Aren’t you glad the Presidential elections are over? I know I am, and I must say I have found the last few months to be a fairly painful experience.
In Britain, elections last for 6 weeks, not 9 months. Political advertising spend there is something of the order of $50 million, not $6 billion. And while there is some mud-slinging in Britain too, it does not even approach the levels of hysteria and vitriol that have been apparent in the U.S. recently.
I’ve deliberately avoided posting anything related to politics during election season. It seems that whenever one takes a position, those with an ax to grind on one side or the other are apt to attack it mercilessly if it is not 100% supportive of their preferred party line.
But with Obama’s win last week, there is one aspect of the campaign that I do want to discuss briefly, since I was particularly impressed by it, and that is Obama’s acceptance speech.
There were, of course, instances where the usual criticisms were leveled at him during the campaign – hesitation, can’t speak without auto-cue, excessive pauses filled with the word “ummm” – but I find these to be politically motivated cynicism, largely from people actively looking for something to criticize.
I personally think he’s a pretty good and highly charismatic speaker. However, with the acceptance speech it wasn’t Obama himself that impressed me. It was his speechwriter, Jon Favreau.
Irrespective of what you think of Obama’s political views and his policymaking, his acceptance speech was an outstanding piece of communication. Anyone who is interested in communications, presenting or speech-writing could do a lot worse than to study it for a few minutes, as it clearly illustrates a number of communications principles.
The Rule of Three
The “Rule of Three” is one of the best known, and most often used principles employed by professional speechwriters. People who have a professional interest in communications will have heard of it but most others will not. I first heard it in school, many years ago, via the Latin phrase “omne truim perfectum”, meaning “all threes are perfect”. But why is it so effective?
Good question. Nobody really knows, although there are numerous theories, many of which build on observations that are immediately apparent.
Every story has a beginning, a middle and an end. Jokes are often structured using 3 protagonists, with the first 2 setting up the punchline and the third being the butt of the joke (a blonde, a brunette and a redhead walk into a bar). Dickens uses 3 ghosts in A Christmas Carol, Shakespeare 3 witches in The Scottish Play. Steve Jobs used it to great effect for 3 decades. And did you notice I used the Rule of Three in the second paragraph?
In Obama’s speech, the Rule of Three makes an appearance on multiple occasions, some short, some more elaborate.
OBAMA: “And whether I earned your vote or not, I have listened to you, I have learned from you, and you’ve made me a better president.”
OBAMA: “You’ll hear the determination in the voice of a young field organizer who’s working his way through college and wants to make sure every child has that same opportunity. You’ll hear the pride in the voice of a volunteer who’s going door to door because her brother was finally hired when the local auto plant added another shift. You’ll hear the deep patriotism in the voice of a military spouse who’s working the phones late at night to make sure that no one who fights for this country ever has to fight for a job or a roof over their head when they come home.”
At the very start of the speech, Obama informs us that “Tonight, more than 200 years after a former colony won the right to determine its own destiny, the task of perfecting our union moves forward.”
Present. Past. Future.
Three has so many more cultural reference points than two or four. It just seems to resonate better. Two gives the impression you’re struggling for material. Four feels like you’re laboring the point. But three allows you scope. Past, Present and Future. Too big, too small, just right. In children’s fairy tales, Goldilocks meets Three Bears. In Greek mythology, Hippomenes distracts Atalanta with 3 golden apples. In classical music, Calaf must answer 3 riddles to marry Turandot. And who can forget the Three Stooges?
Whatever the reason, the Rule of Three is as firmly embedded in the American subconscious as the fact that America was founded, as Lincoln put it, as “a new nation (1), conceived in liberty (2), and dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal (3).”
The Rule of Contrast
Another rule clearly used in numerous instances is the Rule of Contrast. In the Rule of Contrast, a preferred direction or suggestion contrasts with a following less desirable alternative to create an emotional response.
However, it is important to remember that we are not writing an essay here. A speech, particularly a political one, has to be concise, punchy and universally accessible. If we have to set up the contrast, then it is likely that it will not work. The contrast selected has to be inescapably clear, and has to resonate across the political divide. Remember, in his acceptance speech, Obama’s primary concern is to build bridges after a hard-fought partizan campaign. In doing so, he uses aspirational structures that could just as easily be used in an acceptance speech by Mitt Romney.
OBAMA: “Tonight you voted for action, not politics as usual. You elected us to focus on your jobs, not ours.”
Sometimes, the Rule of Three is combined with the Rule of Contrast, for an even more effective result.
OBAMA: This country has more wealth than any nation, but that’s not what makes us rich. We have the most powerful military in history, but that’s not what makes us strong. Our universities, our culture are all the envy of the world, but that’s not what keeps the world coming to our shores.
Again, this is a well worn path for speechmakers, and those who use it expertly stand a much greater chance of having their key points standing the test of time. Some of the best remembered speeches of all time rely heavily on contrast.
MLK: “A nation where they will not be judged by the color of their skin but by the content of their character”.
Malcolm X: “We didn’t land on Plymouth Rock. The rock was landed on us.”
JFK: “Ask not what your country can do for you, but what you can do for your country.”
The Rule of Pictures
One rule that most people will be familiar with is that “A picture is worth a thousand words”.
Obama’s speech relies heavily on the ability to paint a picture and, in doing so, to generate a shared appreciation and thereby a shared sense of inclusiveness about the points he is making.
OBAMA: I want to thank every American who participated in this election, whether you voted for the very first time or waited in line for a very long time. Whether you pounded the pavement or picked up the phone. Whether you held an Obama sign or a Romney sign, you made your voice heard and you made a difference.
And of course, it is not just Obama that uses this technique. When addressing a business audience, presenters will normally choose to use dedicated presentation format like PowerPoint rather than a simple word processing program.
When making a statistical point, it is unusual to see the raw data in a spreadsheeet. We prefer to see graphs that allow swathes of data to be communicated at the same time, allowing us to form an impression of patterns, of trends, and thereby to form opinions.
In political speeches however, it is unusual for slides or graphic representations to be used, because the politician delivering the speech wants all the attention to be focused on him or her, and because of the desire to convey a big message without getting bogged down in the individual details (for politicians, the devil is always in the detail).
But there are ways to provide a physical illustration in order to associate oneself with a perceived positive.
In early 1982, an Air Florida flight plunged into the Potomac shortly after taking off from Washington Dulles airport. That event is remembered not so much for the 78 who died as it is for the actions of Lenny Skutnik, a passer-by who jumped into the ice-covered river to rescue a Priscilla Tirado who was freezing, unable to hold onto a life ring lowered from a helicopter, and who would certainly have died if not for his actions. In doing so, Mr Skutnik created a communications phenomenon.
Less than 2 weeks later, Mr Skutnik, sitting next to Nancy Reagan, received a thunderous round of applause from Congress at the State of the Union address. From Ronald Reagan to Barack Obama, this technique has now become a standard communications tool, a means to amplify a point by providing a physical manifestation considered to represent something unambiguously positive. In Washington, the technique is sometimes referred to as “a skutnik”. Watch for it at the next State of the Union.
The Use of Alliteration.
In the film Broadcast News, Albert Brooks mocks a newsroom anchor with the words “A lot of alliteration from anxious anchors placed in powerful posts”.
To those of us who have worked in communications for a number of years, there is something vaguely depressing about the manner in which local news uses alliteration, rhyme or a play on words in their headlines.
How many times have you seen a talking head describing a news item of limited interest, with a caption on screen that reads “Predator on the Prowl” (apparently, there have been reports of coyotes in the area), “Teens in Trouble” (a group of teens have been arrested for something) or “Grime and Punishment” (a city councillor has been found guilty of accepting bribes from a waste management company).
But while those that are looking out for it find it somewhat jaded, that doesn’t make alliteration any less effective with the general public. And hence it makes several appearances in Obama’s speech.
OBAMA: “The spirit that has lifted this country from the depths of despair to the great heights of hope.” (Note the use of contrast there as well.)
OBAMA: “A country that lives up to its legacy as the global leader.”
OBAMA: “SEALs who charged up the stairs into darkness and danger because they knew there was a buddy behind them watching their back”.
It’s easy to lay it on a bit thick with alliteration (I’m personally not so sure about that “darkness and danger” bit), but for the most part it’s highly effective and I think that, almost without exception, Favreau gets it spot on.
There are many, many more ‘rules’ of sound communication, but Favreau’s speech for Obama checks all the main boxes. It’s true that Obama may be a very charismatic speaker, but having watched the speech several times now and re-read the transcripts more than once, the speech was as much a masterful piece of writing as it was masterful oratory.
After so many months of hearing nothing but soundbites and counteraccusation, I like to think the campaign ended on a high note. In communications terms, at least.