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Secrets of Obama's speaking success

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Regardless of what you think of him as a politician or President, most unbiased people would agree that Barack Obama is a speaking phenomenon, and arguably the most effective orator of his generation. There is nobody in British politics who could even hold a candle to him. During his first Presidential campaign, during both the primaries and the election proper, he would regularly draw crowds of tens of thousands to hear him speak, with people queuing for hours to get to see him.

Even those people who don't agree with his policies would admit that his powers of oratory can be, on occasion, simply awesome. I have taken a selection of President Obama's speeches and highlighted the rhetorical techniques used in each, and will update this from time to time when he makes a major speech.Links to these speeches are shown at the bottom of this page.

So what are the secrets of his success? There are several, but on this page I want to concentrate on his use of the traditional rhetorical techniques used by all the great orators of the past two and a half thousand years. Those of you who have read my e-book Speak Like A Pro (click here to read more about the use of rhetorical techniques) will recognise most of them.

His favourite appears to be the ‘rule of threes,’ otherwise known as a TRICOLON, i.e. the use of a series of three to emphasise a point (a memorable example would be Lincoln’s “Government of the people, by the people, for the people”).

There are twenty two examples used in his Inauguration speech alone and fourteen in his recent speech in Prague (to take another speech at random)!

Three examples from his address to Congress on 24 Feb 2009, following fast upon each other:

If you haven't been personally affected by this recession, you probably know someone who has -- a friend; a neighbour; a member of your family ......  My budget  ...... reflects the stark reality of what we've inherited -- a trillion-dollar deficit, a financial crisis, and a costly recession...... (it) creates new incentives for teacher performance; pathways for advancement, and rewards for success.”

Another favourite technique is ANAPHORA, which repeats a word or phrase at the start of several successive sentences or clauses (e.g., Martin Luther King’s use of “”I have a dream ...” at the beginning of six successive paragraphs).

In his Iowa Caucus speech in February 2008, he said:

We are the hope of those boys who have little; who've been told that they cannot have what they dream  ...... We are the hope of the father who goes to work before dawn and lies awake with doubts that tell him he cannot give his children the same opportunities that someone gave him ...... We are the hope of the woman who hears that her city will not be rebuilt; that she cannot reclaim the life that was swept away in a terrible storm.”

Then in his acceptance speech for the Democratic nomination, he said,

Now is the time to help families with paid sick days and better family leave ..... Now is the time to change our bankruptcy laws ...... Now is the time to keep the promise of equal pay for an equal day's work.”

And later in the same speech:

“(The American promise) is a promise I make to my daughters when I tuck them in at night ......; a promise that has led immigrants to cross oceans and pioneers to travel west; a promise that led workers to picket lines, and women to reach for the ballot.”

Yet another example from his speech in Berlin in July 2008:

"The walls between old allies on either side of the Atlantic cannot stand ...... The walls between the countries with the most and those with the least cannot stand ...... The walls between races and tribes, natives and immigrants, Christian and Muslim and Jew cannot stand.”


Another technique is ANTISTROPHE (also known as EPIPHORA) - the ending of successive clauses or sentences with the same words (e.g. FDR’s announcement of the attack on Pearl Harbour: "In 1931, ten years ago, Japan invaded Manchukuo -- without warning. In 1935, Italy invaded Ethiopia -- without warning. In 1938, Hitler occupied Austria -- without warning. In 1939, Hitler invaded Czechoslovakia -- without warning. Later in 1939, Hitler invaded Poland -- without warning. And now Japan has attacked Malaya and Thailand -- and the United States -- without warning.").

Obama tended to use this when repeating his campaign mantra, “Yes we can.” Take this from Obama’s New Hampshire Primary speech in January 2008:

"It was a creed written into the founding documents that declared the destiny of a nation: Yes, we can. It was whispered by slaves and abolitionists as they blazed a trail towards freedom through the darkest of nights: Yes, we can. It was sung by immigrants as they struck out from distant shores and pioneers who pushed westward against an unforgiving wilderness: Yes, we can"

Sometimes anaphora and antistrophe are even used together. In the anaphora example above using the words “We are the hope,” each phrase is ended with “Yes you can.” This technique is called SYMPLOCE.

Finally, as befits an admirer of JFK and Dr. Martin Luther King, he uses ANTITHESIS, which is a figure of balance in which two contrasting ideas are deliberately used in consecutive phrases or sentences (e.g. Dr. King’s, "I have a dream that my four little children will one day live in a nation where they will not be judged by the colour of their skin but by the content of their character" or JFK’s famous line, “Think not what your country can do for you, but what you can do for your country”).

In his Inauguration speech he said,

“To those leaders around the globe who seek to sow conflict, or blame their society's ills on the West - know that your people will judge you on what you can build, not what you destroy....... know that you are on the wrong side of history; but that we will extend a hand if you are willing to unclench your fist.”

He also uses various other techniques, and these can be seen in the selected speeches below, in which I identify and highlight every rhetorical technique used.

The great thing about rhetorical techniques is that they are not the preserve only of politicians. They can be used by anybody, from a CEO speaking at an annual conference to a sales executive making a sales presentation. To learn how, buy my 284-page E-Manual Speak Like A Pro.

Selected Speeches of President Obama

2004 Democratic Convention Speech

New Hampshire Primary Speech

Inaugural Address

Prague Speech

Berlin Speech

Cairo Speech

2011 Middle East Speech

2012 Democratic Convention Speech

2012 UN Speech

June 12 Economy Speech

July 16 Cincinnati Speech

2012 Middle East Speech

 

 

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