Tongue Tied America Book Cover

Why Tongue-Tied America?

Verbal persuasion is an empowering skill.  If you know how to say what you think convincingly, you can shine both personally and professionally.  There is no better feeling that knowing that you can express your thoughts aloud, and that people will listen to you.

Verbal persuasion also plays an essential role in the proper functioning of a healthy democracy.  Government “by the people” requires that the people be involved—that they possess some basic understanding of how to speak to one another, and how to evaluate what others are saying.  Debate—even sometimes contentious, unpleasant debate—is the way we hash out ideas.

This website, and our book, Tongue-Tied America:  Reviving the Art of Verbal Persuasion, show you how rhetoric works.  The book tells you how to speak persuasively.  On this website, we check in periodically to talk about how the lessons from the book apply to speeches happening today.

Tongue-Tied America and the 2012 Presidential Race

Throughout the presidential race of 2012, we analyzed the presidential campaigns for lessons of effective verbal persuasion.  To follow our analysis, start with this Campaign Scorecard.  Then look here for analysis of each major political speech or debate, all the way up to Election Day.

Tongue-Tied Applied

You can read our analyses of Tongue-Tied America applied to the real world here, or see our most recent posts below:

Why Public Speaking Still Matters in the Age of Facebook

You can read Molly Shadel’s op-ed from the Daily Progress here.

The Third Presidential Debate: Agreeing Disagreeably

An old law school friend said it best in a Facebook post:  This was “an entire debate of agreeing disagreeably.”

Second Presidential Debate: Obama Gets Focused

The second presidential debate between Barack Obama and Mitt Romney proved to be another clash between two expert rhetoricians. The winner of the debate depends on which poll you read, indicating that this continues to be a tight political race. Viewed in terms of pure rhetorical skill, however, the night goes to President Obama.

The Vice-Presidential Debate: What Will You Remember?

That “whoosh” you may have heard last night was a collective sigh of relief, as Democrats across the country watched their vice-presidential candidate come out swinging. After President Obama’s low-energy performance during the first presidential debate, Democrats were itching for a show of strength from their ticket, and Joe Biden did not disappoint. But this morning, you may be hearing a different noise—a buzz of commentators asking, “Did he go too far?”

Molly Shadel Interviewed About First Presidential Debate

Molly Shadel spoke to NBC29 news about the rhetoric of the first Presidential debate.  You can watch the interview here.

First Presidential Debate

Last night’s presidential debate was a pleasure to watch. President Obama and Governor Romney have extensive debate experience—over 50 debates between them—and the wonky political knowledge that a candidate must master to exude credibility. Both were able to project power, articulate complicated ideas clearly, and engage the audience. But Romney’s performance had a little extra pizzazz, a more deftly crafted message, and the energy that comes when a speaker knows that he is doing well, which let him carry the night.

The Debates Are Coming…

Tonight at 9:00 EDT you can watch the first round of the presidential debates between President Obama and Governor Romney. Here is our list of what each candidate should do in order to be at his rhetorical best:

Plato, YouTube and Muhammad: When the Rules of Rhetoric Clash with Free Speech

Plato hated rhetoric.  He worried that it made the “worse appear the better reason,” that it was a form of “flattery” designed to pull the wool over the eyes of the ignorant multitudes.

He conceded that rhetoric could be done well if the speaker was careful to speak the truth about what he said, if he took the time to explain his terms, if he paid attention to structure, and if he designed his speech to be appropriate for his particular audience.  Mostly, though, he worried about the inflammatory nature of rhetoric and the susceptibility of the audience to turn into a mob under the right circumstances.  Euripides described the problem like this:  “A man of loose tongue, intemperate, trusting to tumult, leading the populace to mischief with empty words.”

Romney Unplugged: Fundraising Remarks Show Imperative of Knowing Your Audience

Mitt Romney’s rhetoric has made headlines again this week because of recently released videos of remarks that he made at a private fundraising event several months ago.  The speech and the reaction to it reveal how important it is to understand your audience.

Romney’s Criticism of Embassy Statement Misfires

In the midst of protests at the American embassy in Egypt and violence on the American embassy in Libya that left four people dead, including the American ambassador, Mitt Romney made news of his own.  He spoke out about what he described as the Obama administration’s reaction to the crisis, pointing to a release by the American embassy in Egypt.  His statements have gotten him into trouble, illustrating the importance of accuracy to effective rhetoric.

The Democratic National Convention, Day Three: The Main Attraction — Barack Obama

The build-up was intense: Eloquent speeches by Michelle Obama, Bill Clinton and others; then a moving video tribute narrated by George Clooney.

The expectation was high. Obama has already delivered some of the most memorable speeches of his generation.

The president did not disappoint. Here’s how he came through:

The Democratic National Convention, Day Three: Joe Biden Learns It’s Hard to Follow Clinton

Joe Biden is capable of delivering a moving, inspiring speech. This was not his best.

Biden tried to establish an emotional connection with his audience by starting the talk as many of the speakers at these conventions have, by describing his love for his family. His declaration of love for his wife, whom he called “Kitten,” seemed oddly out-of-place for a formal speech, and went on for far too long. You can watch it here: 

The Democratic National Convention, Day 3: Opening Acts

There were a number of rhetorically powerful appeals that aired before prime time that are worth watching:

  • Gabby Giffords struggling up to the podium to read the Pledge of Allegiance left no dry eye in the house. 
    Read more…

The Democratic National Convention, Day Two: Bill Clinton Resets the Bar

Bill Clinton is a masterful public speaker, so all expected him to do well. He delivered. You can watch the speech here:

The Democratic National Convention, Day One: Michelle Obama Soars

Michelle Obama shone bright on the first day of the Democratic National Convention. She had many tough acts to follow (you can read about them here), but once she took the stage, she made you forget all the other speeches that came before.

Here’s how:

The Democratic National Convention, Day One: Starting With a Bang

The first day of the Democratic National Convention was a pleasure for fans of rhetoric to watch. Many of the presentations were emotionally powerful and delivered superbly. (The terms that you’ll see in parentheses are Aristotle’s concepts of effective persuasion: ethos, or credibility; pathos, or emotional engagement; and logos, or logic. See our previous posts for more about these concepts.) Note how many of these hit some of the arguments that we listed in our previous post.  Speeches worth noting:

Preparing for the Democratic Convention: What’s the Best Argument?

Now it’s the Democrats’ turn.  During their convention, they must make a case akin to a trial lawyer’s closing argument:  Clear, strong and full of conviction.

The most pressing question:  Are you better off now than you were four years ago?

Mitt Romney’s Etch A Sketch Problem: Why it is Difficult to Change Stories Mid-Campaign

You may recall a memorable moment in the Romney campaign back in March, when senior advisor Eric Fehrnstrom described the transition from the primaries to the general election as an opportunity for his candidate to reinvent himself:

 Everything changes. It’s almost like an Etch A Sketch. You can kind of shake it up and restart all over again.

Admitting to this plan was roundly criticized as folly, but candidates traditionally must fine-tune (or even significantly overhaul) their messages as they transition from the primary race to the general election. The conventions offer a candidate the opportunity to introduce himself to voters who do not yet know him, and focus attention on his central themes.

Using “Women” in the Republican National Convention

It was striking how many of the key speakers at the Republican National Convention reached for the theme of the importance of women.  In speech after speech, we heard about the dominant role that mothers have played in shaping the lives of these political figures: Chris Christie’s Sicilian mom, “the enforcer,” who taught him to speak “the truth, bluntly, directly and without much varnish”; Paul Ryan’s mom, who demonstrated true grit by earning a degree and starting a business after the death of his father; Mitt Romney’s mom, who ran for the Senate, telling her son, “Why should women have any less say than men, about the great decisions facing our nation?”  And we watched motherhood personified by Ann Romney, mother of five sons, who raised them during a time when Mitt traveled extensively for work. “”I’d call and try to offer support,” Mitt Romney explained. “But every mom knows that doesn’t help get the homework done or the kids out the door to school.”

The Republican National Convention, Day Three: Mitt Romney Accepts the Nomination

The Republican National Convention, Day Three: Mitt Romney Accepts the Nomination
The first half of Day Three of the Republican National Convention (or at least the part that was actually broadcast on network TV) was a bizarre train-wreck. Surprise guest Clint Eastwood may prove to be the most vivid memory that many viewers will take away from Mitt Romney’s big day, with his incoherent speech that included a strange (and off-color) dialogue with an invisible, imaginary Barack Obama. Florida’s Marco Rubio offered a speech that focused mostly on himself, made memorable by a flub that seemed to endorse bigger government, and with very little focus on the candidate he was meant to support. Mitt Romney himself did an adequate job with his acceptance speech, but we suspect that viewers will not remember it as vividly as they will the bizarre presentations that preceded him that night.

The Republican National Convention, Day Two: Paul Ryan, Condoleezza Rice Set the Bar High

Republicans were treated to two powerhouse speeches during the second day of their national convention.  Condoleezza Rice and Paul Ryan both demonstrated a flair for verbal persuasion, but in two very different ways.  Their speeches, taken side by side, show that there are many paths to the top of the rhetorical mountain.  The trick is to choose the one that suits your own personal, authentic style.

The Republican National Convention, Day One: Ann Romney Overshadows Chris Christie

The two most notable speeches during the first day of the Republican National Convention came from Ann Romney, the candidate’s wife, and from Chris Christie, the governor of New Jersey and the keynote speaker of the convention. Despite Gov. Christie’s ease at the podium and reputation as a terrific speaker, Ann Romney — neither a politician nor a professional orator — outshone him. Here’s how:

A Campaign Scorecard: Grading the Candidate’s Rhetoric

A presidential campaign offers the perfect opportunity to better understand how verbal persuasion works in action. The party conventions, political debates and various campaign speeches are exercises in rhetoric. The candidates and their supporters will try to persuade you of the wisdom of their positions; you may engage in a little political debating of your own with friends and family. If you know how rhetoric works, you will be better positioned to evaluate the political campaigning that you hear, and to make some successful arguments yourself.