23 June 2011

Mrs Obama's (borrowed) Soweto message

I was quite impressed by Michelle Obama's speech in Soweto - until she invited the audience to recycle the famous chant from her husband's presidential election campaign.

I've suggested before that lifting words from someone else is a risky business, whether you're a presidential candidate borrowing from a British party leader (Joe Biden/Neil Kinnock) or a British prime minister borrowing from an American president (Gordon Brown/Bill Clinton) -see video clip under tip 3 HERE).

But is it OK if the words are well-known ones borrowed from your husband?

"Yes we can" was certainly appropriate enough in the context of what she was saying. But did it really work?

I wasn't entirely convinced that it it did, and would be interested to know what others think.


John Zimmer said...

I agree with you Max. Michelle Obama is a great speaker, but the lines didn't work that well for me either. Still, it is clear that she felt what she was saying and that she made an impact on the audience.

I think she could have come at it from the angle along the lines of "When my husband was running for President, the slogan of his campaign was 'Yes we can!' Well I'm here to tell you that, yes, you can too!" Something like that. I think that crediting a famous line and then giving it your own spin can be a powerful thing.



Kathy Reiffenstein said...

It's interesting...she is a powerful speaker. Better than her husband, I think [although in the clip, she sounded breathy]. I wonder if we would react differently to her use of "yes we can" if it had not been pulled from Obama's campaign?

I tend to agree with John -- reference the original use of it and then adopt it as your own.


Max Atkinson said...

I agree with both of you on both points. She is a good speaker, but famous lines should be attributed, regardless of where they came from.

Leviathan said...

If Michelle Obama can't use her husband's slogan without attribution then who the hell can?

If Jackie Kennedy had pursued a political career (or just made lots of speeches) instead of marring a reptilian Greek shipping magnate then she would hardly have had to preface a quote from her husband's famous speeches with an attribution.

The real problem with the quote is its utter hollowness - 'yes we can' quickly became qualified with 'but not quite yet' and is now at the 'what was it we were going to do again?' stage.

Both the speaker and perhaps a part of the audience know this all too well - and MO hasn't yet got enough in her soul to not care about the owrds on her teleprompter and to effortlessly project the false sincerity of the professional politician.

Dorothea Stuart said...

I don’t mind Michelle Obama using a sound bite from one of her husband’s best known speeches if it adds impact to her message. I understand the general point about attribution though in this case we might be able to assume that everyone knows it. Watching and listening to this clip highlights a couple of issues.

MO looks (and sounds) tense. I often use clips of her speaking to illustrate relaxed, open body language. In this case her gestures are constrained and she is doing that weird “I’m pointing at you but pretending not to” gesture which suggests some unfortunate presentations skills training.

BO used “Yes we can” most effectively on the day he won the Democratic nomination. This was a victory speech to a highly charged audience and in that context it did its job. MO was trying to engineer an audience response: “I want you to say...” Unfortunately her delivery was not confident or assured enough, on this occasion, to get the immediate response that would have made the slogan, and the ending of her speech, work well.