Michelle Obama used her last official speech as first lady to talk about education, one of her signature issues – but laden as it was with the subtext of the end of an era, it may in itself be one of her greatest legacies. Gracious, understated, articulate, and intelligent, Obama spoke from the heart to an assembled audience of school guidance counsellors. Her message was a simple one, but the speech had an uncommon depth too.
Becoming visibly emotional as she finished her remarks, the outgoing first lady spoke of hope for the future. Allied to this, she invoked the importance of hard work and the need to fight for freedom, not take it for granted. When she later spoke of her father’s influence, she touched a nerve not just of the American spirit, but something universal. Her words awoke memories in us all of significant moments when we too have reflected on those who shaped us.
Transcending race and nationality, Obama demonstrated her power as a presenter, stamping her identity not just on history, but education. Decades from now, this speech may well be remembered as a focal moment at a pivotal point in US and world history. Teachers will use excerpts from this speech in their classrooms for years to come, not just to teach history and politics, but also language and presentation skills.
From a teaching perspective, Obama’s speech was powerful by virtue of its pacing, personalisation, and placement of words. Sculpted around a thesis of aspiration, it was built from carefully chosen language – concise verbs (work, provide, lead) and abstract nouns (inspiration, diversity, and hope - used a total of 18 times). With her careful construction, Obama offered a subtle form of resistance to the aggressive language of division deployed by the likes of Donald Trump.
This too means her speech may well be remembered long after the Trump era is over. Great speeches don’t just touch the human spirit in the moment, but say something about the times in which their speakers and listeners live. This is why many teachers use Martin Luther King’s “I Have a Dream” speech in their classrooms to this day: it’s an example of both presentational genius and the definitive expression of an epochal moment.
There’s another crucial dynamic at work here too. When I teach presentation skills in my own classes, I myself draw on these speeches too and more besides, including my students’s own choices of the best presenters or presentations they have seen. Sometimes, a female speaker gets added to the equation, such as Emma Watson via her 2014 address to the UN’s HeforShe Campaign – but nonetheless, the great majority of notable speeches are associated with men.
This is largely because men have enjoyed disproportionate access to leadership and power, and still do. But it’s also to do with taught expectations about content and delivery of great presentations. Great speeches are associated with explicit links to the bigger picture; they generally rely on grand references to history, and often serve as a call to arms. In some ways, Obama’s speech followed the same pattern. But she did it differently, presenting her ideas not in a feminine way, but as a feminist in the true sense of the word.
Without ever raising her voice or pointing a finger, she called upon present and future generations to challenge the prevailing power structures of the moment. She made scant reference to God or militarism, and stuck instead to the themes of everyday existence – jobs, diversity, caring, sharing. Going against the US’s rapidly darkening climate of fear, she framed differences of colour, faith, and creed as abiding national strengths, not liabilities.
This was the culmination of the last eight years, during which Obama has presented her ideas with understated but remarkable power and passion. With this speech in particular, she has staked out a prominent place in the classrooms of the future. She has entered the ranks of men who usually monopolise PowerPoint slides and brushed them aside.
Right now, her speech might not be getting the full attention that it deserves, but in time, it will surely get its due as a pivotal and prophetic address. In the final act of her national performance, Obama has given us all, teachers and students, a valuable lesson in presentation skills: you don’t necessarily have to shout, thunder, and blow your own trumpet to be listened to – even for decades to come.