(Photo by Darren Hauck/Getty Images)
The presidential farewell address used to be a big deal. George Washington started the trend in 1796. For many decades it was considered the most famous speech in American history. Students had to read it and memorize portions from it, until another speech displaced it—The Gettysburg Address.
Although the broadway hit, Hamilton, recently brought Washington’s speech back to public attention, we don’t celebrate presidential speeches like we used to. I wish we would. Words have the power to move us. Words have the power to inspire us. Words have the power to unite us. The great speechwriter, Peggy Noonan, once wrote, “When big, serious, thoughtful things must be said, then big, serious, thoughtful speeches must be given.” On Tuesday night President Barack Obama gave a big, thoughtful speech about serious things.
Obama walks out with a brisk gait and an easy, wide smile. He makes eye contact with all parts of the room. Research shows that your audience will form an impression about you within seconds, before you say a word. Make your first few seconds count.
After a long, sustained applause by fervent supporters in the audience, Obama had to get everyone settled. “We’re on live TV here, I’ve got to move,” he said with a smile. “You can tell that I’m a lame duck, because nobody is following instructions,” he said as the audience laughed before finally taking their seats.
The Personalized Message
Great speeches are full of aspirational language, but they also have moments of personalization. Obama began the speech with a look back:
“I first came to Chicago when I was in my early twenties, and I was still trying to figure out who I was; still searching for a purpose to my life. And it was a neighborhood not far from here where I began working with church groups in the shadows of closed steel mills. It was on these streets where I witnessed the power of faith, and the quiet dignity of working people in the face of struggle and loss.”
Some of the loudest cheers (and the moment that brought Obama to tears) occurred near the end of the speech. Obama thanked his wife with these heartfelt words that lit up Twitter and Facebook:
“Michelle LaVaughn Robinson of the South Side… for the past 25 years you have not only been my wife and mother of my children, you have been my best friend. You took on a role you didn’t ask for. And you made it your own with grace and with grit and with style, and good humor. You made the White House a place that belongs to everybody. And a new generation sets its sights higher because it has you as a role model.”
The Rhetorical Devices
From the speech at the Democratic National Convention in 2004 that brought Obama to national prominence, to his final speech to the nation, Obama has mastered classic rhetorical devices that project power and confidence in communication. It’s no coincidence that the following examples generated some of the biggest cheers of the night. These are intoxicating language devices used by the world’s best speakers.
1. Anaphora is the repetition of the same word or words at the start of successive sentences or clauses. Obama is a master of this speech making technique.
“If I had told you eight years ago that America would reverse a great recession, reboot our auto industry, and unleash the longest stretch of job creation in our history…
If I had told you that we would open up a new chapter with the Cuban people, shut down Iran’s nuclear weapons program without firing a shot, take out the mastermind of 9-11
If I had told you that we would win marriage equality and secure the right to health insurance for another 20 million of our fellow citizens.
If I had told you all that, you might have said our sights were set a little too high.”
“Over the course of these eight years, I’ve seen the hopeful faces of young graduates and our newest military officers…I’ve seen our scientists help a paralyzed man regain his sense of touch. I’ve seen Wounded Warriors who at points were given up for dead walk again. I’ve seen our doctors and volunteers rebuild after earthquakes and stop pandemics in their tracks. I’ve seen the youngest of children remind us through their actions and through their generosity of our obligations to care for refugees or work for peace.”
“If you’re tired of arguing with strangers on the Internet, try talking with one of them in real life. If something needs fixing, then lace up your shoes and do some organizing. If you’re disappointed by your elected officials, grab a clip board, get some signatures, and run for office yourself.”
“To all of you out there…Every organizer who moved to an unfamiliar town, every kind family who welcomed them in, every volunteer who knocked on doors, every young person who cast a ballot for the first time, every American who lived and breathed the hard work of change — you are the best supporters and organizers anybody could ever hope for, and I will forever be grateful. Because you did change the world.”
2. Rule of three.
Obama uses the rule of three [called ‘tricolons’ in ancient greek rhetoric] in paragraphs and within sentences themselves: “grab a clip board, get some signatures, run for office.” Three is one of the most powerful numbers in communication. We think in threes, we group numbers in threes, we speak in threes. Here are more examples from Obama’s speech:
“We remain the wealthiest, the most powerful, the most respected nation on earth [This is an example of ‘ascending tricolon’ which means the numbers of words increase in each part. It’s very powerful]
“In just eight years we’ve halved our dependence on foreign oil, we’ve doubled our renewable energy, we’ve lead the world to an agreement that has the promise to save this planet.”
“You believe in a fair, just, and inclusive America.”
“Yes, we can.”
Obama uses strong, open gestures to emphasize his words. Using two hands above the waist. Here’s an example from just one paragraph:
“We can and should argue about the best approach to solve the problem [both hands above waist, palms faced upward] But to simply deny the problem [cutting motion with hands] it betrays the essential spirit of this country [hand to chest, fist clenched].
Strong words will fall flat if not accompanied by powerful, purposeful gestures.
The words, the structure, the delivery, the gestures, and the personalization all came together in Obama’s final speech to the nation. No, we may not require students to memorize presidential speeches anymore, but for a few moments they unite us and excite us, and that’s worth celebrating.