaway for leadership storytellers?

Obama’s Story of Us functions on a compelling, universal moral that just about anyone (with a heart) believes is true. 

What are you asking for from your audience? What do you all need to make all of your big dream come true? By articulating this, you’ll find the heart of your Story of Us

Story of Now

Obama:

We will change the world with your voice. We need the voices of young people to transform this nation — (applause) — to meet up to the meaning of its creed. I need your voice. So I want to know — are you fired up?

AUDIENCE: Fired up! (Applause.)

Ready to go?

AUDIENCE: Ready to go!

Fired up?

AUDIENCE: Fired up!

Ready to go?

AUDIENCE: Ready to go!

Fired up?

AUDIENCE: Fired up!

Ready to go?

AUDIENCE: Ready to go!

THE PRESIDENT: Let’s go change the world.

Talk about linking the Peak with the climax. What’s the choice Obama wants us to make? Lending our voice to the Health Care conversation. Going to Greenwood, the woman with the hat: the whole story was a lead-up to this moment. And because he got us emotionally involved, when he asks for our support, we can feel like he means it.

And then there is the wonderful back and forth with the audience: Fired up! Ready to go! This is PhD level storytelling. The whole momentum of the story — the whole emotional urgency of the Health Care campaign — expressed in the voices of the audience. In this context, because he’s gone through the whole story, it’s enough to leave us with this Story of Now: this brief call to action. If it was a shorter speech, the Story of Now would need to be a little more flushed out, but eqaully as straightforward and clear.

What’s the most important takeaway for leadership storytellers?

By concluding with a Story of Now, we see that this little personal anecdote was told purposefully, with a point. In building this story, Obama and his speechwriters likely worked backwards. What’s the action we want people to take? What’s a story we can tell that will connect the personal to the political?

For leaders, a good way to build towards this type of narrative is to start building an “inventory” of little stories like this too. Then, when you want to develop a motivational speech, you can ask yourself: what’s the action you want people to take? What personal anecdotes do you have that are well suited to the call to action?

Great leadership storytellers like Obama hunt for stories all the time. Like the great radio host Ira Glass says, “the best stories happen to those who can tell them.”

Summary: Key Leadership Storytelling Lessons from Obama’s Fired Up Speech:

  • Use the Story of Self, Story of Us, Story of Now structure to strategically connect the personal and the professional.
  • Structure your story by posing compelling questions and create suspense by “suspending” the answers
  • Drive the narrative of your story forward by telling your story in first person, in real time and as “scenes” involving compelling and relatable characters
  • Inspire your audience by describing the people and experiences that inspired you
  • Start collecting an “inventory” of anecdotes that you can insert into your motivational stories at just the right time.

Fired up? Ready to go?

Happy storytelling!