Rhetoric and Speaking Style Affect the Clinton-Obama Race

What makes a speech "good" and a politician a "good speaker"? Do speeches matter?


What makes a speech "good" and a politician a "good speaker"? Do speeches matter? If so, what matters in a speech? These questions, in the aftermath of Barack Obama's speech on "race and unity" last week, have been lurking quietly in the shadows of the ensuing debate. But rarely are they addressed outright.

The cable news networks, indirectly, have offered one type of analysis, splicing Obama's speech into sound bites and aiming them, like steel-tipped darts, at particular targets like black voters, white voters, or concerned voters. Each sentence, they argue, was meant for a certain audience. They also look at the effectiveness of a speech and invite pollsters to comment on how the numbers changed afterward.

Meanwhile, Obama's two remaining presidential rivals, Hillary Clinton and John McCain, have taken their own pot shots at the Illinois senator's oratory, asking voters to ignore it and focus solely on "the issues." McCain, with typical somberness, told supporters after clinching the GOP nomination, "Americans aren't interested in an election where they are just talked to and not listened to; an election that offers platitudes instead of principles."

Talk does matter, however. In fact, it matters greatly. Both oratory—the art of public speaking—and rhetoric, the art of using language to advance a cause, have deep roots in American culture, and their combined impact on American history has been significant, if not monumental. Recall Abraham Lincoln's Gettysburg Address, or Martin Luther King Jr.'s "I Have a Dream" speech.

Political speech remains influential today, with sometimes surprising consequences. In 2000, pollsters famously reported that voters were attracted to George W. Bush because they felt they could sit down and "have a beer with him." The buddy phenomenon, it seemed, had less to do with the content of Bush's words and more to do with his style—that Texas twang, those folksy vowels.

So where exactly does speech stand in the 2008 election? To talk about the talk in greater depth, U.S. News spoke with linguistic anthropologist Jennifer Jackson, a Virginia native who received her Ph.D. at Yale University and now is an assistant professor of anthropology at the University of Toronto. Jackson's research focuses on political oratory and rhetoric in the United States and in transitioning democracies in Africa.


The speech Obama gave last week sounded a lot different from his usual stump speech. His voice was different. His tone was different. What was behind the change?

Obama has to ride the line between content and form. In a typical victory speech, for example, he sets people up for the "call and response" by elongating his vowels or doing a lilt in his intonation. In his speech after Iowa, he said something and he had a lilt in his voice, and you can hear someone in the crowd saying, "Yes they did." These are "interactional" cues. They tell the audience, this is a dialogue between me and you. I think last week he was trying to make his speech as unmarked stylistically as possible, because style is what will index—make us think of a certain group. In the race speech he was trying not to do that; he didn't want to index any [ethnic] group. The story he told about Ashley Baia, a campaign worker, was the same one he used in a speech he gave at Ebenezer Baptist Church in Atlanta on Martin Luther King Day. The wording was almost verbatim. What did he want this story to do this time around?

Obama wanted to press unity. I think the motivation for the anecdote was to create Ashley as a foil for Reverend Wright, the man he doesn't mention except once or twice. I think it's pretty ingenious on his part. You take Ashley, who is white, young, and working on a black man's campaign; in that whole speech he wanted to show the complexity of race on the ground, what it's like all the time. He did that through his biography, and then through Ashley. She embodied all of that complexity.... If we were to go back and listen to the Ebenezer speech, that story in that speech was more fitting, stylistically, because he was in a church with the intonation and lift. This time he was just trying to pace it out and communicate information.