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Obama’s Well-Written Notre Dame Speech

As a graduate of the University of Notre Dame, I took special interest in the controversy over President Obama's commencement speech, which he delivered in South Bend, Indiana, yesterday. I could see the picketers and processions in my mind, and I was eager to see how he handled the heated situation.

[Note: The controversy involves the President's pro-choice position on abortion and his support of stem cell research, both of which disagree with the pro-life views of the Catholic Church. Notre Dame is a Catholic university.]

Although the controversy continues to swirl, the speech is a model for business writers. Here is why:

  • The speech has a clear theme that resounds throughout. His theme is understanding and cooperation to achieve noble goals that benefit all. Not one sentence in the speech detracts from that theme.
  • The language brings home the theme again and again:
    "No one person, or religion, or nation can meet these challenges alone."
    "Open hearts. Open minds. Fair-minded words."
    "When people set aside their differences, even for a moment, to work in common effort toward a common goal; when they struggle together, and sacrifice together, and learn from one another–then all things are possible."
  • The speech is written for the audience. The President mentioned Notre Dame traditions, quoted and told a relevant story about the former president of Notre Dame (Rev. Theodore Hesburgh), told a story about coming to know and admire a deceased Catholic Archbishop of Chicago (Cardinal Joseph Bernardin) who influenced Obama's spiritual development, and praised the class valedictorian (Brennan Bollman), along with the class of 2009. There was nothing one-size-fits-all about the speech. All the details fit the audience. 
  • The speech is direct and honest. Rather than skirting the controversy, the speech confronts it:
    "We're not going to shy away from things that are uncomfortable sometimes."
    "The fact is that at some level the views of the two camps are irreconcilable. Each side will continue to make its case . . . with passion and conviction. But surely we can do so without reducing those with differing views to caricature."
  • The speech begins with a thank you and some ice-breaking, self-deprecating humor. Obama mentioned being only 1 for 2 in terms of getting honorary degrees and needing advice from Father Hesburgh, who is 150 for 150.
  • The speech is lofty and inspiring, a perfect match for a graduation. It ends with America continuing on "its precious journey towards that more perfect union."

Beyond everything that made it a fine speech, the commencement address modeled its message of openness, dialog, and cooperation in the face of differences.

In that spirit of oneness, I congratulate the class of 2009.

Syntax Training

Posted by Lynn Gaertner Johnson
By Lynn Gaertner-Johnston

Lynn Gaertner-Johnston has helped thousands of employees and managers improve their business writing skills and confidence through her company, Syntax Training. In her corporate training career of more than 20 years, she has worked with executives, engineers, scientists, sales staff, and many other professionals, helping them get their messages across with clarity and tact.

A gifted teacher, Lynn has led writing classes at more than 100 companies and organizations such as MasterCard, Microsoft, Boeing, Nintendo, REI, AARP, Ledcor, and Kaiser Permanente. Near her home in Seattle, Washington, she has taught managerial communications in the MBA programs of the University of Washington and UW Bothell. She has created a communications course, Business Writing That Builds Relationships, and provides the curriculum at no cost to college instructors.

A recognized expert in business writing etiquette, Lynn has been quoted in "The Wall Street Journal," "The Atlantic," "Vanity Fair," and other media.

Lynn sharpened her business writing skills at the University of Notre Dame, where she earned a master's degree in communication, and at Bradley University, with a bachelor's degree in English. She grew up in suburban Chicago, Illinois.

2 comments on “Obama’s Well-Written Notre Dame Speech”

  • Lynn – A slice of America, with religion’s grip on politics highlighted, this speech had the potential to be explosive. The decision to highlight the concerns of the audience was both refreshing and necessary.

    Could you guess who wrote that speech? Or how many people contributed? I believe the President to be a great writer and orator, but at the highest office he also has some of the best talent on board. In any case, is it the author(s) who is important or is the person delivering a speech the key piece?

  • Kevin, interesting observations and questions! I have heard that President Obama writes his own speeches, but given everything he is involved in, I can’t imagine he does it alone. (If anyone has better information, please share it.)

    Regarding whether the author or the person delivering the speech is more important, it depends on the result. I’d have to say a bad speech delivered well is still a bad speech. But a good speech delivered badly–I believe it would still be regarded as a good speech.

    But the person delivering the speech is key. The words must match the man or woman. If Obama had a history of contentious, unilateral behavior, he would not be credible as the speaker of those unifying words.

    Thanks, Kevin!

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