Driving along the Marin Headlands today, I switched radio channels away from the unfolding news of the stock market “panic.” Within minutes I had to pull to the side of the road. Listening to a recording of Barack Obama’s sermon yesterday at Ebenezer Baptist Church, it was these lines that choked me up:
“In the struggle for peace and justice,
we cannot walk alone.
In the struggle for opportunity and equality,
we cannot walk alone.
In the struggle to heal this nation and repair this world,
we cannot walk alone.”
Later I discovered that rhetoric expert, Jay Heinrichs also felt Obama that was “channeling Martin Luther King.” More specifically for those of you who give speeches, Obama (and his speech writer, Jon Favreau) make adept use of the symploce. That’s a figure of speech where one repeats the beginning and the ending of sequential sentences.
Here’s another example, written by Bill Long:
“When you were a baby, I fed you, because you were my child;/ when you were a youth, I nurtured you, because you were my child;/ when you grew into adulthood, I never ceased my care, because you were my child.”
When people feel especially connected their vital signs are more alike. Heart beat. Skin temperature. Eye pupil dilation. I believe that rhythmic use of language such as the use of symploce (and other kinds of repetition) can literally move an audience to get in sync with a speaker. Such devices of speech may, in fact, create the emotional tipping point to move people from beginning to like or admire a speaker to feeling “at one” with “our” leader. To reach that point, the speaker’s probably in the zone – with us.
What creates that initial likeability? In comparing Obama to President Kennedy, Ted Sorenson, Kennedy’s chief speechwriter, suggests three traits that are vital in this ever more visually–oriented world, “Both Kennedy and Obama …
1. Have fantastically winning smiles
2. … Are very relaxed in front of an audience and on television
3. They don’t shout into a microphone, they talk.
Not all former speech writers are won over by Obama. James C. Humes, “speechwriter to five presidents from Dwight Eisenhower to George H.W. Bush…” takes harsh, colorful swipes at several candidates, including these:
• Obama is “more style than substance.”
• Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton, reminds Humes of Mark Twain’s wife. “She scolded Mark about his cussing. And Mark said to his wife, ‘You got the right words but the wrong music.’ That’s Hillary. Her speaking skills are like painting by the numbers.”
• Mike Huckabee … “just doesn’t look presidential… his name suggests one-half hick and the other half huckster.”
Humes doesn’t let up on his own profession, noting that “presidential speechwriters were called “braintrusters” in the Franklin Delano Roosevelt administration. “But we aren’t braintrusters. We are beauticians.”
Bet there’s going to be considerable more beauty, humor (and ugliness) ahead before we vote. Not only are the stakes high for our country and the world, the campaigns will continue to provide expensive lessons on how to communicate to connect – or not.