8 November 2008

Not Clinton, not McCain but Obama

For speech-making anoraks like me, Barack Obama’s arrival on the public stage at the 2004 Democratic Convention was a joy to behold. If you’re looking for examples of how to do it well, you can always find plenty of illustrations in more or less any speech he ever makes.

If you’re interested in rhetorical techniques, his widely acclaimed victory speech in Chicago relied very heavily on one of the simplest devices of all, namely the three-part list – of which he cranked out 29 at a rate of just under one every 30 seconds.

John McCain, he told us, had done three worthy things and so had Joe Biden. What’s more, the genius of America has three components to it.

He seems particularly keen on combining contrasts with three part lists, and especially contrasting a third item with the first two, as when he said “We have come so far, we have achieved so much but there is so much more to do.”

This example also has the longest item in third position, which is a common feature of some of the most famous three-part lists of all times, such as “Father, son and holy spirit” and “Life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.”

As everyone seems to agree, Obama is a seriously good orator. Apart from his mastery of rhetoric and imagery, I think part of his genius has been to secularise the religious (i.e. Christian) language and imagery of Martin Luther King in a way that implicitly reminds people that he's on message with MLK, while appealing to important wider constituencies of non-Christian voters - especially Jews, but also Muslims, agnostics and atheists - who might otherwise have felt excluded.

For more on this (when I've had time to check it out a bit more), watch this space.

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