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. …
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.”
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:
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 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: …
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.
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 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.
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 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 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.
A jury on Thursday declared John Edwards to be not guilty of misusing campaign money, and deadlocked on five other charges against him. It is unlikely that the government will retry Edwards, so this may mark the end of Edwards’ legal battle against charges that he violated campaign finance laws by accepting enormous sums of money to hide his pregnant mistress from his wife, Elizabeth, who was dying of cancer. This was a case that turned most Americans’ stomachs — even those who defended Edwards’ actions under the law were disturbed by his lack of moral compass.
After the verdict (or lack thereof) was announced, John Edwards made a speech on the courthouse steps.
Edwards is a gifted orator, who first made his name as an attorney with a magical ability to connect with a jury. As one might expect, Edwards’ speech was crafted well, illustrating several rules of effective verbal persuasion. But that uneasy feeling that you may have experienced watching proves something that Aristotle first told us over 2,000 years ago: To persuade an audience, you must exhibit the highest moral character, or ethos. Your good reputation, once lost, will be difficult to regain, and your advocacy will suffer for it.
First, the good things. Edwards’ speech is easy to follow because it has a clean, clear structure. He makes only a few points, each separated from the other by a pause and an obvious transition statement. First, he thanks the jury for its service. Second, he apologizes for his moral transgressions. Third, he expresses love for his children and his parents. And finally, he hints as work that he plans to do in the future — perhaps to atone for sins, or perhaps to attempt a political comeback. A speech will be stronger if you choose a few simple points that you want to make, and if you write the presentation so that each is distinct from the other, as Edwards has done.
Edwards expresses humility by using simple language. He paints a picture of family life with his kids, Jack and Emma Clair, “who I take care of every day, and … get their breakfast ready, get ”em off to school, and then we get home at night and we all eat supper together.” He talks about his faithful parents, who “tromp up here from Robbins, North Carolina every day to be with me,” and his courageous daughter, Cate, “who loves her mother so, so much.” Choosing simple, everyday words can make a speech more powerful and a speaker more accessible.
As you watch the speech, you may find it difficult to take your eyes off Edwards’ elderly parents, standing to one side of him, and his daughter Cate, who stands on the other. Their faces, especially his father’s, show emotion that Edwards attempts to articulate, and it breaks your heart to see the pain that flashes in his father’s expression during various points in the speech. Good trial lawyers know that people are much more likely to believe things if they see them. This speech proves that point—visuals grab our attention. You notice what you see, and you remember it.
Which brings us to the way in which the speech falls short. The wordless emotion that Edwards’ family conveys seems so much more genuine than anything that Edwards himself can achieve, because we cannot forget what we know about Edwards. Even his apology is carefully crafted to protect him from legal trouble, which reminds you that this man is, of course, a lawyer: “While I do not believe I did anything illegal, or ever thought I was doing anything illegal, I did an awful, awful lot that was wrong and there is no one else responsible for my sins.” Would it be possible for him to say anything that could make you forget the pain that he has inflicted on his family, especially his dying wife, or the hubris that he exhibited in pursuing and the hiding the affair? Probably not. Listeners view every speech through the prism of what they already know about the speaker. Aristotle would tell Edwards that he needs to shore up that ethos of his. Go help those poor kids that Edwards speaks of at the end of the speech. His words might mean more once he does.
Today, Crossroads GPS, the conservative group founded by Karl Rove, released a new political ad criticizing President Obama, which will be aired widely across the country. The ad is also the work of Larry McCarthy, the producer of the questionable “Willie Horton” ad from 1988 — the one that played on racial fears by featuring images of a scary-looking African-American man as it accused Michael Dukakis of being soft on crime. With a pedigree like that, you might expect to see some bloodshed in this offering. But the Crossroads ad, called “Basketball,” shows surprising subtlety compared to other
ads prominent Republicans and the Tea Party have been offering voters of late. The Tea Party and other Republican groups should take note: “Basketball” plays well because it follows the basic rules of persuasion: Engage the audience’s reason and emotions.
The ad’s tone is surprisingly levelheaded. It doesn’t require you to hate President Obama, or to believe that he is evil, or a Muslim, or a radical bent on turning us all Socialist, or any of the other nonsense that the Tea Party or the more extreme corners of the Republican Party like to espouse. Instead, it tells the story of a pretty mother who loves to watch her kids play basketball. This mother says that she “supported President Obama because he spoke so beautifully. He promised change.” She liked him, she says. That rhetorical approach will keep audience members who also harbor a soft spot for
President Obama listening. The ad is illustrating a basic rule of classical rhetoric best articulated by the Greek historian (and political analyst) Thucydides, and well-known to successful trial lawyers: Don’t risk losing the confidence of your audience by picking a needless battle. Instead, figure out what you absolutely must argue in order to win and argue the heck out of that.
Then, in the blink of an eye, the pretty mother ages and the kids grow up. We see that her kids are now grown adults who “can’t find jobs to get their careers started, and I can’t afford to retire. And now we’re all living together again.” This is a terrific way to engage our emotions. “Basketball” puts its finger on exactly the fears that plague many Americans right now — the terror of students equipped with college degrees, weighed down by enormous debt and no job prospects; the anxiety of parents who see no way to ever stop working. If the writers had added in a dad who’d been laid off and now
can’t find a job because of his age, they would have achieved a perfect trifecta of the real struggles that many Americans face right now. And the neat visual effect of fast-forwarding the family from an idyllic childhood period to a more-bleak present provides compelling drama.
“Basketball” also employs a clever rhetorical twist by turning Obama’s 2008 election messages — “Change We Can Believe In” and “Yes We Can” — on their head. The mom tells us, “He promised change, but things have changed for the worse.” “Change” is something the family has suffered, not enjoyed, as the kids have grown and their prospects have shrunk. “Basketball” reminds voters of the disappointment they may have experienced in the years following the 2008 election.
The ad is weakest in terms of logic. Several claims are factually inaccurate, such as its declaration that the president’s health care law — most of which has not yet taken effect — has made health insurance more expensive. It accuses the president of “spending like our credit cards have no limits,” while ignoring the disastrous economic decisions made before Obama took office that arguably necessitated the spending. The ad also falsely implies that the president taxes and spends because he is unaware of the pain of the average American family, when in fact he would argue that this is what motivates his policies.
But “Basketball” is memorable because it strikes a tone that will resonate with many viewers, particularly those experiencing the hardships that are featured in it. It is an effort to reach the middle— those undecided voters who want things to change for the better, but are not yet sure how to make that happen. “Basketball” shows how negative ads work best — not by shouting and sarcasm, but by reason and empathy.
Molly Bishop Shadel is a professor of oral advocacy and rhetoric at the University of Virginia School of Law and is co-author of “Tongue-Tied America: Reviving the Art of Verbal Persuasion.”
It is graduation season, and across the country nervous keynote speakers are scrambling to write that perfect commencement address. How to do it well? If you are looking for a model of a stand-out graduation speech, you will want to watch Steve Jobs’ 2005 commencement address to Stanford University.
Here is why it works.
A fundamental rule of speechmaking: Choose a topic that you care about, and figure out how to make your audience care about it, too. Jobs selected as his theme the importance of doing what you love and trusting yourself—a commonplace graduation topic made extraordinary by the personal, often humbling examples that Jobs offered from his own life.
By focusing on moments of failure, rather than moments of success, Jobs instantly connected with his audience. Steve Jobs was the founder of Apple Computers. He could have spoken of his multi-billion dollar fortune, the success and innovations of his companies, the role of technology in the future. He chose instead to talk about a handful of critical points in his life, moments of disappointment that his listeners could imagine suffering themselves. Suddenly, the multi-billion dollar innovator and pioneer of business became Everyman, a real person, making it easier to relate to and appreciate his advice. His tale resonated with the audience because there was nothing self-aggrandizing in it; he spoke of personal things because he wanted the audience to know and understand him. His credibility level, or ethos, was high from the outset because of his earnest desire to reach the audience.
His advice sticks because the stories illustrating it are unexpected and deeply personal. A speech is more likely to make an impression if you grab the audience’s attention from the beginning rather than wasting time with needless wind-up. Jobs accomplished this by promising “three stories from my life. No big deal, just three stories.” He took the audience by surprise when he confessed his lack of academic credentials—the speech at Stanford University was the closest he had come to graduating college. He then spoke of the unusual circumstances surrounding his adoption. He revealed an admirable strength of character as he explained that, despite the significance that his birth-mother placed on receiving a college education, he could not bear to see his working-class adoptive parents spend their life savings sending him to college. He opted instead to take a few part-time classes in subjects that interested him, which is how he found himself in a calligraphy class at Reed College.
That class became the basis for various for various fonts on the Apple operating system, the first system to have multiple typographies. And so Jobs began to weave his theme: Unconventional choices can offer opportunity if you look for it.
Jobs described how he was ousted from Apple Computer, the company he founded, and the uncertainty and shame that he suffered. As you listen to this portion of the speech, notice how adeptly he struck the perfect tone—likeable and credible. He revealed no trace of bitterness towards Apple or the executive who replaced him. Jobs explained that he came to view his departure from Apple as liberating, because it freed him to think about what he loved doing and forced him to do it (leading him to found the innovative, Oscar-winning film company, Pixar Studios).
Finally, Jobs spoke being diagnosed with pancreatic cancer (the disease that ultimately took his life on October 5, 2011). He revealed grim details of his diagnosis and his fears about telling his family he might not live much longer. In a miraculous turn of events, Jobs survived the cancer at that time and was offered a second chance. By sharing this personal experience with the listeners, Jobs made that second chance theirs as well. Jobs implored graduates to remember that time is finite and to make the most of it.
Jobs’ stories were memorable because they were unexpected, humbling, and hopeful. His personal anecdotes were not widely known before he gave this speech, which left the audience feeling as if it were being let in on a secret. Jobs chose a topic that was meaningful to him; exhibited ethos in his modesty and honesty; captured attention by offering surprising tidbits of information; and ultimately packed an emotional punch through his willingness to be vulnerable. Instead of a formal commencement address, Jobs offered a warm, intimate, and compelling lecture about life. That is why, years later, you can see still his closing lines printed on bumper stickers or T-shirts:
“Stay hungry. Stay foolish.”
Many saw Republican Senate candidate Richard Mourdock’s defeat of six-term incumbent
Richard Lugar in last week’s Indiana GOP primary as another sign of the death of bipartisanship. Lugar was known for his willingness to work across party lines, while Mourdock caters to the Tea Party crowd. Pundits believe that Mourdock may yet play a central role in the Republican effort to take control of the Senate. But Mourdock may have a tough time winning a Senate seat unless he abandons the Tea Party’s “No compromises” rhetoric.
In interviews with The New York Times, CNN, Fox News, MSNBC and local papers, Mourdock has pulled no punches. “The time for collegiality has passed. It’s time for confrontation,” he has said. “I certainly think bipartisanship ought to consist of Democrats coming to the Republican point of view. […] Bipartisanship means they have to come our way […] To me, the highlight of politics, frankly, is to inflict my opinion on someone else with a microphone or in front of a camera.”
This rhetorical strategy has proved popular with Tea Party candidates intent on venting political frustrations and firing up like-minded voters. But Mourdock’s bombast violates the three most time-honored canons of verbal rhetoric, and it won’t appeal to mainstream voters.
First, to be persuasive over time, a speaker must project credibility, or what the classical Greek orators called ethos. Credibility is about commanding respect and trust by showing balance, judgment and calm. Mourdock has taken the opposite approach: His charges are jarring, designed to appeal only to his steadfast followers. Mourdock himself said in a recent TV interview that 60 percent of voters do not identify themselves as conservatives at all. Despite the weakness of his “my way or the highway” approach, Mourdock promises conflict over calm. This mismatch of reality and speaking style hurts the Republican’s credibility.
Second, a speaker must strike an emotional chord with his audience (pathos). But if the speaker attempts to incite feelings of hatred or anger, audience members who are not yet persuaded will mistrust this manipulation. Similarly, if the speaker appears to be in the grip of his own, overwhelming emotion, then his judgment appears clouded. Mourdock commits both of these errors. Language this outsized conjures up the specter of a speaker and an audience out of control. It may motivate hardline primary voters, but it will likely harm Mourdock’s attempts to appeal to the middle.
Third, advocates must pass the test of common sense (logos). They must provide facts and
logic to support their positions. Mourdock does neither. Very few voters believe we need more gridlock in Congress. The public’s approval of legislators is barely in double digits, and polls attest to Americans’ overwhelming dissatisfaction with bipartisan acrimony and the resulting legislative gridlock. Under Mourdock’s warped logic, this problem is the solution.
Mourdock has said his campaign is about two central goals: limited government and less federal spending. These goals have been obscured by Mourdock’s rhetoric of confrontation, but he can still salvage his message by following the classical rules for public speaking:
We face urgent problems. I intend to devote my full energy to helping make progress on all of them. I hope Americans of all political stripes will join in this effort. But solutions cannot come at the price of sacrificing cherished values and principles. Mine include two first and foremost: We must reign in the size and power of the federal government; and we cannot continue to spend more than, by any rational view, we can afford.
That’s the kind of message that will make Mourdock appear more credible to mainstream voters.
We all need to fess up on occasion. It’s important to do it well. The great architects of classical rhetoric are wincing: Mitt got it all backward.
This week The Washington Post reported that presidential candidate Mitt Romney bullied a classmate in high school, leading a pack of students who held the boy down and cut off his blonde hair as the boy cried. Romney issued two responses to the story; first, a denial via his spokesperson Andrea Saul, who said, “The stories of 50 years ago seem exaggerated and off-base, and Governor Romney has no memory of participating in these incidents,” and second, in an interview on Fox Radio, in which he apologized for his behavior. Sort of.
The story has now shifted to the apology itself. People are skeptical. This is because it violates fundamental rules of verbal persuasion.
Aristotle, the world’s first expert on public speaking, wrote more than 2,000 years ago that a speaker must exhibit ethos, or credibility. How do you show you are credible? You tell the truth and show character by grappling with bad facts head-on. If we question your ethos, we will question what you say and whether you are fit to lead others.
Romney’s apology lacks credibility for several reasons.
First, apologists must get their stories straight. Romney’s message wandered from dismissing the claim as “exaggerated” to “off base,” to a story that he has “no memory” of, to “I did some stupid things,” to “I’ve seen the reports; I’m not going to argue with that,” to “If anybody was hurt by that or offended by that, obviously I apologize.” These various statements send the wrong signals. You will be more credible if you offer a coherent narrative.
Second, the apology must make sense. Five classmates, one-time friends of Romney, say on the record that they remember the incident as a vicious attack on an “easy-pickins’” target that has “haunted” them ever since. Romney asks us to believe he has no recollection of holding down a boy and cutting off his hair even though numerous witnesses recall it vividly. Romney compounds the problem by taking the position that he was unaware of the boy’s homosexuality because, “that was the furthest thing from our minds back in the 1960s.” Now we must accept that 17-year-old boys in the 1960s did not talk about anyone being fey, effeminate or “homo.” That’s too much to ask us to believe. Even if Romney was not positive of the boy’s sexual orientation, he certainly perceived him as different. As he reportedly told his friend before attacking the boy, “He can’t look like that. That’s wrong. Just look at him!” This is the second lesson of ethos: You cannot pretend away bad facts. If you try, you lose credibility.
The third lesson of ethos: When you make an apology, take ownership of your actions. Romney apologizes “if anybody was offended”— that is, for others’ emotional reactions — but he does not apologize for his own behavior. He shirks responsibility for a terrifying attack, diminishes the pain that he caused by calling his actions “pranks” and never admits that he did anything wrong.
The final lesson of ethos in apologies: Keep a straight face. Romney laughed during his radio interview when he said, “I don’t remember that incident and I’ll tell you I certainly don’t believe that I…thought the fellow was homosexual,” and laughs again when he says (when asked if he taunted another gay classmate by calling out “atta girl” if the boy spoke in class), “Well, I really can’t remember that. You know my guess is a lot of time in my years in my boarding school where boys who do something and people say, he says, ‘atta girl’ [sic].” His chuckling may be an expression of discomfort over the topic of homosexuality, or perhaps it is an effort to indicate how ridiculous he perceives the claims to be. But listeners — particularly those to whom he purports to apologize — are likely to hear the laughter as as sign that the apology is not genuine.
Apologizing is difficult at any time. But when it is this public, the speaker should craft a careful apology so that he won’t flub it under pressure. It should be short, active and to the point: “I did stupid things in high school. I did not have the judgment of an adult when I was a teenager. I am embarrassed now to think back on the pain I must have caused. I am sorry.”
Molly Shadel and Robert Sayler are professors of oral advocacy and rhetoric at the University of Virginia School of Law. They are the co-authors of “Tongue-Tied America: Reviving the Art of Verbal Persuasion.”
The Law Library Journal wrote that “Tongue-Tied America would be an excellent selection for all law school libraries, undergraduate academic libraries, and large public libraries.” You can read the review here.
On November 2, 2011, Professor Molly Shadel taught an online course for the American Law Institute/American Bar Association about using acting techniques to improve your oral advocacy skills. You can download the course here.
On October 12, 2011, Professor Molly Shadel presented a workshop for the American Law Institute/American Bar Association about verbal persuasion skills for female attorneys. You can download the broadcast here.
Robert Sayler spoke at Stanford University on October 26, 2011 about human psychology and verbal persuasion. You can watch a video of his talk here.
The American Bar Association writes: “By unlocking the secrets to effective public speaking in their new book, Tongue-Tied America: Reviving the Art of Verbal Persuasion, Robert N. Sayler and Molly Bishop Shadel may do as much for judges and juries as they have for the lawyers who deliver arguments at hearings, at trial, or on appeal. If, indeed, there ever was one, those who apply the principles taught in this book will no longer have any excuse for giving a disjointed and uninspiring speech or presentation.” You can read the entire review here.
On April 14, 2011, Professors Sayler and Shadel spoke at a roundtable as part of the Inaugural Symposium celebrating the appointment of the new University of Virginia President, Teresa Sullivan. They advocated the importance of incorporating verbal presentation exercises across the curriculum in all disciplines, and also described a workshop that they have designed to improve the communications skills of teaching faculty.
Professors Sayler and Shadel will be speaking about the book on NPR Radio Show “With Good Reason,” to be broadcast in May 2011.
On May 11, 2011, Robert Sayler will speak at the Law School at Stanford University about the importance of developing verbal skills and incorporating public speaking exercises into college and graduate-level classes.