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?

When your first public speech is in the service of others

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A first presentation can lead to profound opportunity

by Peter Watts

Many presenters find they are first moved to speak in public not by professional or business requirements, but because somebody needs to stand-up for their community. A local need or a perceived injustice means that somebody needs to step up to the plate.

If you need to speak before the Town Council or the School Board or the PTA or any similar group of elected or non-elected bureaucrats, it can be helpful to your cause if you can move their hearts as well as their minds.

Appealing to logic will get you nowhere. You need emotion.

In last week’s State of the Union Address, President Obama had to make just such an appeal. It was an appeal for legislator’s to allow a vote on gun control. What techniques did he use in order to achieve it?

Here are the words themselves:

“Hadiya’s parents, Nate and Cleo, are in this chamber tonight, along with more than two dozen Americans whose lives have been torn apart by gun violence. They deserve a vote.

Gabby Giffords deserves a vote.

The families of Newtown deserve a vote.

The families of Aurora deserve a vote.

The families of Oak Creek, and Tucson, and Blacksburg, and the countless other communities ripped open by gun violence – they deserve a simple vote.”

Powerful in impact, the President’s words were surprisingly simple in construction, and you can use the same techniques.

The power of his appeal came from the combination of four techniques.

Technique 1: Pathos

Pathos tugs directly at emotions and makes any speech intensely personal. This isn’t a speech about abstract victims of gun-crime but a speech about victims of gun-crime who are right here in the room. They are named individuals known to the audience. When an appeal is based upon a group who are either known to the audience or in close proximity to them, the emotional intensity becomes hard to resist.

Technique 2: Repetition

The passage is comprised of five phrases, each of which ends with the words “deserve a vote.”  This is Epistrophe; a repetition pattern that concludes adjacent phrases with the same words. That repetition becomes a drum-beat, that progressively increases the speaker’s intensity with each occurrence.

Technique 3: Mass Conjunctions

Entering into the final phrase, the power of Epistrophe is joined by a deliberate over-use of the conjunction “and”:

“The families of Oak Creek, and Tucson, and Blacksburg, and the countless other communities ripped open by gun violence – they deserve a simple vote.”

This is Polysyndeton. Conjunctions bring more weight to a list than a silent comma ever can, and raises the drum-beat rhythm to an even higher pitch.

Technique 4: Diminution

Suddenly, that drum-beat crescendo is cancelled. Take a look at the final repetition. It’s been modified. Rather than “deserve a vote”, the President now uses the phrase “deserve a simple vote.”

This is Diminution. After building the juggernaut, Barack Obama has introduced the word “simple”. How tiny and miniature that word seems when compared against a catalogue of horrors. After such a list of tragedy, what person could possibly deny the bereaved a “simple vote”.

Take the challenge

If you ever find yourself undertaking your first piece of public speaking in order to do good for others, that challenge can appear daunting.

Accept the challenge. This is what public speaking is all about. It’s all about finding your voice and the power that goes with it.

Don’t be afraid to use emotion. Don’t be afraid to try out techniques. And don’t be afraid to ask for help.

A good friend of mine found herself in just such a position, and since that first appearance she’s gone on to be elected as Deputy Mayor of our town.

When you find your voice in the service of helping others, and rise to the occasion, you never know to what other successes it will lead you.

7 business speaking tips from the Inaugural Address

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A master  class in public speaking, from a public speaking master

by Peter Watts

By analysing speeches we gain access to the speech-writing knowledge and techniques of the people who wrote them, and of the leaders who delivered them.

When we take look under the hood of President Obama’s Inaugural Address, there are easy to replicate techniques for any business presentation.

Setting a key message

Every strong piece of presenting has a strong key message, and that message for President Obama’s Inaugural Address was equality of opportunity.

In the opening of his speech he quoted from the Declaration of Independence:

“We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal.”

By starting with this quotation, the President was using the technique of Anamnesis, where we quote an important past speaker or document in order to give external credibility to what we are going to say next.

Business Use: First make sure you have a strong key message. Then find a supporting quotation from either a recognized industry figure, or somebody that is relevant to your business case.

Framing your terms

What does the President means by “equality”?

 “We recall that what binds this nation together is not the colors of our skins or the tenets of our faith or the origins of our names.”

The President is using a public speaking tool called Apophasis. In this technique you can state what something is, by stating what it is not.

Business Use: While the President used three terms within his Apophasis, race, religion, and national origin, the technique can be used just as effectively with just two, or even one opposition, such as “Achieving value is not about sacrificing quality”.

Emphasizing your key message

Within any effective piece of public speaking, there is one element that you will always find present, and that is repetition.

  • Repetition of key phrases
  • Repetition of important themes
  • Repetition of what you most wish the audience to remember

The whole point is to make sure that the audience absolutely hears, and remembers what you want to say.

Let’s look at four easy to copy repetition forms that the President used in this address.

Conduplicatio

This is the most basic form of repetition, and it scatters one particular word and it’s synonyms throughout a presentation. This speech was about equality and inclusivity, so the President used inclusive pronouns to push that message. In particular:

  • “We”: 73 occurrences
  • “Our”: 80 occurrences
  • “Us: 22 occurrences

If we add it all together that makes one inclusive pronoun every six seconds of the speech.

Anaphora is a slightly more showy structure where the same words are used to open consecutive phrases. Here’s just one of the many examples President Obama used:

Together we determined that a modern economy requires railroads and highways to speed travel and commerce, schools and colleges to train our workers. Together we discovered that that a free market only thrives where there are rules to ensure competition and fair play. Together we resolve that a great nation must care for the vulnerable and protect its people from life’s worst hazards and misfortune.”

Epimone

Eipmone is where the same phrase or theme is repeated throughout a speech, although without the repetitions being in close proximity to each other as with Anaphora.

The President used the words “We, the people…”. This phrase saw five repetitions at various points, with the first taking the form of “We, the people, understand…”, and the next three taking the form of “We, the people, believe….”, before rounding off with “We the people declare”

Business Use: What is the key message of your next presentation? Look for as many ways as possible to repeat that message throughout the presentation, and try to vary the forms that the repetition takes. Remember: You can never over-emphasize your key point.

Build the power of your case

To make sure your message stands out in the mind of the audience, you amplify it:

“We must act knowing that today’s victories will only be partial, and that it will be up to those who stand here in four years and 40 years and 400 years hence to advance the timeless spirt once conferred to us in a spare Philadelphia Hall”

This particular sentence contains a rhetorical double-whammy that can be used in any business presentation, either individually or together.

The first is the Amplification. Here a speaker amplifies something by one step increments: “Four years, 40 years, 400 years.”

Even though the orator has stopped speaking, half the audience is continuing onwards to 40,000, 400,000, to some incredibly distant point. The President is using time as the basis of his amplification, and while it’s only one of many ways to build a point, it is the simplest to deploy. It could be applied to any aspect of a presentation that is about numbers. Money for example, or numbers of employees, or volumes of web hits.

In this particular case though, the application to time introduces the technique of Metastasis. Here we ask an audience to think backward through time, or to project themselves into the future.

Business Use: In so many aspects of business presenting, we will want an audience to take a particular action in the present in order to gain benefits in the future. If you use the line: “Imagine your business one year from now”, then you too are using metastasis. If you extend that to “Imagine your business 1 year from now, 2 years from now, 3 years from now…..” then the amplification combined with metastasis will have customers visualizing all the benefits of taking long-term actions today.

Engage the emotions

Dry facts alone seldom achieve results in public speaking. You need to excite the emotions, either to a smile or to a tear. For this we use Pathos, a section of the presentation specifically designed to reach out and touch the audience:

“For we remember the lessons of our past, when twilight years were spent in poverty and parents of a child with a disability had nowhere to turn”

 Business use: What emotional aspect of acting on your message can you describe for the audience?

 Handle objections

Heading into the environmental section of the speech, the President used these words:

 “Some may still deny the overwhelming judgement of science, but none can avoid the devastating impact of raging fires, and crippling drought, and more powerful storms.”

Where we know an objection is likely to be raised against us, Prolepsis allows us to stick it out there in a statement as a part of the presentation, and then immediately shoot it down.

 Business use: It’s always a good idea to anticipate what objections are likely to be raised in a presentation, and then plan for how you will handle them. Including the answer to that objection within the presentation can prevent it from ever being raised.

Make it sound good

You take care to ensure that your visuals are pleasing to the eye, and it’s just as important to make sure your words are pleasing to the ear.

Try saying this next line out loud:

“So we must harness new ideas and technology to remake our government, revamp our tax code, reform our schools…..”

That repetition of all those words beginning with “re” is alliteration, where a stressed syllable is repeated to build emphasis and to make the speech sound almost poetic.

Another location where alliteration appears is in the President’s choice of three key civil rights movements: “Seneca Falls and Selma and Stonewall”. All those “s” sounds are building rhythm for him.

Words that begin with “re”, such as re-build, will all work very well for alliteration, but there are many other combinations to play with. Words that begin with “ap” for example: apply, applaud, appeal, approve. Or with “un”: untangle, undo, uncover, unravel.

When we start to play with language in this way, the art of oratory becomes fun and we can use language to it’s fullest and most pleasing potential.

And that’s when presenting truly becomes powerful, and fun.

First Reaction: President Obama’s Second Inaugural Address

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The first reaction to the Second Inaugural

by Peter Watts

A President’s first term is all about getting a second term. A second term is all about legacy. Legacy starts with the Inaugural Address.

Bill Clinton speech-writer Jeff Shesol, writing in the New York Times, said: “The question for Obama now — not just in this speech but in the course it charts for his second term — is not what he will do to heal our divisions. It’s what he can achieve despite them.”

In his first Inaugural, the President plotted a course of seeking consensus with political rivals. That didn’t work out too well. In this address, the President indicated that he had learnt significant lessons from that experience.

Starting with words from the Declaration of Independence, “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights”, the President launched into a speech that reached beyond Washington and directly to the people of America. It wasn’t until 16 minutes into the speech that Obama first used the word “I”. Instead, there was a powerful and recurrent theme of “we”, “our”, and ‘your”.

From early on, he took the fight to the GOP and the Tea Party within Congress. Segueing from his Declaration of Independance opening, the President continued: “In 1776, we did not replace the tyrannies of a King for the privileges of the few or the rule of a mob”. This theme would recur with regularity in phrases such as his rejection of an economy where “a shrinking few do very well”, and “”We do not believe that in this country freedom is reserved for the lucky or the few.”

Speaking of the US domestic environment, Obama spoke of building infrastructure, industry, and education. It was an agenda of renewing the nation. On foreign affairs, he stated how America will remain committed to supporting emerging democracies around the world. Towards the end of the speech he uttered words that have never before been heard on an Inauguration podium: “Our journey is not complete until our gay brothers and sisters are treated equally under the law.”

The introduction to this civil rights section was one of the finest areas of the Address:

“We, the people, declare today that the most evident of truths — that all of us are created equal — is the star that guides us still; just as it guided our forebears through Seneca Falls, and Selma, and Stonewall; just as it guided all those men and women, sung and unsung, who left footprints along this great Mall, to hear a preacher say that we cannot walk alone; to hear a King proclaim that our individual freedom is inextricably bound to the freedom of every soul on Earth.”

Within this paragraph we see the most beautifully crafted, and brilliantly clever, series of transitions. Starting once again with “We the people” the speech moves to “forbears” and “the star that guides us”. So far, so traditional. This sounds like the President is about to move down the well trodden American path of pilgrims and pioneers. Look what comes next though. These pilgrims and pioneers aren’t wearing Puritan costumes or moving in wagon trains. These pioneers are respectively from Seneca Falls (Women’s Rights), Selma (Civil Rights), and Stonewall (Gay Rights). There is then the most beautiful transition to words of Martin Luther King, who is referred to as “a King”, counter-pointing magnificently against that tyrannical King of England that  Obama mentioned earlier as a proxy for the GOP in Congress.

Now what is so beautiful is the way that these references will have immediately cued the supporters of these movements to sit forward and listen for what was coming next, while at the same time slipping directly past those that opposed them. The people at which this phrase is aimed are now tuned in, while for rivals, the next crescendoing paragraph would come like a sucker punch.

That section would be the one where the President, winding up like a pitcher about to take the major pitch of the game, made a full flow commitment to civil rights. It was a swipe at the forces that worked so hard to ensure Obama would be a “one term President”, a mission in which they failed.

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There were many references to the constitution and the founding fathers. Within them Obama seemed to be pre-empting some of the fights that will occur during his second term, and in particular with certain members of the Supreme Court. For example, Second Amendment gun rights, which although not specifically mentioned, cannot be far from anyone’s mind this Inauguration Day. In this section, we heard a reference to Newtown, Connecticut, which so recently saw such tragic events. The President moved into another key theme, that of the need to take action now, and that while we must “be true to our founding documents”, we “cannot mistake absolutism for principle”

As Gavin McMahon at the Make A Powerful Point blog has pointed out in his work on Presenter Types, President Obama’s profile as a speaker is a “Counselor”: an accurate and highly organised speaker, but one who can fail to connect with their audience, or seem dry and clinical. For example, few Inaugural Addresses contain words as distinctly uninspiring as “statistics”, but the President’s first Inaugural Address did, and did so warmly. Throughout his first term, Obama was frequently criticised for lacking passion. Can the President change that? Today’s Inaugural Address showed every indication that indeed, yes he can.

While this was a speech with passion, energy, and courage, it was also a divisive speech. There was a lot for Democrats to cheer, and an equally large amount for Republicans to be appalled at.

President Obama is giving every indication that he has learnt the lessons of the past four years. The gloves are off. This time is all about change, and everybody is invited to be a part of that change, or get out of the way.

Update:

A transcript of the address can found on the NPR web-site

Technical Analysis

Come back tomorrow for a full analysis on some the hidden technical mechanics that have gone into this speech.

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.

The Third Presidential Debate 2012. Analysis and Commentary. And Who Won?

by Peter Watts and Gavin McMahon

Up till tonight, it was one round each.

Both candidates had proved themselves. Governor Romney had shown himself an admirable debater when the battleground was formed of facts. He had shown himself credible as the next CEO of United States of America Inc. President Obama meanwhile had delivered the debater who could stir the passions. His greatest challenge had been to overcome his alter-ego as Professor and deliver Presidential. He achieved it.

That’s not to say it’s all been bouquets. There have been brickbats too. We’ve had the snoozefest of President Obama’s comatose comments during the Domestic Affairs Debate, and were then entertained by the binders full of blunders that opened during the Town Hall Meeting.

Tonight was the final round……

So who flourished in Florida?
Did the Sunshine State shimmer on someone’s parade?
Who was….. the strongest debater?

Gavin:
I’ll start by saying this wasn’t a fair fight. There’s a big difference between knowing your subject and learning your subject. I’d imagine that this was the debate Governor Romney looked forward to the least, and President Obama the most. Talking about action and fact is a strong position when things are going well. Obama generally did this. Words like we did and we are, are stronger than we should. The subject of foreign policy is high ground for Obama, and he had it all night.  Romney frequently had to make his positions seem the same, but with woulda-coulda-shoulda differences. To which Obama could frequently respond, with variations like, “I am pleased that you are now endorsing our policy.”

Obama practiced debate ju-jitsu all night — which he did very well. In response to Romney opinion about increasing the size of the Navy, Obama responded with a clever and well positioned rejoinder, “You mentioned the Navy and that we have fewer ships than we had in 1916, well Gov we also have few horses and bayonets.” It was a nice rhetorical comparison that made Romney seem outdated and misinformed.

He did it again when he compared his first foreign trips to Romney’s (which have been documented as gaffe-prone) “I went to Yad Vashem, the Holocaust Museum, to remind myself of the nature of evil and why our bond with Israel will be unbreakable.”

These and other comparisons let Obama credibly claim the central question of the night. “The central question is who is going to be credible to our allies and enemies.” In debating, pitching, selling, if you can define the frame by which the decision will be made, you win.

Peter:
Tonight could have gone either way, and when Governor Romney won the coin toss to go first, a subtle part of the power balance moved into his favor. When the first question turned out to be on Libya, which is currently the weakest topic for the President, the balance moved decisively into his favor. This was a chance to get his opponent on the back foot from the word go.

So what went so very wrong for the Governor?

To understand why Mitt Romney found himself so frequently on the ropes tonight, it’s necessary to look back over the past 12 months. There has indeed been a degree of the etch-a-sketch to many of his pronouncements, which in fairness, has been thrust upon him due to the necessity of initially appealing to one electorate during the GOP primaries, and then having to broaden that appeal to a wider and more disparate national audience. The President seized upon that weakness and ripped it apart live on national television.

The first signs of trouble were concealed in the early Obama sound-bite that America needs “strong and steady leadership, not wrong and reckless leadership”. This would turn out to be Obama’s key message, returning to it frequently as he laid out examples of Mitt Romney’s changed positions on multiple issues.

Romney’s response was weak, but also underlies his debate strategy. Referring to himself, he stated: “Attacking me is not on the agenda.” It was an attempt to rise above the debate. It was an attempt to strike a tone of consensus. All it achieved was waving a rather large white flag into the face of an already charging bull.

Both candidates frequently pivoted away from the subject of Foreign Affairs and headed back into Domestic Affairs. One such pivot yielded what for me was one of the President’s finest lines: “You seem to want to import the foreign policies of the 1980s, just like the social policies of the 1950s and the economic policies of the 1920s.” This line also set the President up well for the first of several pivots to the topic of women, a key demographic in the undecided electorate.

In past debates, we’ve noted that Mitt Romney favors four-point lists as a speaking tactic, where the fourth point on the list will normally be his key talking point, and during the first debate, that key talking point was Small Business.

Tonight he returned to that key talking point, but sadly the President’s team had seen it coming and the President was uncannily ready with a list of negatives about Governor Romney’s record on exactly that subject.

This was another strong element working in the President’s favor: Incredible preparation and planning concerning both his own strategy, and his opponent’s.

Governor Romney did attain the occasional moment of glory. In particular, I thought his response “America has not dictated to other nations. America has freed other nations from dictators” was both clever and stylish. Sadly though, it was his only such moment.

It was an Obama victory tonight. And a victory that pointed up the importance of not just passion, but planning and preparation.

 

Debating the Presidential Debate. This week: Rhetoric

by Peter Watts and Gavin McMahon

Writing with Gavin over at the “Make A Powerful Point” blog, our continuing examination of the Presidential Debates. This week: Rhetoric

make a powerful point

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Over $1.1billion has been spent so far on this year’s presidential debate. The American public, tired of two wars, a recession and a flagging economy is also suffering from campaign fatigue. There’s an outcry against political rhetoric. Yet it’s rhetoric that moves the needle. Witness the debate in Denver where a surging Obama came up short, and a once DOA candidate has come back to life. Early on, Romney responded to Obama saying, “let’s look at policies as opposed to rhetoric.” Lovers of irony everywhere should appreciate this comment. The debate was chock-full of rhetoric.  So instead of looking at policy, let’s look at rhetoric. Specifically the rhetorical devices that both used.

“Gov. Romney doesn’t have a five-point plan; he has a one-point plan. And that plan is to make sure that folks at the top play by a different set of rules.” This phrase opened up Obama’s response to…

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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.

Obama: The greatest speech-maker of our time?

Guest-post from the “Grist Presents” blog

by Peter Watts

Spotted by our good friends over at Grist Presents. Can Obama still deliver a smoking-hot speech? Yes he can

Grist Present

The simple answer is ‘yes’.

When Obama turns it on, he is simply brilliant. This section from a speech has been put to music, and well-crafted by a team that are very, very good at what they do, but take away the flim-flam and you are still left with something really powerful, and superbly delivered.

As ever, the killer lines are not about him.

“Thanks to you…”

View original post

The fine art of presentation distraction: Romney creates a Ryan smokescreen

For a big distraction, go with a big crazy decision

by Peter Watts

“Look! A polar bear!”

It’s the classic presenter smoke-screen, and sometimes it can even work!

If you have been unskilled enough to get yourself backed into the corner by your audience on a topic that you don’t want to discuss, then you only have one option left.

The monumental distraction!

I believe today’s announcement of Paul Ryan as Mitt Romney’s choice for Vice-President is a presentation tactic simply to divert attention away from the growing tax questions circling around Romney.

I believe this because the choice fails to make sense on at least two levels:

The timing of the announcement is wrong

For a measure of how wrong it is, take a look at the fact that nobody predicted today as the choice. There is no logical reason why Romney should suddenly have spat-out a VP choice.

The choice is wrong

Paul Ryan is rich red-meat for the hard-right core of the Republican Party. This is a group of people who weren’t about to vote for Obama anyway. Instead this will produce a massive mobilization of Seniors, Women voters, and Independents across to the Obama camp.

Frank Bruni in the NYT describes the breath-taking political risk level of this hail-mary throw superbly in his piece: “Risky Ryan”

Even though Ryan is most definitely not a Sarah Palin, the mechanisms behind his choice appear to be extremely similar. McCain was in a tight-spot and he needed a headline in a hurry. He seized on Palin as a way to create a headline.

Romney desperately needs a headline too, and has hit the nuclear button in order to get one.

So, what he is getting in terms of Paul Ryan’s speaking abilities? In particular, how does he stack up against incumbent Vice-President Joe Biden?

Ryan’s major forte comes in terms of numbers. Put him in a high-stress environment such as a TV studio or in front of a major audience, and his ability to hold and manipulate those numbers in his head is super-human.

He is an incredible detail thinker, and analytical to a fault.

Here is a clip of Ryan speaking in the House that shows this incredible numbers brain in operation:

Up against Joe Biden, this would immediately suggest a Ryan win. Biden is passionate and famously excitable. When he becomes excited, he speaks from the heart. When the words entering Biden’s mouth are coming straight from Biden’s heart, then Biden’s foot is seldom far behind.

So, for mental fire-power combined with coolness, Ryan has the capacity to slice Biden into sashimi.

There is a major plus in Biden’s favor however. He is avuncular, he is human, and he is extremely likable.

Ryan is not. Typical Ryan traits when debating include smirking, finger pointing, interrupting, and general bullying. He also uses informal forms of address as a way to sound friendly, but in reality to belittle his opponent. Take a look at this clip:

Ryan is a skilled speaker. He might try to hide it but various little tells of stagecraft show a lot of training. As a trained speaker he knows how to behave with honor. We have to assume therefore that he is doing this with full and deliberate awareness.

In the ultimate Biden v. Ryan analysis, then with regret I have to call it as advantage-Ryan. It’s going to be nasty. It’s going to be messy. No one apart from the Tea Party will enjoy the spectacle, but I’m really not sure if passionate Joe Biden will be able to withstand the Ryan ice-pick.

Republican insider Peter Wehner recently said:

“When he looks at Ryan, Romney probably sees somebody like himself, a person he’d want at his side in the business world or the political world.”

In panic Romney has chosen the sort of man he would have chosen to have as a faithful lieutenant at Bain Capital.

Side by side, they represent the Bain of America.

Unless of course, the distraction tactics fail.

What do you think will happen? Will Romney succeed in distracting the media’s attention, with his very own Ryan tax-plan?

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