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.

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