4 December 2008

Rhetoric, oratory and Barack Obama's 'The Speech' (2004)

About eighteen months ago, David Bernstein of the Chicago Magazine phoned me. They were, he said, preparing a major article on the keynote speech given at the 2004 Democratic Convention by Barack Obama. As an Englishman with only an occasional interest In American politics, my immediate reaction was “Who?”

After telling me a bit about Obama and why there was so much interest in him, especially in Chicago, David explained that he was calling to ask if I could offer any 'expert' comments on the senator’s rhetoric and style of oratory.

Within five minutes of putting the phone down, I’d downloaded a video and a full transcript of the speech from the internet – a spectacular advance on 25 years ago when I first started recording political speeches, and had to wait with finger on the ‘record’ button of the Betamax (!) before having to spend hours transcribing the text myself.

By the time I'd finished watching it, my immediate reaction was "Wow!", not least because it’s so rare to come across such an outstanding performance from a ‘new’ speaker whom you’ve never heard of before. Yet here were echoes of Martin Luther King, John F. Kennedy and Ronald Reagan all rolled into one.

And Ronald Reagan was probably the last American example of someone being launched from political obscurity on to the national stage by a single speech when he spoke in support of Barry Goldwater at the Republican Convention in 1964.

After that first viewing of Obama in action, my notes on things worth looking at in more detail read as follows:

Frequent and effective use of:
• Rhetorical techniques
• 3 part lists
• Metaphors
• Repetition
• Especially good on anecdotes
• Pressing right buttons for Democrats and patriots

• Good pace
• Good voice
• Not too theatrical for the mass television audience (c.f. Reagan)
• Good at reading but sounding as though he’s not reading (c.f. Reagan)
• Good at 'surfing' applause (c.f. MLK)

The piece in the Chicago Magazine provides a fascinating insight into the background of how the speech was written, who was involved and what was going on at the convention, and it’s the most interesting and informative article I’ve read on the subject.

Published in June 2007, the summary at the top of David Bernstein's article says:

When Barack Obama launched into his keynote address at the 2004 Democratic National Convention, he was still an obscure state senator from Illinois. By the time he finished 17 minutes later, he had captured the nation's attention and opened the way for a run at the presidency. A behind-the-scenes look at the politicking, plotting, and preparation that went into Obama's breakthrough moment.

If you haven’t read it, you can do so by clicking here or on the title above.

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