Message for today, objective for tomorrow


by Peter Watts

“Tonight, I can report to the American people, and to the world…..”

To understand the mechanics of any successful speech, you must always read it. By reviewing the printed page, you see the ingenious word workings that give the speech its power.

“Tonight, I can report to the American people….”

These opening words announced the death of Osama Bin Laden. They initially slip past you until you read the script.

President Obama deliberately chose to approach his audience with the simplest humility; when we “report to” someone, we work for them. When we “report for duty”, we present our service. Contrast this opening to a flight-suit clad George W. Bush astride a battle-cruiser with a banner screaming “Mission Accomplished”, and the full style difference will become all the more apparent.

Your opening words in any speech or presentation will set the tone for everything that is to follow. They will provide the springboard for your key message, and in Obama’s presentation, that key message was not “victory over terror” as might have been expected, but “unity in the face of terror”.

In the first two minutes of the speech, the word unity, or synonyms for unity were mentioned 20 times. In the final two minutes, again, there were a further 20 repetitions.

Unity synonyms are used for pathos: “3,000 citizens taken from us, leaving a gaping hole in our hearts.”

Unity synonyms are used for society and community: “In our time of grief…. we offered  our neighbors a hand, we offered the wounded our blood, we reaffirmed our ties for each other”

And the word unity itself is used as a vital pivot-point to turn the speech from the retrospective trauma of 9/11, to the 10 year hunt for Bin Laden: “We were also united in our resolve to protect our nation and to bring those who committed this vicious attack to justice.”

Within every great speech, there is a key message, and that key message must be carefully chosen with the audience in mind. For Obama’s audiences, both domestic and global, in the defining moment of Sunday May 1st, 2011, no finer message could have been chosen than that of “unity”.

The Roman orator Quintilian, once wrote that great speeches place a “hidden dart” into the mind of the audience, and that the message encoded in that dart will remain long after the speech itself may have been forgotten.

In his speech announcing the death of Osama Bin Laden, President Barack Obama sought to use the power of oratory to not only announce the death of a terrorist, but to use that power to further advance the death of the terrorist’s cause.

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