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Analyzing Obama’s Inaugural Speech

Barack Obama’s inaugural speech, though not one for the record books, was still very good. The speech covered a wide range of issues. The language he used had a level of sophistication, but remained accessible to the average person; he didn’t talk down. The themes were simple and although they were not new, they sounded new as they do with each new president.

The president understood that he was speaking not only to the American people, but to the world. I strongly encourage you to read the speech. Not surprisingly, as it is a written composition, the eye catches nuances the ears do not. I like it better each time I read it.

It was about 2500 words and took slightly more than 20 minutes to deliver. That is a fairly rapid clip. It is also about as formal as speeches get. Most of us will never deliver such a formal speech. Still, there is much we can learn.

A Good Speech Must Have Form

Like any composition, a good speech has a form that goes beyond a beginning, middle and end. All good speeches have a roundness to them, a fluidness of writing and thought, and strong openings and closes. An inaugural speech must also be inspirational, motivational, and diplomatic. Following is how the speech flowed:

Part 1: President Obama began the speech in the customary way, expressing his humility and thanking his predecessor for his service. He quickly transitioned into strong but generalized descriptions of the difficulties the country faces, targeting our “collective failure,” and setting out his worldview.

Part 2: The next section inspiringly described how Americans successfully managed through past crises and assured us we can do the same.

Part 3: He then listed a number of domestic action steps, corrections of past policies, and dismissed naysayers.

Part 4: Foreign policy came next and he spent a good deal of time on this. He included stern warnings to those who would do us harm and promises of help to those who need it.

Part 5: This began with an homage to our servicemen and women, then moved into a discussion of values, reminding us that we have strayed and coaxing us to return to the these values as the keys to helping us through our crises.

Part 6: He began his close by hearkening back to Revolutionary times and quoted George Washington from a moment in history when Washington thought the Revolution was lost. Obama ended strongly by imploring us to remember Washington’s words and assuring us that we, too, have the mettle to succeed.

A Good Speech Must Have a Theme

The President continued to drive home his theme of unity that he repeatedly spoke about throughout his campaign:“On this day, we gather because we have chosen hope over fear, unity of purpose over conflict and discord.”

Another theme was upending conventional wisdom: “The question we ask today is not whether our government is too big or too small, but whether it works...” and “Our economy is badly weakened, a consequence of greed and irresponsibility on the part of some but also our collective failure to make hard choices and prepare the nation for a new age.” The purpose here was to shift the audience from placing blame and complaining to taking charge and solving problems. This was a tributary of the unity theme and added some freshness to what is a boilerplate approach to inaugural speeches.

A Good Speech Must Be Poetic

In poetry, attention is paid to the rhythm – in the musical sense – of the words and verses as well as the language that is used. The same is true of formal speeches such as the inaugural. President Obama used a number of rhetorical flourishes to make the speech accessible and memorable.

1.    Metaphor is a way of understanding one concept in terms of another. It is Obama’s hands-down favorite rhetorical tool and his speech was filled with it: “The words have been spoken during rising tides of prosperity and the still waters of peace. Yet, every so often the oath is taken amidst gathering clouds and raging storms” and, “What the cynics fail to understand is that the ground has shifted beneath them…” and, “…we will extend a hand if you are willing to unclench your fist.”

Metaphor taps into emotions, enlivens ideas and is widely used in everyday speech. Start noticing how frequently you use and hear it and work on using it in your public presentations.

2.    To intensify meaning, there is asyndeton, the listing of ideas and concepts without using conjunctions: “…humbled by the task before us, grateful for the trust you have bestowed, mindful of the sacrifices borne by our ancestors,” and, “…the justness of our cause; the force of our example; the tempering qualities of humility and restraint.”
For a powerful impact, try asyndeton using a hushed voice.

3.    Repeating an opening phrase in successive sentences is known as anaphora and the effect is mesmerizing, even hypnotic: “This is the price and the promise of citizenship. This is the source of our confidence…. This is the meaning of our liberty…”
(The opposite of anaphora is epistrophe in which successive clauses end with the same words or affirmation: “Yes we can!”)

4.    One of the most potent lines in Obama’s speech made use of a dactyl, a form of metrical foot, defined as a pattern of word and syllable stress that creates a rhythm of 2 or 3 beats. Dactyl is one stressed word or syllable followed by two unstressed words or syllables: “Our SPIRit is STRONger and CANnot be BROken. You CANnot outLAST us, and WE will deFEAT you.”

We speak in rhythmic patterns all the time. Think about how we remember something as mundane as a phone number: ONE two THREE four FIVE six SEVEN (the eighth beat is silent). When someone speaks a phone number with the “wrong” stress pattern, as happens abroad, it’s confusing.

5.    “Faithful to the ideals of our forbearers, and true to our founding documents,” containsalliteration, which is a preponderance of a phonetic sound, in this case, F.  Antithesis is where words used in the second half of an expression overturn the words in the first: “…know that your people will judge you on what you can build, not what you destroy.” (Chiasmus is a form of antithesis where words in the second half are reversed, one of the most famous examples of which is JFK’s “Ask not what your country can do for you, as what you can do for your country.”)

A Good Speech Must Be Delivered Well

Barack Obama is the best deliverer of speeches in a generation, better, in my opinion, than Kennedy. I’ve written extensively about Obama’s delivery skills and nonverbal communication, so I’m not going to go into detail here with one exception: Obama’s voice. His voice is a huge nonverbal asset, a rich, round, warm baritone that he wields beautifully. In one passage, toward the end, he became quiet, adjusting his voice to a stage whisper: “And yet, at this moment, a moment that will define a generation, it is precisely this spirit that must inhabit us ALL.” Only the most surefooted and skilled speakers can make this work.

Finally, a good speech rises and falls with crescendos of volume and pitch that build an emotional connection. There are pauses and silences, too, that add to the suspense.

What would have made it a great speech? Certainly a memorable line would have elevated it (only one is necessary). Also, transitions were a bit weak and, as I mentioned earlier, the themes were not original. With such a gifted speaker, the expectations are high, but not unrealistically so. As he warms to the job, I expect to hear words that do make the record books.

Copyright 2009 Ruth Sherman. All Rights Reserved.

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