Obama’s victory speech – a tour de force.

When, on the morning of 7 November, I learnt on the radio that Barack Obama had won another four-year term as President of the United States of America, I also learnt that his victory speech had a distinct Face –

“The best is yet to come!”

I greeted this with mixed feelings. I was delighted that he had actually given the speech a Face. Can you quote anything from his inauguration four years ago?  I can’t either. It’s such a simple device, and so many overlook it.  But my delight was tinged with nervousness. His Face was uncannily similar to Ronald Reagan’s under precisely the same circumstances, “You ain’t seen nothing yet!” I was nervous lest his victory speech turn out to be merely a rehash of political plagiarism and cliché.


My anxiety was mightily reinforced by his opening which came pretty close to merely updating, “Four score and seven years ago…”; but very quickly my fears were squashed. For what it needed to be, this speech shaped into a supremely impressive example.

What is a speech like that supposed to achieve? Are we to expect detailed policy news? – a reform timetable? – a series of eye-catching initiatives? For heaven’s sake, he was there to congratulate, thank and rally. Nothing else. You’d have to work pretty hard to write a better example of that than this.

I don’t reckon anyone had written this though. He spoke for twenty minutes with no vestige of a script or notes. Many regard that as barely a notch short of magic  It isn’t: it’s easy: everyone I’ve trained can do that. Nevertheless he did it in ringing tones, unhaltingly, scattering names and other data prodigiously. You may think I say this through gritted teeth because I am not his greatest fan as a speaker, but I was bowled over.

There was the series of thankings. We have all curled our toes at lame thankings at the Oscar ceremonies (all actors think they can speak in public, and very few can). Obama addressed each group of thankees in a different way. What a simple device for making each group feel special! Simple, but not easy.

He varied the vocal tone. Most of it was pretty declamatory, which is to be expected under the circumstances. This had the added advantage for him of what I call ‘relentless iambicism’ – a regular lifting of the voice at the ends of words and phrases. Iambicism can be intensely tedious unless it’s appropriate – and here it was appropriate. For Obama the advantage was that it remedied much of his tendency to swallow the ends of his words. He still referred to the ‘peep’ who voted for him in the ‘elecksh’, and so on – but I won’t rain on his parade.  I began this paragraph by stating that he varied the tone. Note how he brings it right down to a quieter intensity at 8:40. Having that section in the middle of all that declaiming was particularly telling. It was a lovely section in the speech.

He stuck in a lot of huge pauses. Very dramatic: a good device for conveying security and authority: an excellent device for buying him thinking time.

That thinking time or a well-developed way with words, or both, produced for instance anadiplosis in the first minute and a very good anaphora triad at 19:20 – keep reaching, keep working, keep fighting.  It could be argued that it was not just anaphora but symploce (beginnings and endings the same) because each element began with ‘keep’ and ended with ‘ing’

How to close? Send for Polly!

At 19:50 he deployed polysyndeton. If you want to build to a big finish (peroration), polysyndeton can be a good friend. You have an enormous list, and instead of reeling it off without conjunctions (asyndeton), you go out of your way to stick the same conjunction between each element in the list. In this case the conjunction was ‘or’. He began with phrases, each joined with ‘or’. The phrases became shorter which caused the incidence of ‘or’ to accelerate. Eventually he was rattling off individual words – all separated by ‘or’. The effect on the crowd was nuclear: it was never going to be otherwise. He climbed on top of the tumult by blazing extended anaphora till he was addressing bedlam.  Who heard all the “God Bless America” bits?  Who needed to?

Barack baby, that’ll do.

Boris Johnson – fumbling fakery?

After I did my critique of Ken Livingstone I decided to find a speech by his opponent, Boris Johnson, for analysis. This appeared in the June ’12 Auracle Newsletter.

Because my niche is the business world I wanted to work on a speech that could be termed ‘formal’. This was not because I felt my readers would be bored by the style of his more spontaneous outpourings (quite the contrary!) but for reasons of relevance. For them to glean benefit from a critique of a speech, it needs to be as close as I can get it to the sort of speech they might find themselves having to give. It took a lengthy, time-consuming, highly entertaining and informative search to find it.

Boris is giving a keynote speech at the MIPIM Real Estate conference in Cannes, in March 2011.

His introduction by Christophe Chupot lasts precisely one minute, and there is a relevance there that I shall explore shortly.

I can sit here and pontificate on what Boris does right and what he does wrong; but I do so at peril of making a fool of myself. Have you seen this quite-well-known YouTube clip?  Arnold Schwarzenegger, waiting to address a Conservative Party conference over a satellite link, hears Boris preceding him. He whispers to a bystander at his end that this man is “fumbling all over the place”. When this was subsequently reported to Boris he dismissed criticism from a “monosyllabic Austrian cyborg”. The proof of the pudding is a relatively flourishing London compared with a virtually bankrupt California. You always have to bear in mind that Boris is not only bright academically, but has proved to be adroit politically and competent in office. I could compile a considerable list of issues I would address were I advising him, but in the back of my mind I would have the sound of the positive response I keep hearing from his audience. Your audience is your market, and I am a devout believer in the market. I suspect very strongly that he would reply to most – if not all – of my points that they were deliberate devices achieving particular aims; and I’d have a devil of a task, trying to marshal arguments against his track record of proven popularity and electoral success.

Here, for instance, is something significant. How long was his allotted slot – twenty minutes? Probably – it usually is. His speech finishes as the digital counter hits 20:57. Subtract his introduction of exactly one minute. This means that Boris, after “fumbling all over the place” comes out 3 seconds before his deadline. Awesome accuracy! Who dares claim that was just luck?

It seems glaringly obvious that this bumbling and fumbling that is so much a part of the Boris image is camouflaging a mind like a razor.  What is less obvious is why.  I wonder whether he created this camouflage as a defence at school, or later as a political tool.  I’m already outside my brief so let’s look at the speech –

He leaps out of his chair, takes possession of the lectern, and though he’s at the height of his hump (yes, of course he has one!) and though he begins by thanking Christophe for the introduction, he is not looking at him but straight out front. When you are nervous there’s huge pressure to seize a legitimate reason to look anywhere but at the audience, but he spurns it. Pause at 1:07, and you see him holding the lectern and leaning forward eagerly like a prop forward about to engage in a scrum. This is a man who is channelling all his nerves into transmitting his message.

  • 1:23 Leave those bloody microphones alone, Boris! He points them at his mouth and for the rest of the speech they are popping like Rice Krispies. Actually, if the conference organisers knew their stuff, they would have better microphones. There are some that will not ‘pop’ whatever you do. They cost a little more, but hey! Here, though, I feel a dark suspicion creeping in: I looked at a lot of Boris’ speeches while seeking this one, and in nearly all of them he ‘popped’. Furthermore, in one of them he kept tapping for emphasis on the lectern to which the microphone was attached. The sound was thus conducted to the PA system and the resultant percussion was maddening! Please, Boris, don’t tell me that you are doing this on purpose to keep people awake!
  • 2:04 He shields his eyes to find someone in the audience. He does it several times during the speech. I’ll say more about that later.

He is very good indeed at reading from a script, and yet sounding spontaneous (I’d prefer him not to be using a script at all, but he’s a mayor in office and very busy). One of the devices he uses to achieve that – as part of his apparent fumbling – is interrupting himself with manic interjections. It’s a form of anapodoton and his being a scholar of the classics you can bet your shirt (even in this lousy weather) that he knows not only the device but the word. And, lest you wanted me to illustrate anapodoton, I’ve stuck a couple of tame ones in this paragraph.

N.B. reading the script does mean that he ‘pops’ every time he lowers his face to the lectern.

  • 2:40 He lists cities that have been studied as part of growth research, but rather than just reeling off names he strengthens the list by putting the words “They looked at -” in between the names. That rhetorical device is called polysyndeton and you can bet your… &c.  (And that tailing-off is another form of anapodoton: is there no end to the information you are getting today!)
  • 3:51 Anaphora.  “We have the…”
  • 7:57 He corrects himself unnecessarily – “In our preparation for…/…In the run-up to the Olympics…” In the process his eyes never leave the page. What’s the betting that the correction was scripted as part of his brilliantly portrayed “fumbling”?
  • 9:35 Penelope and her suitors. Trust a classical scholar to insert a reference to Homer’s Odyssey.  And look at the tiny mischievous smile that accompanies it!
  • 12:18 More carefully-portrayed fumbling! “And we, and we, and we are on, and we are on a course, we are on a course…” Why do I claim it’s carefully portrayed? I’ve seen him do that so often that it’s almost a mannerism. This is one smart cookie who knows how to create a cuddly image.
  • 13:31 Lovely joke! I won’t spoil it for you; but if you want to go straight to it you need to start further back – say around 13:10.
  • 20:57 Ends! That’s a timing bull’s-eye by any standards.

BUT … he had been intending to conduct a Q&A session at the end. He clearly has not read The Face & Tripod. I lament in my book that everyone in the whole world (except for my trainees) puts Q&A sessions at the wrong place in their presentations. I bow to no one, no not even the mayor of London, on this matter.

I said earlier that I would look at how Boris periodically shielded his eyes to find someone in the audience. I don’t have a problem with that as such; but Boris does have a problem with stage lights. In this speech he has an almost constant dazzle-frown. It’s not unusual: stage lights can feel rather over-bearing, and Boris – commendably – is intent on focussing on his audience. When I direct plays I sometimes teach my principals to ‘love their lights’. You have to get into the counter-intuitive habit of actually widening your eyes to welcome the glare of the lights (your pupils will cope). That way, far from frowning, your facial expression remains more open. And you can make your eyes flash!  I’m not joking: I could teach Boris how to make his eyes flash. But that might compromise his carefully nurtured fumble-image.

Lastly… Did you spot any sign of nerves? I did. There’s one thing he does periodically – his hand comes up to stroke the back of his head. That is an indicator of stress, and I believe it’s hard-wired into us: babies do it, though with babies it tends to signify tiredness. So be reassured: Boris is no more fearless than you. He has simply worked very successfully at concealing his fear. So can you.

Perhaps that’s one reason his hair is always in its trademark mess.