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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).

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