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Monday, January 16, 2017


GUEST BLOG / By Leila Pedersen, New America Weekly. 
Obama hooked us with his story and left us with a mandate.
A student of Gamaliel, which teaches faith-based community organizing, Barack Obama first captured the nation’s attention during his speech at the Democratic Convention in 2004, artfully mastering the story of self, us, and now, the public narrative course taught by Harvard professor Marshall Ganz.

When he ran for President in 2008, Obama was criticized for his background as a community organizer, but it was the skills that he learned as an organizer that have enabled him to be an effective communicator.

Editor’s Note: The following article was first published in the “New America Weekly, Edition 148”, a digital magazine from New America, a foundation that focuses on the ideas and policy challenges that will shape the future.  New America kindly allows other non-commercial online magazines like Pillar to Post to republish important articles that have appeared in New America websites. For more on New America go to

Obama told his story not to tell us who he is, but to show us who we are and what we can accomplish together. 
Some have called last night’s speech unconvincing, and that it sounded like he was “riding off into the sunset.” I disagree. To me, his farewell speech confirmed that the Obamas are not going anywhere. As he said himself, he is about to assume, “the most important office in a democracy, citizen.”

The Obamas may be leaving the oval office, but they aren’t going away. He delivered his final speech as President in Chicago not only because that is where his political career started, but more importantly, it is where Organizing for Action, which was born out of Obama for America, is headquartered.
If you were looking for the president to take his successor down, then you haven’t been paying attention for the past 8 years. It was Michelle Obama who popularized the phrase, “when they go low, we go high.” And that is exactly what Barack did.

As someone who used to live in DC and chase the news cycle with the rest of the city, I understand that it is easy to be cynical about the future. But once you leave the Beltway and get to know people in states and cities, from Maine to Modesto, you see bright spots not visible from the halls of Congress. As Obama said in his closing remarks,

The generation coming up – unselfish, altruistic, creative, and patriotic – I’ve seen you in every corner of the country. You believe in a fair, and just, and inclusive America; you know that constant change has been America’s hallmark, that its not something to fear but something to embrace, you are willing to carry this hard work of democracy forward. You’ll soon outnumber any of us, and I believe as a result the future is in good hands.

At one time I may have chalked that statement up to empty, political rhetoric. But since moving from DC to California and transitioning from political campaigns to a civic startup that invests in social entrepreneurs and helps them tell better stories, my faith has been restored. The people I work with aren’t waiting for Washington to solve their problems; they are taking the initiative to create the change they want to see in their communities and throughout the world.

This week I am reading applications for New America’s 2017 California Fellowship. These public leaders are pitching their ideas for how to solve society’s most difficult problems, from economic inequality to climate change. In reflecting on Obama’s unique storytelling abilities and looking at the applicants with the highest scores, I noticed some common themes:

1. Lead with your story
In order for an audience – whether it be composed of funders, policymakers, employers, or the general public – to understand why they should care about your work, they must first care about you.  For many people, telling their personal story can feel daunting. How do I tell the story of my life in a paragraph? The answer is, you don’t. You tell us about one experience you’ve had that illustrates larger themes about who you are, what challenges you’ve faced, and how you have overcome them.
You don’t have to be a politician to learn something from Obama’s oratory skills. Watch his speech from 2004 and notice how he tells his story. It isn’t a litany of accomplishments; it is a strategically crafted message that reveals his values, perseverance, and motivations.

2. Inspire with your vision for the future
Too often, grant proposals, campaign communications, and pitches to investors start with the problem, which can leave an audience feeling hopeless and depressed. Think about the difference between Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama. Don’t start with the problem. Instead, paint a vivid picture of what life would be like if your idea was implemented. How would our lives be better? After all, how will your audience know if they want to follow you if you can’t clearly articulate where you are going?

3. Have a plan
Be specific. Audiences are hooked by stories and vision, but in order to move them from interest to action, people need specifics. If you are asking someone to invest time or money in your idea, you better tell them what you are doing to do with those resources. “Start a nonprofit” or “Grow my business” is not enough. As an investor, I want to know the steps you will take to ensure that my time and money don’t go to waste. Clearly explain why you are uniquely capable of creating the future you describe.

4. Make an ask
If we look at the arc of Barack Obama’s career, we can see how he has carefully crafted his own personal story, developed a compelling vision for the future, unveiled his plan for how to achieve specific goals, and left the office of the Presidency by making an ask of the American people: to join him in rejecting the temptations of cynicism and apathy in favor of more a useful outlook rooted in hope and change.

In his farewell speech, Obama outlined the current threats to our democracy: economic inequality, racial divisions, and a disappearing belief in facts – each of which requires us to empathize with the story of others in order to create opportunity for all.

Calling out to individual groups, he urged minorities to talk to white people who, “feel that their way of life is being upended by economic, cultural, and technological change,” white people to acknowledge that slavery and Jim Crow still affect us today and that everyone deserves the equal treatment promised by our founders, and native-born Americans that our ancestors were once immigrants too.

Regardless of the station we occupy; we all have to try harder; we all have to start with the premise that each of our fellow citizens loves this country just as much as we do; that they value hard work and family just like we do; that their children are just as curious and hopeful and worthy of love as our own.

Obama’s final ask of the evening was simple, “If you are tired of arguing with strangers on the internet, try to talk with one in real life.” Now, more than ever, it is up to each of us to tell our story, listen to others, and move forward with empathy.


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