Secrets of Obama's speaking success
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:
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:
Yet another example from his speech in Berlin in July 2008:
And later in the same speech:
Yet another example:
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.
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:
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.”
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.