The Art of Oratory

Article excerpt

A New America The victory speech

Barack Obama's speech in Chicago following his victory in the US election was a fine example of the rhetorical brilliance that helped him defeat Hillary Clinton and John McCain.

Although he has a team of three speechwriters, led by the 27- year-old wunderkind Jon Favreau, Obama likes to write the bulk of his speeches himself.

It's commonly thought that effective orators are blessed with a mysterious gift, but all successful speakers use the same simple techniques, and have been doing so at least since they were first taught by the ancient Greeks. What makes outstanding speakers stand out is the frequency with which they use them. At its simplest, the more use made of these techniques, the more impressed audiences will be.

The main rhetorical techniques include: contrasts: ("I come to bury Caesar, not to praise him" - Mark Antony); three-part lists ("Education, education, education" - Tony Blair); and combinations of contrasts and lists, for example 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 such as alliteration, repetition, imagery and anecdotes, and you have the building blocks of the language of successful public speaking.

"It's not often that a single speech launches a politician from obscurity on to the national stage," says public-speaking expert Dr Max Atkinson. "Ronald Reagan achieved it when he spoke in support of Barry Goldwater at the Republican Convention in 1964, and Mr Obama achieved it with his keynote address to the Democratic Convention four years ago. Already he ranks highly in the league of all-time greats such as Abraham Lincoln and Martin Luther King. He is particularly fond of contrasts, three-part lists and various combinations of the two. He also knows how to use imagery both to increase impact and to make his points evoke associations with great communicators of the past, like Lincoln, King and Reagan. But one of the most interesting things about all this is that, even when you can see that Mr Obama is using the same simple techniques that every other inspiring speaker uses, the power and impact of his language remain undiminished."

Here, Dr Atkinson, author of 'Speechmaking and Presentation Made Easy' and 'Lend Me Your Ears', explains the hidden secrets of the president-elect's power in speech.

'Is there is anyone out there who still doubts that America is a place where all things are possible; who still wonders if the dream of our founders is alive in our time; who still questions the power of our democracy? Tonight is your answer.

It's the answer told by lines that stretched around schools and churches in numbers this nation has never seen; by people who waited three hours and four hours, many for the very first time in their lives, because they believed that this time must be different; that their voice could be that difference.

It's the answer spoken by young and old, rich and poor, Democrat and Republican, black, white, Latino, Asian, Native American, gay, straight, disabled and not disabled - Americans who sent a message to the world that we have never been a collection of red states and blue states: we are, and always will be, the United States of America.

It's the answer that led those who have been told for so long by so many to be cynical, and fearful, and doubtful of what we can achieve, to put their hands on the arc of history and bend it once more toward the hope of a better day.

It's been a long time coming, but tonight, because of what we did on this day, in this election, at this defining moment, change has come to America.

I just received a very gracious call from Senator McCain. He fought long and hard in this campaign, and he's fought even longer and harder for the country he loves. …