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.

The Presidential Debates: Round 1. Our Analysis

by Peter Watts and Gavin McMahon

The showdown in Denver. To our right, in the red corner, wearing a red tie and US flag pin, Presidential hopeful Mitt Romney. To our left, in the blue corner, wearing a blue tie and US flag pin, President Barack Obama. If you are looking for insightful political analysis, if you (still) need to decide who you’re voting for, you’re in the wrong place. Go to CNN for that. If you believe that watching smart, well-prepared, talented people debate issues in the race for the highest office in the land can teach you a thing or two — how to present, pitch for business, sell. Then read on.

The Run-up

Medialand, Punditville and the Twitterverse have been buzzing with expectation. According to polling, the majority of the country has decided, leaving only 4% undecided. Each candidate had similar goals in last night’s debate: Appeal to the undecideds (especially in the battleground states) and motivate the already decided to get up and vote. Two conversations with the American public matter: the one that frames or reframes the way voters see the world, and the one that moves them to action. Obama, carrying a lead, had the goal of doing no harm. Conventional wisdom dictated that Romney had not only do no harm, but to also gain momentum for swinging the race to his favor.

For each candidate, we’ll take an example of the elegant, the obvious, and the ugly.

The Elegant

Gavin on Obama

Obama’s best turf, I thought, was healthcare. But I will single out a particular exchange, on social security and entitlement reform, where the President had his strongest moment. He summarised by looking directly to camera, speaking, and engaging the audience. “If you’re 54 or 55, you might want to listen.” He went on to make a very clear statement, in plain language. “I don’t think vouchers are the right way to go…” contrasting his view of medicare with his opponent’s proposals. He then summed up with a little verbal seasoning, “I have become fond of this term, Obamacare.” That line, and the way he delivered it, drew a little laugh from the moderator and showed his human side. It was content free, but charming and disarming, a little verbal jiu-jitsu on a word that is often used by his opposition as an insult. The lesson for all of us? Always remember who the audience is. Engage them. Be Real.

Peter on Romney

Interestingly, I thought Romney also had his finest moment on healthcare. He also had his worst, which we’ll come to later.

For health care it was Romney’s turn to have the first say. He started with speaking about real people whom he had met and who were suffering. It’s an effective technique, and both candidates used it. Romney’s people however, most always seemed to be living in swing states. He clearly had his audience in mind. From here he moved into what became a signature Romney technique throughout the debate, listing his points. Points 1, 2, 3, and 4. It was point four that brought him squarely to, Small Businesses. This seemed to be Romney’s key talking point, and in most exchanges he logically segued to it. My third reason for picking out this moment was that he then linked across to all the other things the President could have focussed on during his first year in the White House, and by doing so diminished the achievement represented by ObamaCare.

Finally however, the reason Romney gets full points, was that he ended  with talking about his pride in how he created the Massachusetts health care program while he was that state’s Governor, and strongly framed it as being an example of cascading more power to the states.

The Romney team had identified “RomneyCare” as being an achilles heel Obama would go for, and through framing it as States Rights, Romney  took the sting out of some of Obama’s best lines.

That was the elegant. How about some examples of the obvious?

The Obvious

Gavin on Obama

Most of the Obama side of the debate was workmanlike. He answered questions, and then segued swiftly if not elegantly to his talking points. He explained more than connected. A typical moment was his summary of the first segment on taxes.

Peter on Romney

I’ve mentioned Romney’s habit of listing-off his talking points. Those talking points create a logical path of stepping stones, leading to point 4, which normally had something to do with small business. Like all techniques, it shouldn’t be overdone or it becomes obvious, and eventually annoying.

And finally, the ugly, where there was no answer to the question, but a brazen attempt to answer their own question rather than the one that was asked.

The Ugly

Gavin on Obama

Obama started the night poorly answering the jobs question. Prior to the debate, Obama’s strong point on the issue was who would handle taxes better.  He moved the jobs question quickly to a discussion on taxes, and then lost me and I am sure thousands of others in an unclear explanatory monologue of numbers and percentages. In that, he got professorial, and went in to a back and forth he said she said about Romney’s $5 Trillion tax cut. 78% of adults in the U.S* don’t know the difference between a billion and a trillion. It’s just a big number. The lesson to be learned here  — When you’re talking numbers, you have to make them relevant. He got close saying that his opponents bill would add $2,000 to every middle class voter. But pound it home by saying that’s a vacation you can afford. A down-payment on a new car. Putting of fixing up the kitchen for another year.

*Actually it isn’t true! In fact, it’s completely made up. But it seems right. It’s just a big number with lots of zeros. I know one is bigger than the other, but after that, I go into math class mode, and my brain quietly shuts down. Audiences do exactly the same thing.

Peter on Romney

For the ugly with Romney, it’s back to health care and an example of seizing defeat from the jaws of victory. There was a noticeable moment when the President, de-fanged by Romney’s unexpected embrace of the Massachusetts health plan, suddenly had the wind in his sails.

Romney made the mistake of moving the frame to portray the President as having been non-bipartisan during the health care debates, by contrast to the Massachusetts debates. As Romney attempted to represent the Republican-led Congress as being the nice people seeking consensus however, Obama smiled. He was back into his old form. Romney had pushed the frame too far and lost credibility. The secret to good framing is that there needs to be at least a basis of logic in there somewhere, and this frame didn’t!

Our concluding comments

Obama was in ugly mode for most of the debate. When he spoke directly to camera, summed up and concluded, he was good. Unfortunately for him, that was rare. Mostly he took on the role of explaining.

Romney however, had a great evening. He appeared calm, in control, and from his first answer, fully in command of the facts and the frame.

On the downside, he came across as being aggressive at times. When there is a debate with rules about timing, one should really stick to them.

What did you think?
The TwitterVerse certainly had it’s say last night. What did you think to the debate? Post a comment and come join the conversation.

About us:


Gavin is a founding partner at fassforward consulting group. He blogs about PowerPoint, Presenting, Communication and Message Discipline at makeapowerfulpoint.com. You can follow him on twitter @powerfulpoint.

Peter is a writer, trainer, and speaker on all aspects of Presenting. He coaches business executives in how to be at their best when on their feet. His bi-weekly blog, The Presenters’ Blog, examines core disciplines of public speaking and looks at how those disciplines are being illustrated by new stories around the world. You can follow his Twitter feed on @speak2all


A Note about bias. Neither of us can or will be voting in the US elections, but, like all humans, we have biases. We will try to look at the debates purely from a point of view of speaking, messaging and presenting, to see what the rest of us -— those that will never run for President, can learn.

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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