Secrets of President Obama's Public Speaking Success; how he does it and what makes him so good
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Secrets of Obama's speaking success

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Regardless of your views about him as a president, President Obama is undoubtedly 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 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.

So what are the secrets of his success? There are several, but in this article 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 visited the page rhetorical_techniques will recognise most of them.

President Obama’s 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 (think of Lincoln’s “Government of the people, by the people, for the people” or Churchill’s “Never in the history of human endeavour has so much been owed by so many to so few").

There are twenty two examples used in his Inauguration speech alone and fourteen in his speech in Prague (to take two speeches at random)! Here’s three examples from his address to Congress on 24 Feb 2009:

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:
Look at Berlin, where Germans and Americans learned to work together and trust each other less than three years after facing each other on the field of battle. Look at Berlin, where the determination of a people met the generosity of the Marshall Plan and created a German miracle ...... Look at Berlin, where the bullet holes in the buildings and the somber stones and pillars near the Brandenburg Gate insist that we never forget our common humanity.”

And later in the same speech:
"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.”

Yet another example:
For us, they packed up their few worldly possessions and travelled across oceans in search of a new life. For us, they toiled in sweatshops and settled the West; endured the lash of the whip and ploughed the hard earth. For us, they fought and died, in places like Concord and Gettysburg; Normandy and Khe Sahn.”

Another technique is ANTISTROPHE (also known as EPIPHORA) - the ending of successive clauses or sentences with the same words (think of 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:

“For when we have faced down impossible odds, when we've been told we're not ready or that we shouldn't try or that we can't, generations of Americans have responded with a simple creed that sums up the spirit of a people: Yes, we can. Yes, we can. Yes, we can.
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.
It was the call of workers who organized, women who reached for the ballot, a president who chose the moon as our new frontier, and a king who took us to the mountaintop and pointed the way to the promised land: Yes, we can, to justice and equality.
Yes, we can, to opportunity and prosperity. Yes, we can heal this nation. Yes, we can repair this world. Yes, we can.”

Sometimes anaphora and antistrophe are even used together. In the "yes we can"example above, each phrase begins with “It was ....” This technique is called SYMPLOCE. Another example would be:
In the struggle for peace and justice, we cannot walk alone. In the struggle for opportunity and equality, we cannot walk aloneIn the struggle to heal this nation and repair this world, we cannot walk alone.”

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 (think of Martin Luther 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")

In his Inauguration speech President Obama 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.”

Three other examples:

“The success of our economy has always depended not just on the size of our Gross Domestic Product, but on the reach of our prosperity ...”

“...  not just with missiles and tanks, but with sturdy alliances and enduring convictions.”

“We must be as careful getting out of Iraq as we were careless getting in ...”

He also uses various other techniques, and examples can be seen in the President's selected speeches, 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.

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