A correspondent - from the Sunday Times, no less - writes to ask what I thought of the Barack Obama speech, stylistically. A selection of my off-the-cuff remarks is printed in today's ST. Here are some on-the-cuff reflections.
Speaking as a stylistician - as opposed to a human being (if you'll allow me the distinction), as excited as anyone about this event - it blew me away. As the speech started, I turned to my wife and said, 'He'll never do it!' What was I noticing? It was the opening if-clause, a 41-word cliff-hanger with three who-clause embeddings. Starting a major speech with a subordinate clause? And one of such length and syntactic complexity? I thought he would be lucky if he was able to round it off neatly after the first comma. Try it for yourself: get a sense of the strain on your memory by starting a sentence with a 19-word if-clause, and see what it feels like. But he didn't stop at 19 words. The first who-clause is followed by a second. Then a third. It was real daring. It's difficult for listeners to hold all that in mind. But it worked. And then the short 4-word punch-clause. And deserved applause.
If there is anyone out there who still doubts that America is a place where all things are possible, who still wonders if the dream of our founders is alive in our time, who still questions the power of our democracy, tonight is your answer.
How did it work? How can you get people to process 41 words easily? By following some basic rules of rhetoric. One is to structure your utterance, where possible, into groups of three.
who still doubts that America is a place where all things are possible,
who still wonders if the dream of our founders is alive in our time,
who still questions the power of our democracy
The other is to make sure that none of these chunks exceed what is easy to process in working memory. Psycholinguists once worked out a 'magic rule of seven, plus or minus two' - that most people find seven 'bits' of information the most they can handle at a time. Get someone to repeat after you a sequence of random digits:
9, 5, 7
4, 2, 7, 5
9, 3, 6, 8, 2
8, 4, 6, 9, 2, 7
2, 5, 3, 8, 6, 9, 4
People start sensing a difficulty when the sequence reaches five. Some can't get beyond this. Most of us get into trouble if we try to remember more than seven, though some people can handle up to nine without a problem. (The psycholinguistic issues aren't as simple as this, but the basic idea is illuminating.)
Here are those three who-clauses with the main information-carrying words in bold and tallied:
who still doubts that America is a place where all things are possible, 7
who still wonders if the dream of our founders is alive in our time, 6
who still questions the power of our democracy 4
As the sentence progresses, note how the demands on our memory get shorter. In fact the demands are even less than the numbers suggest because of the structural parallelism: who still doubts... still wonders... still questions.... With still set up as part of the pattern, we do not need to devote any processing energy to it, and can concentrate on the following verb.
The rhetorical 'rule of three' is an important feature of the speech. It's something that all famous speech-makers use. Churchill was brilliant at it. But all public speakers know that they can get a round of applause if they use a triptych with structural parallelism:
I was with you yesterday
I am with you today
And I shall be with you tomorrow!
You have to put it across right, of course, with an appropriate prosodic climax. Obama is brilliant at that too.
What you mustn't do is overdo it. For Obama to follow this first paragraph immediately with another triptych wouldn't work. A different stylistic technique is needed to provide variety and maintain pace. He switches to a 'pairs' structure - and pairs within pairs. The 'lines' vs 'people' contrast is itself a pair - but it contains paired noun phrases:
lines that stretched around schools and churches...
people who waited three hours and four hours...
Note how, strictly speaking, the pairing is unnecessary. He could have said simply:
lines that stretched around buildings...
people who waited hours...
but the pairing is more effective. A triptych is unwise here, for the underlying meaning is banale, and to keep it going would be to produce a sense of padding:
people who waited three hours and four hours and five hours...
He rounds the paragraph off with another pairing:
that this time must be different,
that their voices could be that difference.
And then he produces what, to my mind, is stylistically the most daring piece in the whole text: a list entirely consisting of pairs. From a content point of view, lists are dangerous, as they prompt people to notice who might have been left out. But that evening, I don't think anyone was counting. Yet it's worth noting that he respects the 'rule of seven' - there are just seven groups mentioned (or six, if you put the ethnic groups together):
young and old
rich and poor
Democrat and Republican
Hispanic, Asian, Native American
disabled and not disabled
Why omit the ands in the middle group? Precisely because the omission of and reduces the force of the contrast and allows the suggestion that the list can be extended. Unlike 'young and old' and the others, the list of ethnic groups is open-ended. Maybe the same open-endedness applies also to 'gay, straight' - I'm not sure.
This first section of the speech ends with more pairs within pairs:
we have never been just a collection of individuals or a collection of red states and blue states
We are, and always will be, the United States of America.
Having devoted so much rhetorical energy to pairs, it's not surprising to see him round off this first section with more triples:
cynical and fearful and doubtful...
on this date, in this election, at this defining moment...
And we should also notice that the whole of this first section is structured as a triptych. Each of the paragraphs after the first begins in the same way:
It's the answer told...
It's the answer spoken...
It's the answer that led...
And the paragraph lengths are almost the same: 52 words, 53 words, 48 words. So we have threes within balanced threes. Elegant.
When you go in for rhetorical structures, you have to know when to use them and when not to use them. Obama's second section is a series of acknowledgments and thanks. This is a more personal sequence, and this kind of sincerity needs to be expressed in a more loosely structured language. No climactic rhetoric wanted here. Sentences are shorter, the vocabulary is more private and down-to-earth, and the only hint of elaborate structuring is a single triptych in honour of his wife:
the rock of our family, the love of my life, the nation's next first lady
The rhetorical contrast with the rousing first section is striking.
One of the things actors know is that, in a long speech, they have to leave themselves somewhere else to go. This is something I've learned from actor son Ben. If you put all your energy into the opening lines of a soliloquy, you'll find it trailing away into nothing before the end. Rather, start low and steadily build up. Or, divide the speech up into sections and introduce peaks and troughs. Or, divide it into sections and treat each section in a different way. Obama's speech goes for this last option. It has several sections, each very different in content, and it is the switch of content which motivates a switch of style and renews the audience's motivation to listen. Each section ends with a short audience-rousing statement:
An opening section:
We are, and always will be, the United States of America.
A 'thanks' section:
It belongs to you.
An 'origins' section ('I was never the likeliest candidate for this office...')
This is your victory.
A 'scale of the problem' section ('And I know you didn't do this just to win an election...')
I promise you, we as a people will get there.
A 'challenges' section ('There will be setbacks and false starts...')
And I will be your president too.
A 'story' section ('This election had many firsts...')
Yes we can.
Note what happens after the rhetorical 'lull' in the 'thanks' section. He returns to the rule of three, pounding steadily away:
It began in the backyards of Des Moines and the living rooms of Chicago and the front porches of Charleston.
...to give $5 and $10 and $20 to the cause.
...Americans who volunteered and organized and proved...
...a government of the people, by the people, and for the people.
...two wars, a planet in peril, the worst financial crisis in a century.
...how they'll make the mortgage or pay their doctors' bills or save enough for their child's college education.
...new energy to harness, new jobs to be created, new schools to build...
...block by block, brick by brick, calloused hand by calloused hand.
...a new spirit of service, a new spirit of sacrifice ... a new spirit of patriotism.
...partisanship and pettiness and immaturity...
...self-reliance and individual liberty and national unity.
To those who would tear the world down... To those who seek peace and security... And to all those who have wondered...
When he reached the end of his 'challenges' section, I thought the speech was about to end. It used two time-honoured ending motifs. First there is a sequence of four rather than three:
the enduring power of our ideals: democracy, liberty, opportunity and unyielding hope.
And then an appeal to the future:
What we've already achieved gives us hope for what we can and must achieve tomorrow.
He could have stopped there. But then there was an electrifying change, as he moved from the general ('America can change') to the particular ('Ann Nixon Cooper is 106 years old').
It was a risky strategy. The end of the speech was not far off. He had just produced several hundred words of highly crafted rhetoric, with many vivid and climactic images - 'from parliaments and palaces', 'America's beacon still burns as bright', 'the true genius of America'. The audience is being brought to the boil. To tell a quiet, intimate story now could have produced an anticlimax. But it didn't. Why?
Because the speech-writers had a trick up their sleeve. The Cooper story starts quietly:
She was born just a generation past slavery...
but within a few words she is part of a new rhetorical build-up, first with a pair:
...a time when there were no cars on the road or planes in the sky...
and then a stunning triptych, with each element containing a pair:
I think about all that she's seen throughout her century in America -
the heartache and the hope;
the struggle and the progress;
the times we were told that we can't, and the people who pressed on with that American creed: Yes we can.
There's the trick that gets the speech out of any possible trouble. The audience has already shouted 'Yes we can', three times, at an earlier point. It has become a catch-phrase, used throughout the campaign. The real climax of the speech is going to build on that.
But an audience has to be taught what to do, by way of reaction. People won't intervene en masse in the middle of a story. They have to be invited. And Obama uses the rule of three to teach them.
...with that American creed. Yes we can. [no noticeable response]
... and reach for the ballot. Yes we can. [no noticeable response]
... a new sense of common purpose. Yes we can. [audience: Yes we can.]
From then on, he's home and dry. Every 'Yes we can' trigger is going to get a response. The triptych rhetoric continues to flow:
She was there for the buses in Montgomery, the hoses in Birmingham, a bridge in Selma...
A man touched down on the moon, a wall came down in Berlin, a world was connected...
to put our people back to work... to restore prosperity... to reclaim the American dream...
And there, with 'dream', he ends as he began. 'Dream' is a powerful word in American political rhetoric, thanks to Martin Luther King. King is not mentioned in the speech, but he is there in spirit, from the beginning to the end. Obama's opening words link dreams to questions. His closing words link dreams to answers. The speech is a Martin Luther King sandwich, and it went down very very well indeed.
I still don't know how he did it. Was he reading from some teleprompter somehow? Was it memorized? Was it partly prompted and memorized? But however he did it, it will rank as one of the great political speeches of our time. It won't rank with the very best, without editing, because the 'thank-you' section particularizes and personalizes too much. The thanks to campaign managers and the like has no permanent resonance. But there are sections here which are as fine as anything I've ever heard in a speech. And if the role of style is to get one's content across as effectively as possible, then Obama and his speech-makers have proved themselves to be stylists second to none.