What we can learn from a Barack Obama speech

By | July 14, 2016

Even his fiercest critics admire Barak Obama’s superb skills as a writer and speaker. His eloquence was in full display this week in the speech he gave during the memorial service for the victims of the Dallas police shooting.

But what exactly do we mean by eloquence and how does Obama achieve it? The dictionary defines eloquence as “the practice or art of using language with fluency and aptness” but that seems like a rather sparse and stingy description.

A truly eloquent speaker like Obama makes us think and feel through the sophisticated, highly skilled use of language, voice and gesture. At his best, as he was in Dallas, Obama does more than deliver a speech; he creates an area of intelligent calm and thoughtful reflection that might, just possibly, help  Americans turn down the volume of their current political shouting match and start listening to each other.

Let’s look at how Obama achieves eloquence.

First is the delivery. Obama doesn’t broadcast a speech the way the great 20th century orators did. FDR, Winston Churchill, and Martin Luther King were masters of a traditional, theatrical style of speaking that almost made the presence of a microphone unnecessary. They spoke with an evangelical fervour whose energy alone seemed unrestrained, unlimited and irresistible.

Obama doesn’t speak that way at all. Like his equally skilled predecessor, Ronald Reagan, Obama talks in a calm, conversational, almost intimate style. He pauses frequently, separating his sentences with silence, and thereby drawing us closer to him as we wait for the next phrase. He manages the difficult illusion of making a written text appear to be completely conversational, as though the words come into his mind just seconds before he says them.

This cooler style works beautifully on television (proof perhaps that McLuhan’s description of TV as a cool medium is as accurate as ever). But there’s no reason we can’t use it as a possible model for how we talk to audiences, large and small.

Next, the words. The Globe and Mail has posted the full text of Obama’s speech online. You can read it here.

Here is the opening sentence of his speech:

Scripture tells us that in our sufferings, there is glory, because we know that suffering produces perseverance; perseverance, character; and character, hope.

This could be the introduction to a sermon, couldn’t it? Nestled tightly within Christianity, as every US president must be, Obama strikes a perfect note of connection and uplift as his words reassure Americans that all is not lost and there is hope.

The sentence structure uses parallelism and repetition, which are classical tools of the speechwriter. An audience cannot reread a speech so repetition is very important.

Another, longer sentence:

We’re here to honour the memory and mourn the loss of five fellow Americans, to grieve with their loved ones, to support this community and pray for the wounded, and to try and find some meaning amidst our sorrow.

He is using a list of parallel items, of course. And alliteration, which is more powerful in a speech than on the page (“memory and mourn”, “five fellow”, “meaning amidst”) because of the way it connects words orally. Don’t overuse it. Like any rhetorical device, it shouldn’t attract attention to itself.

Obama’s speech rhythms are irresistible. Here’s an example where he builds rhythm and momentum with the increasing length of his sentences, using repetition (yet again) and parallelism:

Can we do this? Can we find the character, as Americans, to open our hearts to each other? Can we see in each other a common humanity and a shared dignity, and recognize how our different experiences have shaped us?

Those just a few observations about a handful of sentences. Read the speech carefully and observe how Obama uses many well-worn speechmaking and rhetorical devices to excellent effect.

Did he write every word himself? Probably not. But in tone, style, vocabulary and phrasing it seems very much a Barack Obama speech. He is an excellent writer and an excellent speaker.

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