Alliteration Alert: It’s election time!

by Peter Paskale

How do you choose which candidate to vote for? I’ll bet you go into the booth, earnestly scratch your head, and muse:

“Now which of these candidates do I most fervently disagree with? Ah – yes – this guy or gal – they really upset me! I’ll vote for them!”

No? You don’t? Why in that case you must be voting for a candidate that you agree with! It sounds like you might even be voting for someone who agrees with your values! And that makes you, my friend, a Values Voter! And for many of us, this news will come as something of a surprise – not having been invited to that big political summit of our fellow Values Voters that took place this weekend in D.C. Maybe the invite is still in the mail?

Phrases like Values Voter and Moral Majority are badges of political honour, worn with pride by certain sections of the electorate. Look a little closer though and you’ll spot an interesting fact about these terms – they are completely meaningless.

Everybody who votes, votes on their values, and therefore everybody is a values voter.

Most people in this world are moral thank goodness, and therefore there is, of course, a moral majority.

Both labels are truisms – statements that while sounding true and occasionally profound, actually say nothing at all. So how come both of these junk-phrases have gained so much traction?

It’s because they are great political examples of alliteration – the art of taking two words that begin with the same letter and then sticking them side-by-side. Think of “Peter Piper picked a peck of pickled peppers” and you’ve got alliteration taken to extremes by small children. Think of Batman and Robin – the Caped Crusaders – and you have alliteration in comic books. Think of Kit-Kat or Coca-Cola and you have it in famous brands. Think of the mainstream media and you have it in the folks who bring us the news.

Alliteration is everywhere, and it’s function is to create catchy soundbites. When used to denote groups of people however, something a little unpleasant starts to happen. That sheer catchiness creates a profoundly polarising smugness. For example, if you come to think of yourself as being part of the “moral majority”, then your neighbour who possibly doesn’t agree with you, can only be part of an “immoral minority”. If you see yourself as a part of an exclusive sect called “values voters”, then you must have a pretty judgemental view on the voting habits of the rest of us.

A good political alliteration will seize the soundbite and spice a speech. JFK knew this and used alliteration to deliver empowering phrases such as “let us go forth and lead the land we love” and “a grand and global alliance”. More recently though, it seems to be used to divide and conquer.

As we enter the final weeks of campaigning for the mid-terms and many a speech is made, let’s listen out for those alliterations and ask ourselves if this is a phrase designed to inspire the electorate, or to divide us? When we can answer that question, we start to gain insight into the true, unstated values of the candidate.

Voting on the true, interior values of the candidate? Now that’s being a values voter.

Seven speech-techniques powering Obama’s UN Address

by Peter Paskale

Powerful speeches contain powerful content. For that content to shine though, it must be mounted into a powerful structure. Barack Obama’s speech today at the UN General Assembly contained both.

Much analysis will be given over to the content of that speech, so let’s take a moment to examine the structure. Let’s understand what was powering away beneath the hood.

Here are seven of the hidden mysteries that allowed Barack Obama to deliver a barn-stormer.

Paired opposites for tension

It was the number one rhetorical technique within the president’s UN speech, and we saw it in the very first line:

“… we come together at a crossroads between war and peace; between disorder and integration; between fear and hope.”

The technique is called Antithesis, and it suspends audiences between doubt and certainty – darkness and light – peril and salvation.

Five paragraphs later and the technique appears again:

“We can renew the international system that enabled so much progress, or allow ourselves to be pulled back by a global undertow. We can reaffirm our collective responsibility to confront global problems, or be swamped by more and more outbreaks of instability.”

Throughout the speech, we were never far from a collection of paired opposites, and this maintained the constant tension and dramatic pace.

Conjunctions for power

Many speeches contains lists, and lists involve commas to separate out the items. Commas however also break the pace of the speaker. When somebody wants to build power, all those little breathing gaps cause the impact to break-down.

President Obama used a technique called Polysyndeton, which is a deliberate overuse of conjunctions. Take a look at this phrase as the president nears his conclusion:

“..no matter who you are, or where you come from, or what you look like, or what God you pray to, or who you love, there is something fundamental that we all share.”

All those instances of “or” are absolutely deliberate. They provide a drumbeat and allow every last element in the list to stand-out loud and proud and be acknowledged.

State your evidence and frame the argument

“Russia’s actions in Ukraine challenge this post-war order. Here are the facts.”

As the camera’s swivelled to focus on a discomfited Russian ambassador, President Obama laid out a meticulous charge-sheet against Russia’s actions in Ukraine. What the president was doing was using this evidence to frame his case – to set the parameters by which his own views could be judged.

Great minds for great majesty

Quotes are an important part of a speech. When well chosen, they provide not just another form of evidence, but also a sense of majesty – or comedy – or tragedy – depending on whom you choose. In this speech, not only did we hear quotes from John F. Kennedy and Eleanor Roosevelt, both internationally respected American figures, but also a quote from Sheikh bin Bayyah of the Forum for Promoting Peace in Muslim Societies, thereby extending that reach out to the Muslim world.

Time travel for immediacy

It’s possible to time-travel an audience in a speech, and we see it in the phrase:

“America is not the same as it was 100 years ago, 50 years ago, or even a decade ago.”

Look at the time gaps between those numbers. 100 to 50. 50 to 10. There’s first a drop of 50%, and then one of 80%. Those numbers are closing-up as time seems to pick-up speed.

The technique is Metastasis and it can be used either to stretch someones perception of time, or as the president uses it here, to accelerate it. Change is coming, and it’s coming fast!

Face down the objectors

“I realize that America’s critics will be quick to point out that at times we too have failed to live up to our ideals; that America has plenty of problems within our own borders.”

Many will have been surprised to hear a paragraph dedicated to Ferguson, Missouri, but it was there for a specific reason.

For those wanting to shoot-down the president’s speech and paint him a hypocrite, it would be all too easy to point to the Ferguson riots. Such a counter-argument would, indeed, have allowed some of the power to be leeched away from the speech in the days to follow.

Obama however has blocked this by not waiting for his opponents to raise Ferguson, but by raising it himself. This is called Procatalepsis.

By seizing this counter-argument in the moment, the president allowed himself to re-frame the challenge, rather than allow his opponents to do so.

Poetry. Sheer poetry.

“No God condones this terror.”

It was the beginning of the most significant phrase in the speech, and also the one that news networks seized upon to replay in the moments as the Barack Obama stepped down from the podium.

It’s a simple phrase, but within it sits one of the most powerful tools of the speechwriter’s craft, and it comes straight from poetry. It’s an Iamb. And please – don’t misread that – that first letter is not an “L”. It’s a capital “I”. If you’re now thinking of a baby sheep, then you read it wrong. Just as you say IPhone or IPad, that word is I-amb.

When you hear the president using this phrase, listen to the rhythm of the words. The syllables are following a pattern of passive – stressed – passive – stressed. I’ll demonstrate by re-typing it, and underlining the stressed syllables:

no GOD conDONES this TERROR

Speaking in Iams isn’t easy, and unless you are a poet, it’s even tougher to write them, but when they are used, and used well, it creates one hell of a powerful phrase.

“No God condones this terror” is going to be the element of the president’s General Assembly address that is heard around the world.

This was a great speech, and beside strong content, it showed a mastery of technique.

Some in the world will now be stinging from it. Even more will be inspired.

Obama speech underplays strikes in Syria

 

by Peter Paskale

It wasn’t a speech. It wasn’t even an address. It was a book report.

Speaking today on the White House lawn as Marine One spooled up it’s engines behind him, President Obama tripped-up the media. What was billed as a ten minute speech on last night’s Syria actions against ISIL,  was delivered in just 3 minutes 11 seconds. Obama was already striding back to the White House door before TV news crews even realised that the speech was over.

What happened? For a President whose foreign policy credentials are so often doubted, you would think that he might have wanted to make a little more out of the moment.

What happened was a delicate, if dull, attempt to keep a coalition together. A coalition in Congress, and an unusual coalition in the Arab world. Both are exceptional and crucial.

Lets consider the speech for just one moment. The president paid tribute to the armed forces involved. He paid tribute to the Arab nations who joined the attacks. He laid out the rationale for the attacks. End of story.

We heard no moments of pride, and it was almost devoid of rhetorical flourishes. All of Obama’s usual speech elements were, oddly, missing.

The clues to Obama’s mission in this speech were the words “bipartisan”, which occurred twice, ‘coalition’, which occurred once, and a special-guest appearance by that horribly tired old cliche “shoulder to shoulder”. These four phrases comprised the closest that we could hear to any form of a dominant message, and that message was ‘let’s stay together’.

We did receive one slight rhetorical flourish, and that was when the president used a form that carries the marvellous name of Dirimens Copulatio – it’s the “not only, but also” figure. The purpose of Dirimens is to amplify a point – to make things appear bigger. We heard it in the president’s phrase “…this makes it clear that this is not America’s fight alone.” Again – this is a shove towards that topic of bipartisanship.

It must have been tempting for White House speech writers to incorporate a couple of political point-scorers on behalf of the president. He’s taken such heat in recent weeks and months for a seemingly toothless foreign policy. When we’ve just seen American missiles and jets pounding a repulsive terrorist group, then surely this is the time to notch up at least a couple of political bonus points?

Absolutely not. Had the president attempted to take any form of political credit for last night’s attacks, what would then have happened to that rare bi-partisanship? It would have fractured – both at home, and potentially between the growing coalition of Gulf States.

That’s why we got a book-report on the White House lawn, and not a speech, and for today’s needs that was just what was needed. It will hold the coalition together.

Now let’s see how he does at the UN. Will we get more of the same, or will there be a change of tone?

Spice speech

Over the years, I’ve killed my throat. Or toughened it up – it all depends on your perspective.

You see the thing is – I love spice. Whether it’s black pepper, cayenne pepper, or chilli pepper, I’ll incorporate it into recipes in some of the most surprising, and occasionally inappropriate ways. Just ask anybody that I’ve ever made hot chocolate for.

Over the years though, my taste buds have toughened up to the constant flow of tobasco. It now takes fairly incredible amounts for it to register on me. I’ve developed a tolerance.

In a similar way, our polarised politics and news media means that if you don’t have a really strong opinion, a Scots-Bonnet of an opinion (chilli lovers will know what I mean), then you’re not going to be heard, because audiences too have developed a tolerance for heat.

Then I spotted this piece on the web-site of my friend and fellow blogger, Broc Edwards. That tolerance for polarised heat that we’ve all developed exists in the commercial branding world, and in presentation world as well.

In a world where we’ve all become used to a good dose of chilli with every message, what’s the right amount of heat to be adding to presentations?

fool (with a plan)

I’m fascinated by branding. Not the marking-cows-so-the-don’t-get-rustled kind. The kind of branding that’s about identity and messaging and clear authenticity. How clear? If No One Hates You, No One is Paying Attention. That statement is the title of a great piece by Alf Rehn (@alfrehn), and gets at the heart of branding. Alf reminds us that trying to be all things to all people doesn’t work, despite the legions of businesses that attempt it. It makes sense to know and declare who you are as a business and what you stand for. But the ugly, unmentioned downside is that in doing so you are also declaring who you aren’t and who you stand against.

So truly strong branding is only telling people “Our products are for you. You will like them. You will like what being associated with them says about you. You should buy them.” But it’s also…

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