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Obama’s Oratory Style

Great piece from this morning’s FT on Obama’s oratory style.

As lawyer, lecturer and politician, Obama’s “certain talent for rhetoric” (as he describes it himself in his second, bestselling memoir of 2006 The Audacity of Hope ) has been what propelled his rise. And his speeches are filled, thrillingly, with highly formal rhetoric of the sort that would be recognisable to ancient philosophers and scholars of the medieval trivium – in which rhetoric, along with grammar and logic, formed one third of an education. He absolutely pours it on. What Obama’s doing is as old as Aristotle – whose Rhetoric set out the ground rules for the art of persuasion four centuries before the birth of Christ.

“Ethos” was the name Aristotle gave to that part of rhetoric that establishes the speaker’s bona fides. “Logos” – or the actual argument – was only one among three of the persuasive appeals; “pathos” – manipulating the audience’s emotions – was just as important. Think of it this way. Ethos: “Buy my old car because I’m Jeremy Clarkson.” Logos: “Buy my old car because yours is broken and mine is the only one on sale.” Pathos: “Buy my old car or I’ll twist the head off this kitten.”

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Repetition, particularly in the form of anaphora – where a phrase is repeated at the beginning of successive lines – is another of the prime tools of political oratory and one that Obama revels in. His speech at the Iowa caucus on January 3 2008 opened: “You know, they said this time would never come. They said our sights were set too high. They said this country was too divided, too disillusioned to ever come together around a common purpose.”

He went on to declare: “I’ll be a president who finally makes healthcare affordable … I’ll be a president who ends the tax breaks … I’ll be a president who harnesses the ingenuity … I’ll be a president who ends this war in Iraq … ” Then: “This was the moment when … this was the moment when … this was the moment when … ” And, as his speech built to its climax, “Hope is what I saw … Hope is what I heard … Hope is what led a band of colonists to rise up against an empire.”

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