Rhetoric and applause in Obama’s inaugural speech as a measure of what the audience liked best

When I first started studying bursts of applause in political speeches thirty years ago, some people couldn’t see the point; others thought I was mad.

But I did have a rational reason for doing it – because the absence of any instant positive response from jurors in the tape-recorded court hearings I was studying made it impossible to get empirical evidence about what might be having a positive impact on the twelve most important members of the audience in court.

In trying to solve this ‘methodological’ problem, I was drawn to applause in speeches as a promising place to start, as it provides fairly concrete evidence that an audience is (a) awake and paying close attention and (b) approves of what’s just been said strongly enough to join in a collective physical demonstration of their approval (by clapping hands, cheering, etc.).

The main finding – that most bursts of applause are triggered by a small number of simple rhetorical techniques – not only surprised me, but also launched me on a new career (further details on which can be found in the books listed on the left of this page and/or my main website.).

More than a quarter of a century later, I still sometimes find it instructive to focus on the lines that were applauded in a particular speech to see which messages turned the audience on the most.

So the lines that prompted bursts of applause during President Obama’s inaugural speech yesterday are reproduced below, along with some notes about the rhetorical techniques that were involved. Video clips of the first six examples can be seen below.

[For anyone unfamiliar with them, the main rhetorical techniques include: Contrasts: e.g. I come to bury Caesar, not to praise him (Mark Antony), three-part lists: e.g. Education, education and education. (Tony Blair) and combinations of contrasts and lists: e.g by contrasting a third item with the first two: We shall negotiate for it, sacrifice for it but never surrender for it. (Ronald Reagan). Add to these devices like alliteration, repetition, imagery and anecdotes, and you have the basic building blocks of the language of public speaking.]

1. The first burst of Applause came after the second of two three-part lists – in which the third item contrasts with the first two. Note also that the final item exploits the puzzle-solution format by getting the audience wondering what they’re going to have to know before providing tehm with the solution to the puzzle.

"Today I say to you that the challenges we face are real.
They are serious
and they are many.

They will not be met easily
or in a short span of time.
But know this, America — they will be met."

SO THE AUDIENCE LIKED being told that the country is up against some serious problems that will be hard to solve and his assurance that they will be overcome.

(This was the first of four examples in the speech of his using the imperative form ('know this'), which is arguably a rather less high-sounding version of the repetitive ‘let’ form of imperative favoured by Kennedy for directing his inaugural remarks to specific audiences in 1961:

KENNEDY: "Let every nation know, whether it wishes us well or ill, that we shall pay any price, bear any burden, meet any hardship, support any friend, oppose any foe, in order to assure the survival and the success of liberty...

Let both sides explore what problems unite us instead of belaboring those problems which divide us.
Let both sides, for the first time, formulate serious and precise proposals for the inspection and control of arms—and bring the absolute power to destroy other nations under the absolute control of all nations.
Let both sides seek to invoke the wonders of science instead of its terrors. Together let us explore the stars, conquer the deserts, eradicate disease, tap the ocean depths, and encourage the arts and commerce.
Let both sides unite to heed in all corners of the earth the command of Isaiah—to "undo the heavy burdens ... and to let the oppressed go free."

2. The second burst of applause also came after two three-part lists, each of which had a third item that was longer than the first two:

"The time has come to reaffirm our enduring spirit;
to choose our better history;
to carry forward that precious gift, that noble idea, passed on from generation to generation:

the God-given promise that all are equal,
all are free
and all deserve a chance to pursue their full measure of happiness."

SO THE AUDIENCE LIKED hearing his reaffirmation of the American dream.

3. Another three-part list with longest item coming third:

"Starting today,
we must pick ourselves up,
dust ourselves off,
and begin again the work of remaking America."

SO THE AUDIENCE LIKED his recognition that there’s work to be done in order to remake America (and, by implication, that America is in need of 'remaking').

4. Another example of the ‘know’ form of imperative, addressed this time to foreign audiences (identified by imagery contrasting ‘grandest capitals’ with the "small village" in Kenya where his father was born):

".. to all other peoples and governments who are watching today, from the grandest capitals to the small village where my father was born: know that America is a friend of each nation and every man, woman, and child who seeks a future of peace and dignity, and that we are ready to lead once more." [APPLAUSE]

SO THE AUDIENCE LIKED liked the idea of restoring America’s reputation for positive leadership in the world (and, by implication, that it's in need of restoring).

5. Use of one three-part list to set up a puzzle (‘what is it that he's going to say now?’) that's solved by another three-part list that gets applauded.

"We will not apologize for our way of life,
nor will we waver in its defense,
and for those who seek to advance their aims by inducing terror and slaughtering innocents, we say to you now that

our spirit is stronger and cannot be broken;
you cannot outlast us,
and we will defeat you."

SO THE AUDIENCE LIKED hearing his commitment to defend the American way of life and defeat terrorism.

6. Contrast between negative status of a father being discriminated against 60 years ago and his son becoming president today:

"This is the meaning of our liberty and our creed — why men and women and children of every race and every faith can join in celebration across this magnificent mall, and why a man whose father less than sixty years ago might not have been served at a local restaurant can now stand before you to take a most sacred oath." [APPLAUSE]

SO THE AUDIENCE LIKED being invited to celebrate the election of an African-American as president as evidence that the central part of Martin Luther King’s dream has come true.


There were a few other instances where a slight flutter of applause didn’t build into a fully fledged burst, and where Obama didn’t seem to have been expecting applause.

In the following, it came in just after the second of two contrasts, the first of which contrasted the first item with the second two in the list.

Evidence that he wasn’t expecting it came from the fact that he can be seen abandoning an in-breath and a pointing gesture before waiting for the flutter of applause to subside.

"The success of our economy has always depended
not just on the size of our gross domestic product,
but on the reach of our prosperity;
on the ability to extend opportunity to every willing heart –

not out of charity,
but because it is the surest route to our common good."

In this final example, the short burst of applause came in response to another ‘know this’ imperative that ended with a contrast between ‘build’ and ‘destroy’.

The start of the applause interrupted President Obama just after he’d embarked on another “to those .." - which he cut short and then repeated as the applause was fading away (for more on ‘surfing applause’, see earlier post in September 2008).

"To those leaders around the globe who seek to sow conflict, or blame their society's ills on the West — know that your people will judge you on what you can build, not what you destroy." [FLUTTER OF APPLAUSE]

1 comment:

Martin Le Poidevin said...

He didn't finish it!

I listened to the speech yesterday, and heard the ending several times on the news, etc. Each time when he got to the 'God Bless You, God Bless the US' bit, I was surprised that that was it.

I listened to the whole speech again today, and even though I knew that he was getting to the finish, I still didn't find it a satisfactorily delivered ending. I can see now how the speechwriter's logic worked, but Obama himself somehow didn't put in the required crescendo.

One BBC correspondent last night said he'd found people in the crowd who were disappointed by the speech, and the correspondent guessed it was because there weren't telling phrases for them to take away. But I think that maybe what those people were trying to say was that Obama didn't whip the excitement up to such a point that the assembled two million (or however many) could explode in a long standing ovation. That's what they wanted - to be part of some huge communal experience.

I wonder: if he'd done that, he might have been able to secure himself a second term there and then!