Cathy McMorris Rogers and the SOTU response. Yoda or Jindal?

It’s the most unenviable job in politics: delivering the response to the President’s State of the Union address.

A high-wire act performed over circling sharks, the number one goal is simply to avoid coming out of it as chum. To emerge merely a chump can be considered success.

The problem is that everybody remembers when it all goes wrong, but few remember when it goes OK. Bobby Jindahl’s train-wreck in 2009, and Marco Rubio’s water-bottle moment in 2013 both leap to mind, whereas Mitch Daniels workmanlike performance in 2012 has fallen off the radar.

If delivering the SOTU response is a plum handed to rising stars, then it’s a Hunger Games of a plum. Most of those chosen are going to wind-up pulp.

Delivering a successful refutation is never a job for the angry. An angry, fired-up politician with an axe to grind and a name to make, Bobby Jindal for example, will fall straight into the trap of attempting a sweeping refutation of everything that the President just said. Striding to the microphone, they’ll hurl the metaphorical bowling ball of their indignation down the alley and hope for a strike that sends the President’s pins a’flying.

The problem is though, that until the President actually speaks, nobody knows for certain where those pins are going to be placed, or on which facts they are going to be based. This means that unless the respondent is very, very lucky, they’re going to send that bowling ball straight into the gutter, where it will land with a dull and heavily press-coveraged thud. It’s not quite the sound of tumbleweed, but dreadfully close to it, and precisely what panicked Marco Rubio into groping for that water bottle last year.

So instead of bowling pins, let’s talk sweaters. Woolen ones.

The President’s State of the Union, will be presented as a perfectly stitched garment of arguments that knit together into one broad theme.

A successful SOTU respondent does not need to shred that sweater. They merely need to pick lose a single thread and then tug just enough so that the news networks scent an opportunity and finish the unravelling before the President is even back in the West Wing.

That thread will be found in one of two seams. It might be a dubious fact that can be directly challenged, or it could be in a slightly too sweeping phrase. All the respondent now needs to do is to get a hold of that thread and use a wonderful little toy called The Yoda Argument.

Remember the famous line from Star Wars?

“Fear leads to anger. Anger leads to hate. Hate leads to suffering, and that way lies the dark side, young Skywalker”

A leads to B. B leads to C. C leads to D.

For a rebuttal, you use the same structure: “If A is wrong, then B is wrong. If B is wrong, then C must be wrong, and if C is wrong, then D is wrong, and that way unravels the sweater, Mr President.”

The respondent does not need to go for a kill stroke, they just need to find that thread.

It’s a big thing to ask though. The respondent needs to resist the all-or-bust temptation of the furnace-blast rebuttal, and that’s why Rep. Cathy McMorris Rodgers could be such an interesting GOP choice for 2013. Despite being a highly ranked Republican, they don’t let her out to speak a great deal. Her style is generally cool, and tends towards the forensic. For so long as the Tea Party demanded speakers who came with a certain spittle-flecked fundamentalism, her cooler style didn’t always fit. Hence the low profile. Her choice for tomorrow night’s performance could therefore prove to be a smart one.

Will Cathy McMorris Rogers remain forensic enough to start the SOTU unravelling, or will she fall into the trap of ages, and make a complete Jindal of it?

When your first public speech is in the service of others

spotlight

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.

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