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.

Analysis of Malala Yousafzai’s speech to the UN General Assembly

malala

by Peter Watts

Shot in the head by the Taliban simply for going to school, Malala Yousafzai has not only recovered from appalling injuries, but has gone on to become a champion for the rights of children everywhere to be educated.

Today, before the UN General Assembly, Malala delivered a speech of substance, power, and grace.

This speech deserves to be heard. This speech deserves to be read. This speech deserves to learned. Both for it’s incredible message, and for the incredible public-speaking skills of this 16 year old girl.

Unassailable ethos

The first challenge any speaker faces is to establish their ethos, their credibility to speak. For this speech Malala wished to establish herself not as a victim of violence, but as a champion against it.

“….it is an honor for me that today I am wearing a shawl of the late Benazir Bhutto.”

We sometimes speak of somebody “putting on the mantle” of a hero, but this is the first time I can recall somebody literally wearing the mantle. The mantle of a female Pakistani leader, a champion of education, assassinated by terrorists. Furthermore, the mantle of a woman who had spoken at the UN, and would have been known by many of those in the audience.

Indeed a mantle of power, yet contrasted beautifully against the phrase “dear brothers and sisters”, which appears in almost every paragraph, and reminds the audience of whom Malala ultimately represents: the young.

A triple trilogy of power

A similar evocation of power appears later, in a trio of trilogies:

“This is the compassion that I have learned from Mohammed, the prophet of mercy, Jesus Christ, and Lord Buddha. This is the legacy of change I have inherited from Martin Luther King, Nelson Mandela, and Mohammed Ali Jinnah. This is the philosophy of non-violence that I have learned from Gandhi, Bacha Khan and Mother Teresa”

To speak in groupings of three is a classical technique, and as Malala delivers this roll-call, she summons the presence of those leaders, alive and dead, to stand behind her on the stage. Malala then drops the power level, as she summons the presence of two more individuals:

“And this is the forgiveness that I have learned from my mother and father.”

Once again, she evokes humility, and the fact that this is a speech about children.

Climb and Collapse

This pattern of power-build followed by drop-back to humility reappears in the fourth paragraph. Malala uses the technique of climax, where numbers are grouped so that they climb in a sequence from small to large:

“There are hundreds of human rights activists,…. thousands of people have been killed by terrorists and millions have been injured.”

Hundreds. Thousands. Millions. The incrementum leads the audience to see an ever larger and more horrifying amount. The next number in the sequence? Surely Billions! But no. Instead we hear:

“I am just one of them. So here I stand, one girl amongst many.”

This is anti-climax. Having built up an image of afflicted millions, Malala collapses it all back down, to just her, one child. She is reminding us of the many for whom she speaks, while simultaneously using pathos, an appeal to the emotions.

Step-by-step to Logos

Logos is the logic of a speech; it’s argument. Malala’s argument is contained within paragraph eight, all of which I’m going to reproduce here, step-by-step, because the passage is so dense with power that each phrase deserves to individually understood:

“Dear sisters and brothers, we realize the importance of light when we see darkness. We realize the importance of our voice when we are silenced. In the same way, when we were in Swat, the north of Pakistan, we realized the importance of pens and books when we saw the guns.”

Light and darkness. Voice and silence. These paired opposites are examples of antithesis. They have a clean, binary logic that is enhanced by contrast. Malala then uses this foundation to create an analogy: “we realized the importance of pens and books when we saw the guns.

“The wise saying, ‘The pen is mightier than the sword’. It is true. The extremists are afraid of pens and books. The power of education frightens them.”

Here, the well known commonplace “The pen is mightier than the sword” is used to move the argument to it’s next stage: Extremists are afraid of education. The technique used is epicrisis, where a widely accepted commonplace or maxim adds weight to an argument built upon it.

“They are afraid of women. The power of the voice of women frightens them. This is why they killed 14 innocent students in the recent attack in Quetta. And that is why they kill female teachers. That is why they are blasting schools every day, because they are afraid of change and the equality that we will bring to our society.”

Having earlier set the argument that extremists are afraid of education, Malala then builds that argument to demonstrate the link between women’s education and society, until she concludes her argument with an anecdote:

“And I remember that there was a boy in our school who was asked by a journalist: ‘Why are the Taliban against education?’ He answered very simply by pointing to his book, he said: ‘A Talib doesn’t know what it written inside this book.’”

The anecdote provides a dramatic punchline to the logos, but also hints that the illiterate are more likely to become Taliban. This is the technique of adianoeta, where a more subtle meaning is hidden just beneath the surface of a comment: If Talibs can’t read, then the ultimate sword with which to win the war against the future Talib, is to teach the children to read.

Malala’s Key Message

Referring to how the Taliban sought to silence and intimidate her, Malala uses antithesis to deliver the words:

“….weakness, fear, and hopelessness died. Strength, power and courage was born.”

Strength, power and courage in the face of adversity are the key messages of Malala’s speech.

It is a speech filled with passion, with emotion, with skill, incredible belief, and daring hope.

It is a speech we all should hear, and delivered by a woman whom we all should hope we will hear a lot more of.

You can access a transcript of Malala’s speech by clicking here, or watch the speech on YouTube by clicking here.

Seven points for powerful debating

The Presidential Debates 2012 have valuable pointers for sales presenters

by Peter Watts

If you cross chess with WWF wrestling, throw in battle strategy and forensics, then mix in the disciplines of public speaking, you get debate.

Based on what we’ve just seen during the 2012 Presidential Debates, here is The Presenters’ Blog list of the top seven things to be aware of in order to raise your debating game:

Answer the question on your own terms

During the debates we saw enough framing to raise an Amish barn. Time after time, both candidates pivoted debate questions around to their own talking points. For example, when President Obama was asked about Libya during the Foreign Policy Debate, he replied that the solution was all about “nation building”. Under this heading he included education, health, and a stable economy, and from there he pivoted neatly to how that was exactly what he was delivering to America. It might seem transparent when you see it written down, but on the debate floor it works. It’s time honored and essential.

You are NEVER above the fray

Trying to keep a lofty distance above all this messy debating is a strategy that never works, as President Obama so heftily discovered during the first 2012 debate. If you are on the stage, prepare to engage. You can show a profusion of emotional responses, as Joe Biden so fabulously did during the VP’s debate, but you can never show nose-in-the-air aloof.

Don’t whine

There may be debate rules in place, but if you think your opponent is overstepping them, then tell that straight to your opponent, straight to their face. The moderator will then step in to support you. Mitt Romney however made the mistake of taking his complaints direct to the debate moderator instead. The effect was of a small child running to Mom or Dad and whining that the other kid wasn’t playing nice.

Have a key message

Always have a key message and return to it as frequently as possible by as many routes as possible. Governor Romney showed us a masterclass in key messaging during Debate One, when somehow, almost all lines of discussion seemed to lead directly to “small business”.

Techniques work well when only used once

During Debate Two, we commented on the use of rhetorical techniques. The Romans called them the “hidden darts”; fabulously powerful, but only effective when kept, as the name suggests, hidden.

If you use a technique of rhetoric once only, then it will sit in your speech as an elegant jewel. If you use the same technique twice, the audience will recognize the repetition. Use it a third time, and not only will the audience recognize it, but your opponent will be ready with a kill shot.

During the first debate, Governor Romney used the technique of listing-off the points he would discuss during his answer. There would always four points in his list, and the fourth would be the pivot-point back to Small Business. By Debate Three, President Obama was ready for him. As Romney finished the list, predictably landing on “small business”, the President fired-back with a list of his own, detailing everything the Governor had ever done that had harmed small business, and then neatly pivoting back around to the President’s own talking points. Aim, fire, dead.

Planning and preparation are everything

More than anything else, the debate pointed up the importance of not only planning your own strategy, but also mapping out the likely strategy of your opponent. If we take the example of the President’s Debate Three kill shot to Governor Romney’s pivot on small-business, that kill-shot was the result of close observation of the Governor’s techniques, and where he would most likely attempt to go with them.

Keep it current

Under that same prep and planning heading, we see the importance of being up to date, not just on your own press releases, but  on your opponent’s. On the day of Debate Three, the Romney camp started making noise about increased spending on the navy. The Obama camp anticipated the topic would be dropped into the debate by Romney, and what was the planned response?

It was the brilliant “horses and bayonets” retort that went on to become the night’s most tweeted comment.

President Obama’s speech responding to Supreme Court decision: Analysis

by Peter Watts

Health care is one of America’s most emotive issues. Opinions on either side of the debate are heartfelt, sincere, passionate, and frequently entrenched.

Today’s outcome in the Supreme Court was critical to President Obama. If the White House was watching CNN during this morning’s announcement they would have roller-coasted from despair (“they’ve struck it down”), through to elation (“they’ve upheld it”), and through to surprise…. “Chief Justice Roberts was with the majority???? Really?????”

No one can predict the impact this decision will have on November’s election. Which side of the electorate will be more energized by this outcome? Republicans or Democrats. The Supreme Court has fired the white ball of it’s opinion out onto the table and scattered political reds in all directions.

How President Obama crafts his response this morning will have a major impact on how those balls continue to ricochet throughout the election.

Can he simultaneously fire up his own base, without firing up Republican voters and activists even more? Fiery triumphalism will prove fatal, whilst the classic Obama cool will fail to mobilize Democrats.

What we’re looking for in the speech might include some of the following:

Pathos
Pathos involves an appeal to the emotions. The President wants to bring a lump to the throat of supporters, while dampening the fury of opponents. The vocal tone is likely to be modestly humble. A family man, not a President, reaching out to other families and talking about the protection of those families.

The entire speech can’t be an emotional sob-story however. A little touch of fire is required to motivate that Democrat base. The President will need to identify a bad guy who needs to be beaten, and for that, he might use….

Personification
This technique attaches human motives and emotions to things that normally don’t have them, such as “the markets”. To put some heat into the speech, the President will need to build an adversary into it. That adversary cannot be personified as anyone who might be motivated to vote against him. We’ll see it targeted at something inanimate, maybe even Corporate, and quite probably funding a SuperPac. Listen out for words such as “uncaring” or “greedy” as the lead-in to the adversary section of the speech.

Another clue to the setting up of the adversary will be the President’s voice tone. If there is a phase when President Obama picks up his speed and volume, then this will likely be it.

Proof
At the moment few Americans have directly experienced the benefits of the Health Care Reforms. The President needs to bridge this reality gap by framing a picture that everyone can associate with. Expect to hear a story (probably fairly heart-rending), and the purpose of which is to communicate to the audience “this could so easily be you, or your family affected.”

Palilogia
Repetition techniques are a key part of great speeches. There are numerous techniques. Palilogia involves the repetition of the same word or phrase three times. For example “Care, care, care”.

Other repetition techniques you are likely to hear are anaphora which involves the same word repeated at the beginning of each phrase, or its counterpart, epistrophe, which is the same word repeated at the ends of consecutive phrases.

Presidential
Finally and most important of all for President Obama, today’s speech can be as great a moment as his first Inaugural Address. Whether or not he gets a Second Inaugural Address, may well hang on how well he speaks, just a couple of hours from now.

;

UPDATE:

The President has now spoken. How did he do?

The tone of the speech was lecturely. We saw slightly more of Professor Obama, than President Obama. The tone worked however because this would have avoided firing up the GOP base as it would have done had he struck a more triumphalist tone.

How did he fare in motivating the Democratic base, Independents, and the Undecided?

Very well. There was a heavy use of personification and the inanimate objects selected were the insurance companies and at one point their CEO’s. A smart choice in terms of a perceived “bad guy”.

As to proof, there was proof aplenty. In particular, the story of Natoma Canfield, the lady whose insurance was cancelled when sick. The story of her letter served to give an audience many of whom are yet to feel benefit from Health Reform, a vivid example of “this could be you.”

Repetition techniques featured strongly, in particular anaphora. For example, when personifying insurance companies as being the adversary, we heard phrases that start with the words “No longer can they….” This structure was repeated four time. A heavy repetition.

As to the Presidential tone, I think Obama may have introduced a little too much politics for it to have been truly Presidential. In particular there was a dig at Mitt Romney, and a blatant call-out to women voters.

The President’s conclusion deliberately moved the debate onwards from health care. He projected forward five years, ten years, fifteen years, and then twenty years into the future. He used the words “move forward” repeatedly and spoke about how it is now time to fix the economy and put this debate behind us.

I suspect that this part of the speech may have been written in the moments immediately before he approached the microphone, contrasting as strongly as it does to the tone of Mitt Romney’s speech delivered just fifteen minutes before. In that speech, Romney struck a backward looking emphasis on returning things to how they were before the Health Reforms. The word “returning” was repeated several times, and one of the synonyms for returning is “to go back”.

The President has concluded by setting up a sharp contrast for the election by positioning himself as moving forward and the GOP as wanting to move back.

It’s a clever move at the end of a good speech. Not a great speech, but a good speech.

Let’s see what happens next.

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