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Lessons in speechwriting: Obama on Madiba

By Rob Turrell

I listened to Barack Obama’s speech about Nelson Mandela at FNB Stadium last Tuesday week in awe. I had read his tribute on Mandela’s death and I wondered if he would repeat it or give a new speech. He gave a new speech. I was amazed. I’ll tell you why.

Rhetorically speaking contemporary speeches make use of two techniques that were well understood by the ancients well over 2 000 years ago: contrasts and triples (lists of three). They are very powerful techniques that used well can send a shiver down your spine or move you to anger or joy. I am familiar with these two techniques, but I wasn’t aware that speakers prefer one technique over another and that this gives shape to a message or a speaker’s vision.

This contrast in speech-making technique has been discussed in the Guardian recently in relation to Obama’s rhetoric (comparing his second inaugural speech to his first). His rhetoric is different apparently to great American speech-makers like Martin Luther King and Abraham Lincoln but most particularly to John F Kennedy.

Apparently JFK preferred contrasts to triples in his speeches. JFK’s famous sentence “Ask not what your country can do for you, but what you can do for your country” is a particular form of contrast or antithesis. It is also a phrase reversal. If you prefer contrasts, then you are asking your audience to make a choice.

Positioned in the middle of the Cold War and a nuclear standoff with Russians, as JFK was, it took an immensely brave president to face down the war talk of his generals. That was the context of his time. His speeches were often apocalyptic in tone and tenor. If we don’t reach a compromise with Nikita Khrushchev over Cuba, then Armageddon will follow. If we don’t do this, then that. The basic contrast in a sentence or a speech sets out the options and then forces a listener to draw the only possible conclusion.

Apparently Obama prefers triples (lists of three) in his speeches. A list of three words — “the father, the son, and the Holy Spirit” — or clauses — “He proved that there is freedom in forgiving, that a big heart is better than a closed mind, and that life’s real victories must be shared” — encourages listeners to join a position. A list of four or five won’t do. That’s a laundry list. Obama is a more conciliatory politician than JFK was. He has a more complicated set of stakeholders to manage today than JFK did in the early 1960s.

So I was looking for Obama’s preference for triples to contrasts in his 15-paragraph, 19-minute, $5-million (the cost of flying to South Africa in four Boeing 737s) Mandela speech.

There are contrasts. Listen to the way they ricochet through every sentence in the “power of action” paragraph (eight) — action ideas, walls bullets, passion advocate, sharpen thirst, his freedom their freedom:

Mandela taught us the power of action, but also ideas; the importance of reason and arguments; the need to study not only those you agree with, but those who you don’t. He understood that ideas cannot be contained by prison walls, or extinguished by a sniper’s bullet. He turned his trial into an indictment of apartheid because of his eloquence and passion, but also his training as an advocate. He used decades in prison to sharpen his arguments, but also to spread his thirst for knowledge to others in the movement. And he learned the language and customs of his oppressor so that one day he might better convey to them how their own freedom depended upon his.

There are triples. Listen to the way they ripple through every sentence in the “human spirit” paragraph (10):

Finally, Mandela understood the ties that bind the human spirit. There is a word in South Africa – Ubuntu – that describes his greatest gift: his recognition that we are all bound together in ways that can be invisible to the eye; that there is a oneness to humanity; that we achieve ourselves by sharing ourselves with others, and caring for those around us. …. It took a man like Madiba to free not just the prisoner, but the jailor as well; to show that you must trust others so that they may trust you; to teach that reconciliation is not a matter of ignoring a cruel past, but a means of confronting it with inclusion, generosity and truth. He changed laws, but also hearts.

Obama’s Mandela speech is not a triple speech. There is no preference for triples to contrasts. But there is a fireworks display of powerful words and imagery.

In particular Obama’s speech is very strong on word pairs, not alliterative pairs like “sense and sensibility” or “pride and prejudice”, but simple pairs like “a son and husband, a father and a friend”. The use of pairs or the use of two words when one will do creates a sense of stability and authority (one word would have sufficed there, but two gives you the sense that I know what I am talking about).

Obama is also strong on repetition of words or phrases. Repetition is bread and butter in political speeches. He lights the repetition Roman candle in the first paragraph: “His struggle was your struggle. His triumph was your triumph. Your dignity and hope found expression in his life, and your freedom, your democracy is his cherished legacy.” He keeps the “his struggle was your struggle” motif alight right through the whole speech.

Repetition comes in many forms, but anaphora is its most common form, where the same phrase or word is repeated in the same place in a three sequential sentences (a triple). In paragraph 11 Obama repeats “too many of us” (with variation). He warns against “too many of us” paying lip service to Mandela’s principles while ignoring them in practice. He slips a “too many leaders” variation into the triple, “who claim solidarity with Madiba’s struggle for freedom, but do not tolerate dissent from their own people”. Of whom was he thinking?

It’s time to tell you why I was amazed. Obama’s speech is superbly crafted in three ways.

First, Obama thanked me for sharing Mandela with him. This was beautifully done in the first paragraph. It’s the ethos part of a speech where a speech-giver identifies with his audience so as to be more persuasive in the remainder of the speech. Obama put himself on my side. He addresses me right from the start as a South African immeasurably enriched by having had Mandela as my leader.

Second, Obama puts Mandela into a pantheon of great world leaders. He compares him to Mahatma Gandhi, to Lincoln, and to King. He does this by shifting scale in time and place. He does the timescale shift in a lot of his speeches. He puts the individual into his place within the broad sweep of momentous change over time. And he did it with Mandela.

There is nothing I’ve ever heard in a speech to match the simple brilliance of paragraph three. “Born during world war one … Madiba would emerge as the last great liberator of the 20th century. Like Gandhi, he would lead a resistance movement … like King, he would give potent voice to the claims of the oppressed …. like Lincoln [he would] hold his country together when it threatened to break apart. Like America’s founding fathers, he would erect a constitutional order to preserve freedom for future generations … ” I wanted him to go on. I didn’t want him to stop.

Third, Obama told us that Mandela inspired him to become president. Do what I did, he said to young people. “Make his life’s work your own.” Look inside yourself and become a better person. You too can become president of the most powerful economy on earth. Or your children or grandchildren might.

And then in a very small peroration (closing), he starts with a global place shift — “when we have returned to our cities and villages, and rejoined our daily routines”, and ends lyrically with an open-ended triple — “And when the night grows dark, when injustice weighs heavy on our hearts, or our best laid plans seem beyond our reach — think of Madiba”.

Rob Turrell writes speeches in government. He is the author of Because I Say So (Penguin 2014).

Tags: , ,

  • Madiba’s tears
  • In Tambo they trust
  • Are South Africans really all capitalists at heart?
  • Has the time for ‘talks about talks’ come in SA?
    • george orwell

      I think you credit B.O. with too many literary skills.

      The praise goes to his speechwriter, Ben Rhodes.

      Rhodes is the man with the pen skills, he comes from a fiction writing background, which is just about the right experience for political persuasion, n’est ce pas?

      Rhodes penned all the stirring propaganda that Obama’s wealthy Wall Street backers required to oil their man’s way into high office.

      Rhodes had Obama mouthing stirring speeches about democracy, transparency, freedom of speech, closing Guantanamo, human rights and speech.

      Once Obama was in office – and had bailed out his rich Wall $t. buddies – he broke his eloquent promise about Guantanamo, proceeded to go after more democratic whistle-blowers than any previous president (Manning, Snowden and others), entrenched illegal drone wars and suspended due process after arrogating to himself the right of presidential assassination.

      Obama is no ‘man of the people’ as Mandela was and is arrogant to try and liken himself to that true democrat. Obama is a man of the 1% elite and demonstrably serves their interests.

      If ‘injustice weighs heavily on his heart’ let Obomber look to the corporatocracy and ‘dollar democracy’ that that is America, where the poorest of his own people are starting to see through the fine-sounding words penned by a well-paid propagandist on a nifty laptop.

    • Mariano Castrillon

      It was wonderful to listen to Obama. No doubt his speech writers have a bottomless well of ideas to choose from, but knowing how to put them together to make the desired effect deserve praise. Knowing how to read is also invaluable.

    • D.

      Orwell’s comment sums it up pretty well.
      I’d also give great speeches if the world’s greatest oppressor nation needed me to.

    • Molefi

      If we have people like you who have deep knowledge on speeches in government, how is it possible that our president always gives the most boring ones?

    • Truth?

      #George Orwell is correct. Most high profile people, especially politicians, have small teams of writers who craft and recraft and who then submit to the policy people for clearance. Few politicians or high flyers have the time to write their own speeches. Even fewer have the ability, and they know it. It is a time-consuming, complex process. Turrel’s analysis left out the fact that the speech was also a strategic triumph, placing Obama and the USA squarely at the centre of the world’s stage during the biggest event we have seen in recent times. He got bigger press than our own President – deservedly so.

    • Brian

      Thanks. I’ll try that at my daughters wedding.

    • Eddie

      Let’s agree the speech was well crafted, but let’s also agree, it was well articulated with all the necessary oratory.

    • Sterling Ferguson

      @Orwell,I am shocked that you didn’t say that Stephen King was writing Obama’s speeches. Obama is known to stay up late at night researching and writing his speeches, his wife has to come get him to take him to bed. This wasn’t a speech that someone else wrote, and Obama read it like you are suggesting. This speech was an Obama creation with his trade mark.

      Moreover, you spoke of Obama bailing out Wall St, the reason why the US government bailed out Wall St. because most the pension funds had their money tied up on Wall St, and if these companies had gone under, most the pension funds would have been wiped out. Many of these companies would have gone under and million of jobs would have been lost.

      Finally, there is no comparison with being the president of the US and that of SA. The president of the US has to make decisions that have an effect on the world and the president of SA decisions have very little effect on the world. The only reason you are trying to compare Obama to Mandela because of their color. As far as Snowden and Manning, both of these people should be sent to prison for their crimes. Snowden is in Russia a country that has know to kill their spies that jump ship. The base in Cuba should be left open for the suicide bombers to find paradise there.

    • amir

      i like. like, like!!
      and now i wanna study rhetoric!

    • Richard

      When listening to Obama’s speech, the manner of presentation was very much the southern American Baptist preacher haranguing his congregation. The words were well-written, if rather OTT. When he said, “And while I will always fall short of Madiba’s example, he makes me want to be a better man” I found myself asking, “Well, why do you fall short? Why do you only want to be a better man, why aren’t you one?” That is one of the dangers of that manner of speaking: some people simply aren’t mesmerised. The statement, “And like America’s Founding Fathers, he would erect a constitutional order to preserve freedom for future generations” was not really true by my reckoning. Did Mandela really do that on his own? Has it really preserved freedoms? Was he some sort of dictator? Was he not simply the poster-boy of a whole group of people leading the fight? Obama seems, to me, to confuse Mandela with a dictatorial African chief.

      However, technically, as you say, it was a very well-constructed speech. Not quite as much a call to action as Churchill’s “We shall fight them on the beaches…” nor as spine-tingling, but still very good. He has a persuasive speech-writer, certainly.

    • dia

      @george orwell, you seem a bit stingy to credit obama, but quite un-proportionally lavish towards benjamin rhodes, as if BO only started using great oratory when he became president. you may be au fait also that BO’s initial speechwriter was jon favreau. favreau’s obviously no slouch either, one of his books has been translated into movie.

      thru pete sauza’s photographs, you may have seen BO’s handwriting on many of the draft speeches that he has crafted together with his presidential team. he is very hands-on when it comes to his speeches. his speechwriters are very competent too. and remarkably, they have studied his cadences very well.

      ben rhodes was not yet in obama’s team when he delivered his timeless speech at the 2004 Democratic National Convention in Boston, MA. when obama would convince crowds in South Side of Chicago about the need to organise, he did not have speechwriters then.

      this is a highly accomplished man, who has used great oratory for the better part of his adult life, without speechwriters. his oratory may have now collided with the hard realities of governing.

      but lets not pretend that he plays no part in crafting his own speeches. you may know some examples of individuals who obviously play no part in their’s.

      i will not comment about the promises he made, but remember he’s only a US president, not a king. he cannot override congress, especially on things that would leave other Democrats vulnerable. and the guantanamo issue is…

    • P.C.Mothusi

      OB’s speechwriters are brilliant, as they have mastered the subject(OB) and have been blessed with the fortune that they understand and play to his strengths, namely his oratory skills.Brilliant speaker!!

    • george orwell

      I think world democracy will only progress when we learn not to be emotionally swayed by noble words.

      We need to judge leaders by their actions – not their well-crafted speeches, forged by salaried speech-writers.

      Thankfully, Americans are slowly starting to wake up to this.

      They realise that however inspiring Obama’s memes and poetic phrases are, the reality is that this president signed in the anti-democratic ‘Detention Without Trial’ (the NDA Act 2012) and actively entrenched the illegal remote-control drone wars, that have mistakenly bombed civilian women, children and wedding parties.

      Ironic and sad for the politically-correct Wall Street Bail Out President, who has rendered hollow his Nobel Peace Prize as he’s sought to spread American corporatocracy with the might of the world’s biggest army.

      No amount of unctuous rhetoric will paper over the moral chasm between Obomber and Mandela.

      Now, respected US magazine ‘The Nation’ at least shows a little compassion and imagines:

      “What if a Drone Strike Hit an American Wedding Party?”

    • Pawel Otrebski

      I think your analysis just shows one thing: Public Relations. Tugging on the emotional strings because it is easier to say what you think you want the audience to hear(and I don’t doubt that Obama knew what his audience wanted). If Obama is a product of the work of Nelson Mandela then I have to question how Mandela is interpreted outside of South Africa or/and I have to question the credibility of the claims of these people claiming to be the leaders of the world. If Robert Mugabe used the same sentences, would they have the same value? We have a world leader assassinating people in a fashion similar to the apartheid era Generals and Politicians but claiming to uphold the ideas and inspirations of Mandela. Let us not remember that 20 years ago these same techniques were used to discredit Mandela. I do thank you for the insight though. I just have a question, but do speech writers actively part take in the propaganda machine, or do they do it as a job that needs to be done? Are they aware of the lies they write about? Because just by taking apart Obama’s speech, we can identify the hollow statements and factual omissions that would make him seem not so grand.

    • Richard Arends

      In the book: The Politics of Hope, the words of Barack Obama, Charlotte Higgins describes him in her Foreword as the new Cicero. She also points out all the attributes described above but also the fact that he seems to do most of the speechwriting work himself. A Fact confirmed by the head of his team, Jon Favreau.

    • @NATE_IV_SA

      Because I Said So

      I must get myself a copy!

      This is what I tweeted midway in his oration:

      “Obama commands a voice of the king mustering a paltry cohort against ruthless legions transiting from alternative universe.”

    • wref

      Good script writing not withstanding, compare the verbal delivery to most other speakers at that event, especially our local clown JZ.

    • http://mailandguardian Mauricio

      Of course it is, you make the speech to be understood in many ways.
      I have told my friends that Obama was the best person to praise Madiba

    • Anna George

      A good analysis: contains information that teachers of language can use with their students to produce stirring speeches. Only one question in mind: Are there no Ben Rhodes in South Africa?

    • george orwell

      Anna – so you think if Zuma has a brilliant speechwriter who chanelled fine-sounding verbal upliftment via Zuma’s mouth, that this would improve/change the facts on the ground?

      My point is that words uttered by presidents (whether self or ghost-authored) are always partisan propaganda.

      Hitler was also great at making noble-sounding, stirring speeches.

      Whether he wrote them himself or hired a canny scriptwriter is neither here nor there. The effect is the same.

      The world needs less spin, more reality.

      Presidents don’t individually hold the power, they are essentially frontmen for partisan political machines.

      B.O. is the charming Public Relations doorman at the front of store.

      Back of the store, little has changed since Bush’s time, in terms of US military and surveillance, etc.

      Obama has gotten away with far more than Bush ever would have.

      If Bush had ushered in ‘Detention Without Trial’ as Obama has done – the law that saw Madiba behind bars – there would have been such an outcry.

      Obama is a well-heeled establishment man with a nice turn of phrase.

      He’s not freed the poor or led any revolutions.

      Instead, he’s entrenched the 1% elite.

    • Shaman sans frontieres

      Great to read, Rob Turrell! I firmly believe that quality of public speaking, rhetoric, is an index to the quality of leadership. And the quality of the auditors as well. Ethos, logs, and pathos – character, reason and feeling.

      What also strikes me about Obama’s speech is its sense of reach – compass – time and space. The greater part of the 20th century, and a locality and a name, as well as global reach.

    • Neuren Pietersen

      What the Obama bashers fail to recognize is that Obama is the leader, and a leader’s job is to lead. One of the tools of leading is to inspire people to believe in a purpose, and to get on with it to achieve that purpose. It is not the job of the leader to be the wall street guy, to be the guard at Gauntanemo, to be the central banker.

      Critics of Obama need to acknowledge that when he stepped into the breach, the situation was, and still is sick. The disease did not start in 2000, 1990, or 1980. It was started back in the 1920’s and 30’s with The New Deal, which created the habit of printing and spending one’s way out of trouble. When Obama took over, the USA was in a state of crises, and crises management was what was required, and I believe Bush Junior did this by authorising bail outs in the initial stages.

      No person has the power to close the taps of easy money. Think of your own spending and D:E ratios. As far I see it the only way out is to wean off it. I hope for all of our sakes that there is enough time left to do this.

    • mbuya munlo

      I do not think anyone apart from George Bush can just take a speech and read it without vetting the content. You try to bring in Winston ChUrchil and all the boring pretenders; here it from me apart from Martin Luther King, no one, no single American president ever delivers a speech as good as Obama. A written speech is dead unless brought to life by a powerful delivery.

    • Sterling Ferguson

      @Munlo, one must not forget Lincoln and Obama is a big fan of Lincoln. Orwell wants to blame the drone attacks on Obam and call him a bad guy, but how about the other side that are blowing up building to go to paradise? As far as bailing out Wall St, million of Americans were at risk of losing their pension if these companies had went under and the government did the right thing to protect these people. Orwell never mention that the repeal of the Glass Steagal act is the cause of the meltdown and Obama had nothing to do with this. Actually, it was Clinton that signed the bill to repeal the Glass Steagal Act and not Bush.

    • usreader

      Obama did not bail on Guantanamo. It was the Republicans in congress who would not fund the transfer of prisoners. Please do a little research before making false charges. One of the first things Obama did in 2009 was to issue an executive order on Gitmo. However, if there is no money, nothing can be done. But, I am hoping that he can get it done before he ends his second term.

      As for his speeches, Obama has final say.

    • usreader

      george orwell # – I think you need to educate yourself on us governance. Obama does not pass bill/laws. If congress does not, then he has nothing to sign, and nothing to implement. Congress refused to sign his jobs bill. Congress (House Republicans) has tried to thwart him every step of the way.

      Giving new meaning to ‘Do-Nothing’ Congress

      A complete timeline on Republican obstructionism

      This is NOT democracy at work – it is authoritarianism by one side.

    • Tofolux

      Eish, if we are this shallow to fall onto the words of someone who clearly does not write his own speeches, then we are fool-ish. Anyone can read what someone else has written I mean that is why all American Presidents rely on their speech writers. The question that needs to be asked what are Obama’s authentic thoughts even when he is attending a memorial service for a dearly beloved.

    • Roger Roome

      The President of the United States does not fly to South Africa in 737s. A Boeing 737 has a maximum range of approximately 5,000 km, insufficient to cross the Atlantic safely. You must have meant 747. Air Force One is a 747. I do not know many other aircraft accompanied Air Force One.

    • george orwell

      Hitler was an excellent speaker with powerful delivery, too.

      Talk is cheap.

      Judge people by their actions, not their words.

      By their fruits shall ye know them.

    • http://n/a Jono

      Obama speeach is indeed the rhetoric America has become, talking about freedom whilst reversing “real freedom” for people outside America.

    • Sterling Ferguson

      @Tofolux, Obama is known to stay up late at night writing his speeches and don’t forget that Obama is a product of the world best university Harvard.

    • Tofolux

      @Fergie, if he “stay up late at night” then why is his govt so different to his speeches. Lets take some examples to make the point, a shutdown of his govt (in this era of modernism?) why the drone bombing killing millions of innocent people, why NSA,Gautanomo Bay, withdrawal of food stamps for the poorest of the poor, the health insurance crisi, police violence on young black men in particular, the corrupt judiciary, the wars on sovereign states or the gradual and alarming erosion of individual rights. It is also a well known fact that his era of Presidency has been the most violent and the most brutal. And yet, against all these and many more facts, you still believe the bumbling rhetoric? wow

    • Hokoyo ne Nhamo

      Whilst Obama may have a speech writer, just remember that he is also an author (makes more money from selling his books than he gets from being POTUS), is an advocate and a prolific orator!

    • george orwell

      @ usreader

      … according to you Obama does not pass laws, has no power effectively.

      And guess what, I agree.

      Obomber is a mere figurehead as any President is, effectively.

      It’s the Wall Street financiers, heads of giant corporates and Pentagon big brass that pull all the strings.

      Obama is just the charming PR man who lulls the world as the US military-financial-industrial hegemon wages its resource wars, revs up its drone engines and spies on the globe via the NSA Panopticon.

    • Maine

      Indeed these people have speech writers but it takes a great orator to identify how a speech should be delivered. There are many dynamics to deliver a speech; much more a memorable one.

      When Speech writers put pen to paper they put into consideration the orators personality and interests… some of these writers have been with the orators for ages and have a dynamic feel for what is required of them because they’ve had to redo speeches when the orator is not happy.

      As for our president…. Please don’t even call him an orator.

    • Sterling Ferguson

      @Tofolux, the president of the US doesn’t function like in SA and can’t make laws run the country. The president has can’t spend money like the president in SA can spend money. As far as the drone attacks, there haven’t been no million of people killed in these attacks. The base in Cuba is a necessary because these murders shouldn’t be allowed on the US soil. There is nobody going to bed hungry like in SA from a shortage of food. In SA the people have no voice in the government and nobody is elected to office in SA. The judiciary in the US is more independent than in SA where the ANC is doing nothing but manipulating the justice system to protect their members. I think I had a debate with you before and freedom doesn’t exist in SA like in the US. Zuma has just used government money on his home and the government is too weak to do anything to him. If Obama had used government on upgrading his home, he would have been impeached.

    • Sterling Ferguson

      @Orwell, Putin has gone on record as supporting the NSA and said it was a necessary to fight the suicide bombers. You know as well as anyone else that Wall St doesn’t control the US politic, but tries to influence it. The US is a large middle class country and their politic is middle of the road or liberal. The more extreme groups are rejected in the US government and die by the wayside.

    • Sterling Ferguson

      @Tofolux, the shutdown of the government wasn’t caused by Obama, but by the Tea Party that had hijacked the Republican party.

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